Recently a “eulogy” for RadioShack was making the rounds online. Let’s ignore for the moment that’s a little harsh to have a eulogy before somebody is even dead but RadioShack is definitely on life support so I certainly understand why now seemed like the time. This could easily be their last Christmas.
The thing that struck me was how different the experience was from my own. I grew up in Fort Worth, TX and RadioShack has been here, well, forever. After I graduated from college in the late 1980’s, I went to work for the Tandy corporation from 1987-1992 (and then a couple of more years at AST Computers after they bought Tandy’s computer business). So I thought I’d give the company a different eulogy, one from the perspective of a different era and a different part of the business and one that’s perhaps more nostalgic and melancholy and less bitter.
It starts with the Texas Employment Commission (TEC). During my summers off from attending Rice I had taken one job making pizzas at Mazzio’s and another working in the Plans & Specs division of the Army Corps of Engineers. Trust me, if you are ever given that choice, pick pizza.
After my job at the Army Corp I was cured of taking any job just because it wasn’t food service. I went down to the TEC and told them I wanted something where I would be programming. I figured after years of BASIC programming on my own and three years of learning languages at school somebody would want to hire me to do something. But the response from the lady at the TEC was to a) forget any idea of doing something like that or even computer work of any kind and b) maybe she could find me something that wasn’t menial labor, but I shouldn’t expect much just because I was almost done with college.
Fortunately, I completely ignored her horrific depressing advice (and I mean depressing in both senses of the word, she seemed as depressed as the advice she gave) and went down to fill out an application at Tandy. They hired me quickly and told me I could come in and test software. I think I did it for about five days before they realized I knew Pascal, Modula-2, C, some basic Unix commands, and more. I was immediately moved over to start programming in C for Tandy.
The people I had gone to work for in the software division were working on the Varsity Scripsit word processor. It was a pretty good little word processor which ran on MS-DOS on PCs and several decades before the mantra of “eat your own dog food” became common, most of the team was actually using a stripped down version of the word processor as a text editor to edit the code for the the word processor! The Scripsit word processor line had been fairly successful for the company on previous machines (I think the Xenix based Model 6000 and others) so this was one of their first forays into PC applications.
Since the core of the project was already pretty solid, most of the team was working on a multitude of expansions for it including:
- A Calculator
- Printing graphics on dot matrix printers
- The list went on and on
However, after adding all of that, memory constraints on real world machines made it clear that it wasn’t going to work with the kitchen sink attached to it, so the dot matrix graphic printing I had worked on and several other features all had to be removed to get it to load and run. C’est la vie.
P.S. There were seven people working on this software, including Kevin (more on him later) who had written the editor/core of the word processor and was only one of two people in the crew who had a hard drive in his machine. Every other machine was floppy only. You’ve never experienced software development until you’re doing all of your editing and compilation off of 5 1/4″ floppy disks.
After I went back to school, either I contacted Tandy or they contacted me, I can’t remember which but they told me they would really like me to come in and work even during the brief period I would be home for the Christmas holidays. This was a) enormously flattering and b) a source of serious money for a kid in college. I think I might have given some real gifts that year.
Tandy was working on their Tandy 1000 series which were actually not clones of the IBM PC but of the IBM PCjr. They had graphics built in (320 x 200 in four colors! Booyah!) and thanks to some really clever engineering from one of their crew they were adding digital audio by piggy backing on the existing hardware they had added to support joysticks. Apparently the digital to analog converters had multiple uses and he figured out how to use them for something which wouldn’t be common other PCs for years to come (think SoundBlaster cards) with only a few cents of additional cost.
As with Varsity Scripsit the digital audio recording and playback software (DeskMate Sound) was being written again by Kevin (yes, he really was that good). He was hard at work on a music program (DeskMate Music) which actually used sampled instruments digitized with DeskMate Sound.
If you don’t want to watch it all the way through, skip to ten minutes in and listen to the piano. Kevin was resampling notes from a handful of actual notes which could be loaded into memory for each instrument (there was not nearly enough memory in those days to have a full range of high quality samples for each instrument so he was adjusting them on fly to make missing notes). I still marvel at it.
My boss for both Varsity Scripsit and the DeskMate Music/Sound work was Jeff. He was a great guy and one of my favorite memories of him was him playing with the Sound/Music app combo. He wanted to wrap both of them with another app which could run in the stores. If you used them in conjunction you could record a simple sound in Sound (say a person saying “Meow” or making a sound with keys) and then Music could load the recorded sound and play Jingle Bells scaling the single “note” up and down the entire scale. It was pretty funny to listen to and seemed like exactly the kind of thing which, if kept clean, would attract people in the stores. Sadly, I don’t think it ever got built. Maybe I should make an online app for it someday.
One thing to note around this time was that Jeff had hiccups continuously. All the time. He saw doctors about it but nothing they tried helped any. It just made him miserable for a long period.
After I graduated from school I went straight to work for Tandy. They had made me a good offer and I worked for them for several years pretty happily. Eventually they built a new “Technology Center” next door to the headquarters and moved us over there. Supposedly they spent $30 mil when $30 mil was a whole lot of money.
I tried not to be much of a trouble maker during my time there but I always had posters up the entire time I had worked at Tandy. In fact, I posted Calvin and Hobbes on the glass of my office every day and people would stop to read it. When I moved to the Technology Center the word came down that there wasn’t going to be any more of that. They had paid good money for the place, it was attractive (not really, it was a big circular cube farm) and it didn’t need posters or anything like that. They were going to select some artwork and post it on various walls and halls throughout the place to make it really nice (they never did).
So I decided to parody one of the multitude of memos we got on topics like this every day. It was really easy by cutting off the top and bottom of one memo, writing my own, and then pasting those sections atop mine and then photocopying the result to have a new memo from management. It explained that they were very happy with the all white/gray/creme motif and that employees would need to start wearing clothes which matched and only clothes which matched. Also, the steady stream of vendors we had coming in to sell us stuff (software and hardware) would be given colored ponchos which matched that they could wear over their clothes so they wouldn’t clash. The last part was the part where I went so ridiculous that I figured everybody would know it was a joke. I don’t think people read that far or if they did, they were humor challenged. Quite a few people took it seriously and several people got very pissed off about that. But nobody ever fingered me as the guy behind it.
I’ve thought about it and most of the projects I worked on while I was there don’t stand out in my mind as particularly interesting until the coming of “multimedia” machines. Tandy had found a source for a CD-ROM that they could start bundling into their machines and selling as an add on for existing PCs that didn’t cost a fortune. Around that one piece, they crafted the idea of the Tandy Sensation! machine (yes, it had the exclamation mark). It was a Windows PC with sound, good graphics, and a CD-ROM built in.
Our CD-ROM burner had cost a fortune and was two big boxes hooked to a PC. After burning innumerable useless discs over the course of our work we eventually figured out that even the slightest amount of work being done on the PC would cause it to screw up the disc. It had to be disconnected from the network and left untouched for the duration of a long burn to generate a disc we could use. That memory pairs with Jeff on the phone with a vendor in Hong Kong trying to get CD-ROM blanks for us to use. They were $50 each and he was trying to figure out how to order 100 of them and get them flown to us in time for them to be useful to us.
I did lots of work on graphics and animation for this machine and it was a lot of fun. Plus, Sensation! sold very well for Tandy. I was told that they sold something like 17,000 units fairly early and that was apparently quite good. Unfortunately, our success with Sensation! set us up to be the go-to people to work on the worst mess I ever saw while working for them.
Philips had brought out their CD-i machine and for some insane reason there were people within Tandy who wanted to copy it. It already seemed to be a clear cut commercial failure. It was too expensive, it didn’t seem to offer any software that people found compelling, and Philips was spending more money marketing each unit than they were making if they actually sold one. Sometimes that happened with video game systems of the time, but they actually sold enough software for it to end up being profitable. CD-i was clearly not doing that.
But none of that dissuaded the people who believed in this project at Tandy. So the Tandy Video Information System (VIS) was born. Here’s a link to information about it at Wikipedia but trust me, it’s fairly dry and in no way conveys how much blood sweat and tears people poured into it nor what a crappy boat anchor it was.
Let me just lead off with this:
I really hope you watched that all the way to the end. It’s hammy, tone deaf, ridiculous in almost every way. I don’t know any engineer who worked on the project, software or hardware side who did not tell them not to do it. I bought a Sega Genesis to bring in to show them Sonic running on the console. It was blazingly fast and nothing, absolutely nothing about the VIS was fast. It was a 286 processor in a box that took forever to start up to run your game/educational program and if you wanted to boot it into Windows then it took forever times forever to do that.
They did focus groups and spent considerable money polling people about what they wanted from such a machine and what they would pay for it. The answer was that they were largely uninterested in it and if they were it shouldn’t cost more than $400. Tandy didn’t think they could sell it for less than $800. That should have stopped them cold but like everything else, it didn’t.
For whatever reason, Microsoft was also invested in this idea too. They had a stripped down version of Windows they imagined would start making its appearance in small appliance like boxes like this. However Windows, even stripped down, was the antithesis of anything you wanted to boot over and over again with cheap processors and no memory. Eventually they licensed it to Tandy for inclusion into VIS for a quarter ($0.25) during a time when Tandy was probably paying $20 to include Windows with their regular PCs. I say Microsoft was “invested” in this idea but the truth is I think they were invested in it the same way a chicken is invested in a ham and eggs breakfast. The problem is, Tandy was the pig. I was told that Tandy spent somewhere around $75 million dollars developing the VIS and it sold handfuls of units (after you figure in all the returns). Eventually companies like Tiger started selling bundles which included every software title ever produced for the machine and I think they still were only selling them at $99.
I worked for Jeff for many years at Tandy and one day he came by my cube to tell me that he needed to go in and have some surgery. He didn’t make a huge deal about it but it was clear that he was kind of sad. I didn’t think too much about it and I should have asked him to sit down and talk to me. I didn’t.
Next week his boss broke the news that Jeff had pancreatic cancer and after they opened him up on the operating table they just closed him back up and sent him to recovery. He died some hours later.
The hiccups he had suffered with years before had actually been one of several symptoms according to an oncologist who diagnosed him.
He definitely deserved a better version of me than he got. I’m sorry Jeff. I really am.
It wasn’t that much later that Tandy sold its computer business to AST Research. At the time AST was in the top five manufacturers and doing very well. Pretty much everyone who had worked for Tandy continued to work for AST for the next couple of years, initially in the same Technology Center but later in a commercial area on the north side of Fort Worth. I moved on to Crystal Semiconductor with some of my colleagues and eventually poor business decisions caught up with AST.
As I said, my account lacks the pathos (with the exception of VIS) that the other eulogy had but it’s my perspective and I didn’t want the other one to be the only thing everybody heard about Tandy/RadioShack if this is indeed the end for them.