Texas Instruments, as a business proposition, is doing just fine. They’re the third-largest manufacturer of semiconductors in the world, and—behind Qualcomm—the second-largest manufacturer of chips for cell phones. But in addition to these cutting edge technologies that keep the 2015 technological world in which we live humming along, the company is also invested in staying true to its roots: And that means calculators, y’all.
Specifically, graphing calculators, as we learned yesterday from Robert Miller when he boasted of TI’s (not the rapper’s) latest unveiling on the Dallas Morning News’s business blog: “Exclusive: A sneak peek at the TI-84 Plus CE graphing calculator Texas Instruments will unveil tomorrow (Update at 5 p.m.)” His breathless post sounded much like TechCrunch, had TechCrunch existed in 1993.
Still, anachronistic though it may be to talk about graphing calculators in an era when the processing power of everybody’s smartphone dwarfs that of the most sophisticated calculators from that technology’s heyday, the enthusiasm here is apparently real. As the Morning News reports:
TI created its latest calculator in response to student and teacher requests. The TI-84 Plus graphing calculators have become a standard in the classroom and beyond.
“Students have been asking us for a sleeker, slimmer design … so the kids can have their graphing calculators wherever they go,” Peter Balyta, president of TI Education Technology, said in a phone interview. “It’s still just as durable as all of our products.”
Students asked TI for more memory and cool colors, Balyta said. Students and teachers asked for longer battery life, so the new calculator will work for over a month on one charge, he said. Teachers also requested the new model have a sleep mode for school vacations.
TI tested the TI-84 Plus CE prototype for 4,200 hours in classrooms across the country for over six months. More than 1,500 teachers and students provided feedback.
So what’s up with graphing calculators? Where does the market for these things come from? Mostly it’s students, who often aren’t able to use their smartphones while taking tests, but who need the limited functionality that a calculator provides. Those are the people who want sleek, slim designs and cool colors even though their phones are already sleek and slim, and often colorful (do they make graphing calculators in #Goldpagne??).
But there’s another contingent that keeps the graphing calculators relevant: Nerds. Giant friggin’ nerds.
The TI graphing calculator community is actually still fairly active, with over 57,000 accounts on websites like TICalc.org, where fans trade programming tips, discuss how to hack the devices, and more. Those enthusiasts make up a much smaller percentage of the market for the calculators than students, obviously, but in any industry, the die-hards are important.
In any case, the calculator’s hardware limitations are actually a selling point both among students, whose teachers can allow their use without worrying they’re going to be texting friends answers, and among the calculator community, which gravitates toward their simple programming language. TI actually did release graphing calculator software for the iPad in 2013—the TI-Nspire app, which sells for $29.99—but given the strong sales for the 90s calculators and the enthusiasm for their fresh-for-2015 incarnation, it’s hard to imagine that it’s actually filling much of a market gap. Ultimately, it seems, the oldies here are goodies.