Today in Apple history: World’s first Apple killer goes on sale

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The TRS-80 was Apple's first big rival in the marketplace.
Photo: Rama & Musée Bolo/Wikipedia CC

Aug 3August 3, 1977: The first affordable, mass-market personal computer makes its debut… and, contrary to what you might think, it’s not the Apple II.

Although Tandy’s TRS-80 arrived the year after the Apple I and a few months after the Apple II, it proved to be the first “Apple killer” on the market: pre-dating later rivals like IBM as Apple’s first big tech industry opponent. And, for the longest time, it seemed to be on course to win…

The success of the TRS-80 built on the promise of earlier personal computers, but benefitted from three main things: great distribution courtesy of the thousands of Tandy-owned Radio Shack stores around the U.S.; a relatively low price point of $599 (compared to $1,298 for an Apple II); and the fact that it was actually a pretty darn neat product.

1977TRS80
The Apple II wasn’t the immediate smash hit that the TRS-80 was.
Photo: TRS-80.org

Rather than simply being aimed at hobbyists, the TRS-80 was also targeted at small businesses, the education market, and regular consumers. Within days of its August 3 announcement at a press conference in New York City, the TRO-80 was already being hailed on the front page of the Associated Press as a home computer able to do, “A payroll for up to 15 people in a small business, teach children mathematics, store your favorite recipes or keep track of an investment portfolio. It can also play cards.”

When it arrived for sale later in 1977, Tandy’s computer massively outsold the Apple II by a significant margin. It also beat its own forecasts of 3,000 sales per year by selling more than 10,000 units in its first six weeks on sale. During its lifetime it sold more than 200,000 machines.

By 1981, when it was clear that personal computers were taking over, TIME magazine described Apple as one of the new tech giants helping drive a $1 billion industry. But the first place on TIME‘s list of tech giants went to Tandy:

“The Fort Worth-based Tandy Corp. has the broadest reach of any computer manufacturer through its 8,012 Radio Shack stores. The firm introduced its first small computer, the TRS–80, in 1977. A newer version of the TRS–80 (popular models now cost $999) has become the largest-selling computer of all time, and Tandy now commands 40% of the small-computer market. Tandy recently introduced the first pocket computer, which shows only one line of information and sells for $249.”

Interestingly, in a May 1982 private memo to Steve Jobs, Apple marketing manager Mike Murray made what was probably the first proposal in Apple’s history to license the Mac OS (bear in mind that the Mac wasn’t launched until two years later) to Tandy.

“We would like the Macintosh user environment to become an industry standard,” he wrote. “The hitch, of course, is that now one must buy Mac hardware in order to get this user environment. Rarely (if ever) has one company been able to create and maintain an industry-wide standard that cannot be shared with other manufacturers.”

The argument was that Tandy drew a different type of customer to Apple, and would therefore not cannibalize sales. Jobs declined the suggestion.

Although it’s often forgotten about today (Radio Shack filed for bankruptcy in 2015), the TRS-80 was an incredibly significant machine for its day. In 1977 it represented close to 70 percent of the total PC market, which is a stat that even the ubiquitous IBM PC couldn’t match until 1988. It remained the bestselling computer line until 1982.

What’s the earliest computer you remember owning? Leave your comments and recollections below.