Interview with Don French

Q & A with Don French

On January 21, 2012, Don French, one of the creators of the TRS-80, answered some questions which had been collected from visitors to The following are the questions and answers:

Did you have (in 1977) doubts about the commercial success of the TRS-80? Did you expect the outstanding success it received? How did you feel after it was successful?

Answer: I had no question about the commercial success of the TRS-80. When we were in the first meeting, I was asked how many we could sell. Steve and I both said 50,000 and were laughed at. Kornfeld (president) did not believe we would sell any. He set the production run for the first year at 1,000 units. Several months later he and Appel (VP Merchandising) raised it to 3,500 because that was how many stores we had. The statement was “WHEN the product failed we could use it for inventory control”. This product was originally accepted by the company to prove that Radio Shack could be a technology inovator. Charles was very unhappy about a competitive audio company introducing something new. He came into the offices on the warpath and called all us buyers together to read us the riot act.

After we got out ass chewed, one of the other buyers mentioned that I had been working on a home computer. That and a couple of other things perked Charles’s ears.

After it was a success I was promised a Vice Presidency and a large bonus by Charles Tandy. Mr Tandy died before I received either. Mr Kornfeld said “no young punk was going to be a Vice President in this company”.

It is normal for executives to claim responsibility for a successful product, even if they were against it. Mr. Kornfeld claimed it was all his idea in his book.

I am proud of the fact that the TRS-80 and Radio Shack were the real creator of the personal computer revolution. It was not Apple as many claim. Apple was a garage shop and did not have the money to create the demand that Radio Shack did.

If you look at what was happening during that time in Radio Shack and the CB industry, you will see that the timing of their introduction of the TRS-80 saved the company. CB went from over 30% of sales down to less than 5%. That is a huge drop in sales.

Who designed the TRS-80 keyboard enclosure? Was that done by Tandy designers? Were different design variants present from which the final production one was chosen?

Answer:The keyboard design was done in house. The keyboard was selected purely because of cost. The monitor was and RCA TV that we gutted. We made the keyboard unit to match.

How much did the development of the TRS-80 cost in total?

Answer:The cost of development was very low less than $100,000. They used my personal software development system for all software work.

Was the cost reduction pressure already during the development of the TRS-80 really that challenging as described in various sources? How much was the profit per unit?

Answer:We made many decisions in the design related to keeping the cost down. We left out having upper and lower case to save $1.97 per computer. The goal was to make a $199.00 computer but we missed that. I can not tell you how much the profit was but we were profitable on every one sold. Tandy would never have accepted a product we lost money on.

Was a bus system for expansion cards (like the Apple II) ever considered for the Model I?

Answer: Various expansions were looked at including an S100 bus. Remember, Radio Shack did not think that they would sell any, so the expansion was something I wanted and Steve created. Yes we could have done more if we had the support of the company. After I left Radio Shack, I introduced an S100 adapter for the system. I also sold CP/M for it under my company FMG. The problem was the low addresses used by CP/M were unavailable on the TRS-80. I did quite well with my CP/M and the Microsoft products I ported with Bill to my special version of CP/M.

There is a whole story about Bill, me and the TRS-80.

Was Tandy Radio Shack in 1977 already aware that the radio frequency noises that the TRS-80 produced could lead to problems with the FCC or did the subject emerged later?

Answer:We knew of the interference but if I remember correctly, some of the rules changed.

From today’s viewpoint would you have done something otherwise (better) in relation to the TRS-80?

Answer:I would do many things different. First I would have sued them over ownership and other issues. I would have insisted that we follow what was the S100 address layout so that CP/M could have been used. Interesting thought, if the TRS-80 would have used CP/M, where would Microsoft be today? I feel they would not be in the OS market. IBM would have been forced to use CP/M because of the acceptance of it on the primary computer at the time.