Why was the Model I discontinued?
The TRS-80 Model I (originally known as the TRS-80 Microcomputer System) was introduced by Radio Shack on August 3, 1977. It was one of the first mass-marketed, fully-assembled microcomputers and quickly became the best-selling personal computer.
Yet despite continued demand, Radio Shack discontinued the Model I on January 1, 1981, slightly less than three and a half years after it was first introduced. The culprit was not customer demand (which remained high) but new radio interference regulations from the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which took effect on that date.
FCC Part 15 Subpart J
The move to regulate radio interference from electronic devices predated personal computers, going back at least to 1976. (Some of the worst violators were cash registers which interfered with police and aviation communications.) The problem was that any metal surface in a device could act as an “unintentional radiator” and transmit interference being generated within.
The actual FCC rule in question was Part 15 Subpart J. It provided standards for acceptable levels of radio interference for electronic devices. All devices offered for sale had to meet the new rules or they could no longer be sold in the United States.
But the new rules were especially harsh on computers, creating two category of computing devices:
- Class A: “marketed for use in a commercial, industrial or business environment(s)”
- Class B: “marketed for use in a residential environment notwithstanding use in commercial, business and industrial environment(s)”
All microcomputer manufacturers faced the difficult prospect of modifying their existing computers to comply with the new rules. Most personal computers fell into the Class B category, including the TRS-80 Model I, the Apple II, and the Atari 400. The Class B rules took effect on January 1, 1981 and were much stricter than Class A. (Class A rules applied only to business computers such as the TRS-80 Model II and took effect later.)
The problem with the Model I
From its introduction, the Model I was well known for creating AM radio and television interference. This had a lot to do with its modular design. A typical Model I system consisted of multiple pieces, each connected by cables:
- the main keyboard unit
- a monitor
- a cassette recorder
- an Expansion Interface
- one or more disk drives
Each of those parts could (and usually did) act as an antenna and radiate interference, as could any of the cables connecting them. The modular design made the Model I particularly vulnerable to the new FCC rules and made a simple redesign nearly impossible.
Rumors predicting the upcoming discontinuation of the Model I were widespread in mid-1980, especially after Radio Shack introduced two new computers, the Color Computer and the Model III. The Model III was mostly Model I compatible and featured an all-in-one design, which made stopping interference less of a problem.
Radio Shack finally confirmed in November 1980 that the Model I was being discontinued. Radio Shack President Lewis Kornfeld said in an interview that “warehouse and marketing space for the Model I will be taken up by the Model III and the Color Computer.” He further stated “Stopping production is not a surprise and not an insult. We haven’t issued a statement on this whole thing because we haven’t stopped anything at this point.”
Recalled or not?
It is often stated that Radio Shack was forced by the FCC to recall the Model I. That is incorrect and based on a misunderstanding of the FCC rules. The new FCC regulations applied only to hardware manufactured after January 1, 1981. Any non-certified product manufactured before that date could still be sold until July 1, 1982 as long as it displayed this label:
This equipment has not been tested to show compliance with new FCC rules (47 CFR Part 15) designed to limit interference to radio and TV reception. Operation of this equipment in a residential area is likely to cause unacceptable interference to radio communication requiring the operator to take whatever steps are necessary to correct the interference.
Radio Shack stopped production of the Model I in either November or December of 1980, so they were allowed to sell off their entire stock. Demand was so high that the Model I was sold out at stores before January 1981 was over.
Jon Shirley, Vice President of the Radio Shack Computer Division, wrote in the January 1981 issue of the TRS-80 Microcomputer News:
So, where does this leave you Model I owners? Still fully supported as all we have dropped is the Model I CPU. We are still making expansion interfaces, all upgrade kits, disk drives, etc. and we will continue to make them as long as there is a demand.
That turned out to be only partly true: the FCC decided that “computing devices” also applied to peripherals such as the Expansion Interface. Radio Shack never received FCC certification but did obtain an exemption to allow them to manufacture 30,000 Expansion Interfaces in 1981. After those were sold, the product was discontinued despite continuing demand.