What Your Old Graphing Calculator Says About Technology

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Come with me back to teenagedom in 1999. You listened to Offspring (or the Backstreet Boys) on CDs inside a Discman. You made calls on a landline, which you probably just called "the phone." It's possible you had a beeper. You dialed up to the Internet on a desktop computer. The Playstation was the best game system. And your calculator of choice was the TI-83 Plus. 

Twelve years later, so much has changed. Beepers are gone, but cell phones are de rigueur. A tiny iPod Nano holds 180 albums of music. Broadband is everywhere and you might use a tablet or a laptop to surf the web. Videogames have gone from barely 3D to nearly photorealistic.

In fact, every gadget a teenager is likely to handle has changed. Except one: the graphing calculator. That TI-83 Plus? It's the best-selling calculator on Amazon.com. 

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The graphing calculator reached a kind of technological plateau in the late 1990s. At least that's what Amazon consumers are saying. Right behind the TI-83 Plus is the TI-84 Plus, released in 2004. In one of the purest computing tasks imaginable -- calculations and the graphic display thereof -- people choose a decade old technology. 

You'd think that had to do with price, right? The old stuff is cheap; the new stuff is expensive. But that's not really true. The TI-83 Plus is listed at $79. The TI Nspire with touchpad, released in 2010, is listed at $65. So, people are paying *more* for the older technology.

But wait! This is technology. It gets better all the time, right? What gives? Let me suggest three possible reasons. 

First, for high school level math classes, the TI-83 Plus and TI-84 Plus are essentially perfect. After all, the *material* hasn't changed (much), so if the calculators were good enough for us 10 or 15 years ago, they are still good enough to solve the math problems. 

Second, standardized test companies only allow a certain range of calculators to be used. If they got too powerful or complex looking (seriously, the aesthetic is part of it), they could be banned, hurting their sales. Horizontally oriented calculators have been banned by the SAT, even if they have near identical functionality to vertically oriented models. 

Third, and this is probably most important, teachers tend to recommend a particular calculator or set of calculators, and the more of their students using the same tool, the easier it is to teach them. That puts a drag on the change in tools because the technological system in which they are deployed militates against rapid change. TI runs a training organization (Teachers Teaching with Technology(T3)), which I'm sure helps the newer products diffuse, but there are a lot of good reasons for teachers not to follow the latest calculator trends, beyond the basic desire to reduce calculator heterogeneity. If the upgrade cycle is slow, families can hand down calculators from older kids to younger ones. Teachers can continue to use the same handouts, too, which may be pegged to the particular calculator. All these factors have made competing touch for Casio and HP, I think, too. 

There have been a couple of very big changes in calculators over the past couple decades. The TI-89, which became available in 1998, let you solve equations with your calculator (just like the TI-92, but you were more likely to be able to use it on tests). It was awesome and a major upgrade from the TI-84-level calculators. 

Since then, the biggest changes have come in look and interface. Recently, Texas Instruments (TI) has been playing with a touchpad instead of buttons on the newish Nspire series. Those changes have gotten a mixed reception. This year, TI unleashed the biggest interface change since the introduction of the calculators themselves: a color screen.

Here's the thing. Some technologies don't change all that quickly because we don't need them to. Much as we like to tell the story of The World Changing So Fast, most of it doesn't. Look at cars or power plants or watches or power strips or paper clips. The changes are in the details, and they come slowly. But that's ok. More change isn't necessarily better.

Perhaps the real question to ask about graphing calculator technology is why the prices haven't come down more. Memory, processing, and batteries are all a lot cheaper than they used to be but graphing calculator prices remain stubbornly high. The price of a low-end netbook is scarily close to the price of the high-end graphing calculator. 

My guess is that all the factors slowing down technological change also inhibit competition, leaving Texas Instruments with a lot more pricing power than any other gadget maker could hope for. Calculator apps abound for smartphones, but you can't use them in some classes and for some tests. That keeps Texas Instruments master of the calculator market, with an estimated retail market share of 80 percent, according to NPD. How much is the market worth to the company? In SEC filings, TI groups the revenue from its machines under "Other" along with projectors and licensing agreements. In the last quarter, the company only generated $716 million in revenue from the segment, but its operating profit was a healthy $236 million. That's a 33 percent margin, better than any other business that TI has.

The Top 12 Best-Selling Graphing Calculators on Amazon

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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