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CoCo : the colorful history of Tandy’s underdog computer
Pitre B., Loguidice B., CRC Press, Inc., Boca Raton, FL, 2013. 203 pp.  Type: Book (978-1-466592-47-6)
Date Reviewed: Mar 26 2014

What do an attractive woman, a singing monk, Isaac Asimov, and the “Three Mugateers” have in common? They all share the rather short but quirky story of one beloved but failed low-end early computer, affectionately known as the CoCo (color computer). This book is an interesting sidelight into the internal machinations of corporate computer politics, hardware development, and the devoted aficionados of the CoCo.

The authors collect a substantial number of primary sources by interviewing principals and assembling materials from the leading lights of CoCo development. Tandy ultimately lost out to the Commodore PET and the irrepressible Apple II, but for the time it was considered a serious rival to these competing machines. In 1977, “this legendary trinity marked the first time fully assembled, programmable computers were readily available to and usable by the masses” (p. 12).

The CoCo possessed capabilities and speed rivaling other machines, but it remained in stiff competition with the duo. To stay abreast of its rivals, Tandy partnered with Motorola to target an unlikely group--farmers--with the Green Thumb project. Simultaneously, another project, VIDEOTEX, was underway at Tandy, to offer on-demand information, news, stock quotes, sports scores, and weather. Prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, both projects took advantage of two technologies that had already penetrated 95 percent of American homes: television and the telephone.

By 1980, though, the CoCo trailed its competitors and needed to catch up with sound and color features. The result was Tandy’s three-pronged approach, taking as its basis the Green Thumb project, the VIDEOTEX project, and a color computer: the TRS-80 Model III, the TRS-80 Pocket Computer, and a long-hinted-at TRS-80 Color Computer. Competition was fierce and to appeal to a broader audience, Tandy brought in celebrity spokespeople, including Isaac Asimov. The CoCo packaged flashy graphics and sound, and a spate of cartridges enhanced its appeal. In addition, the peripherals and add-ons made CoCo a viable and treasured acquisition to its many fans.

The popularity of the Coco had its advantages and disadvantages. To feed the demand for information about CoCo, the a magazine called The Rainbow was published. During its remarkable 1981 to 1993 run, the magazine, in fact, regularized the CoCo moniker for the Tandy product. The upshot of this period, though, was the successful application of the CoCo for education, gaming, and serious endeavors. With the Deluxe Color Computer scrapped and the comparatively stale capabilities of the CoCo 2 in question, a notable successor was sought. What resulted was not exactly what Tandy sought.

The CoCo 3 was intended to be the machine that could break through the logjam created by the capable competing products of Commodore and Apple. In the pages of The Rainbow, though, was the cryptic reference to an “Easter egg” consisting of the mysterious “Three Mugateers.” A shenanigan by three engineers produced an Easter egg of their pictures if the right keys were pressed. With products ready to be shipped, no one informed upper management; needless to say, end users discovered the anomaly on their own. Fans loved the quirkiness of the CoCo.

By late 1990, Tandy announced that the CoCo 3 would be dropped from its lineup. Loyal fans were greeted by the May 1993 issue of The Rainbow, emblazoned with “The Time Has Come” on the cover. The CoCo, along with other 8-bit home computers, would yield first to PC DOS and later to Windows.

Nonetheless, the faithful clung to the hope of a resurrection. One notable devotee was Brother Jeremy, an Anglican monk, who tirelessly petitioned computer programmer Kevin Darling, who had worked on an OS-9 level two upgrade, to release the code. Brother Jeremy even penned a song, “Hello Darling,” all to no avail. What remains today is the detritus of aficionados who actively trade on eBay and continue to push the primitive machine to its limits.

During the underdog CoCo’s short run, the machine attracted a menagerie of devotees and fans that make Tandy’s run in the market worth considering. Though superseded by other products, the Tandy held its own within a restrictive price point and gave Apple a run for its money. The authors have done computing history a service by describing the CoCo. Other than online sources (http://sparksandflames.com/files/TandysLittleWonder-2nded.pdf), there has been little to document the existence of the CoCo, which is an oversight that has been corrected here.

A few minor points detract from their effort. Twice, they use the cliché “dynamic duo,” and some of the rhetoric is overblown: for example, the claims of an early influential computer game that is said to have “blasted onto the scene” (p. 6). These annoyances aside, the slim volume has a place in the literature.

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Reviewer:  G. Mick Smith Review #: CR142113 (1406-0425)
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