Many of us, particularly the younger techie generations, didn't begin on MIT mainframes or monster machines from the book "Hackers". Many of us began with sub par PC look-alikes: Commodore 64, Tandy, even Whiz-Kid. My first machine was the TI-99/4A, which gained a huge following among home users. In fact many of us, my father included, bought into Bill Cosby's advertisements and helped start the American home computer revolution with these machines. Surprisingly, many are still in use today.
I won't bore the average reader with statistics - these can easily be found through Google searches. The only thing most people need to know is that the TI-99/4A, and it's ancestor, the TI-99/4, paled in comparison to today's hardware. There was no hard drive, they used solid-state media (cartridges), and TI didn't add mobile media support until a large 5-½ floppy disk drive came out. A considerably less expensive audiotape option, similar to the Commodore 64 was also available, but most programs were burnt into read-only memory cartridges. An "expansion box" the size of a small refrigerator added much needed random-access memory: around 256 kilobytes of RAM.
Still, with all these limitations, hundreds of software titles came out that pushed the machine to its limit. Not only games, of which there were many, but also terminal emulators that worked with 110/300-baud modems. Many of these were used to connect to bulletin board systems and CompuServe. The TI-99/4A also supported a relatively advanced speech synthesizer, similar to Texas Instruments devices "Speak & Spell" and "Speak & Math". TI-99/4A's speech, which could be created on the fly phonetically, rivals some computer speech heard today.
Ports of classic titles like Adventure and Logo quickly came to the system, and some game makers (like Scott Adams) used the TI-99/4A to create their first graphical titles. The system came pre-equipped with TI BASIC, an adequate language. Later, an Extended Basic cartridge came out that introduced sprites and complex mathematics. There was even an Assembler cartridge for programming to the processor directly. I remember many late evenings, poking into the TI system with my Compute! Programming books, learning various way to manipulate 16 colors at once.
Normally, older systems fade to dust or become parts for nostalgic tributes. Many TI-99/4 class machines, however, are still well in use with advocates. These people are adding high-powered modems and greater memory to the machines. TI-99/4A interest groups still meet, with users traveling across many states (many on the road) to share experiences. One story I read had a father taking his son to one, hours away, both of them traveling on a motorcycle. He seemed to want to share his childhood with his son directly.
While many would view this as zealot-like behavior, I think one can learn a lot by looking into these classic machines. There are reasons why people still use them, and their longevity could be used for future hardware.