Texas Instruments’ TI-84 calculator has been the standard graphing calculator for American students for twenty years, despite its high cost and lack of innovation. Barak and Eli Orbach explore how Texas Instruments created its entrenched calculator monopoly and the lessons it offers educators as they grapple with the emerging possibilities of artificial intelligence in the classroom.

Handheld calculators were the first inexpensive, portable electronic devices to perform tasks previously requiring mental skills. Their introduction sparked a lengthy controversy among educators over the relationship between education and technology. Texas Instruments (TI), a leading calculator manufacturer, collaborated with aspiring reformers to facilitate schools’ adoption of its graphing calculators. The company was successful, allowing it to establish an entrenched monopoly. For nearly three decades, most American teenagers have used TI’s graphing calculators in school and on standardized tests despite their outdated technology and exorbitant prices. TI’s calculator monopoly offers cautionary lessons for ongoing debates surrounding entrenched market power, ecosystems, and the adaptation of education to the age of generative artificial intelligence.

TI’s Calculator Monopoly

Every year, Americans buy millions of TI graphing calculators for $100 or more each. In 2022, TI reported that it was the “#1 brand of graphing calculator” and that, every year, tens of thousands of educators are trained to teach with TI calculators. The company also stated that, since 1990, it had sold over 90 million graphing calculators that were “featured in popular mathematics textbooks.” The nominal prices of TI’s graphing calculators have remained largely unchanged during this period.

TI-84 Plus CE: TI’s best-selling calculator.

Graphing calculators were revolutionary gadgets in the 1980s, but they aren’t exactly cutting-edge in the 21st century. They have been considered “techno-dinosaurs” for many years. In 2011, The Atlantic observed that “[s]ome technologies don’t change all that quickly because we don’t need them to. . . . Perhaps the real question to ask about graphing calculator technology is why the [nominal] prices haven’t come down.” Similarly, in 2014, The Washington Post wrote that “[i]n the ruthlessly competitive world of technology, where companies rush the latest gadget to market and slash prices to stay competitive, [TI’s graphing calculators are] an anomaly. . . . Electronics almost universally become cheaper over time. But with essentially a monopoly on graphing calculator usage in classrooms, Texas Instruments can charge a premium.”

TI’s calculator monopoly seemingly defies economic logic. Outdated and costly technology typically invites innovation and competition. Indeed, numerous inexpensive (or even free) apps, websites, and other digital tools match and easily outperform TI’s graphing calculators. Desmos’ free graphing calculator app works on browsers and smartphones and is possibly the most popular alternative to TI’s graphing calculators. Desmos’ parent company has committed to keeping it “independent as part of a separate Public Benefit Corporation called Desmos Studio that will focus on the development of free, best-in-class online calculators and other tools.”

The challenge for TI competitors lies in educators’ ability and willingness to adopt new technologies that require new skills training. Technophobia, reform aversion, and inertia have shielded TI’s calculator monopoly from competition. The American Math Wars present the clearest illustration of this concept, and they also formed the foundation of TI’s rise to power.

The American “Math Wars”

The U.S. witnessed two waves of bitter “Math Wars” in the second half of the 20th century. In each wave, traditionalists and aspiring reformers clashed over proposals to modernize mathematics education. The first wave occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, driven by concerns that the American math curriculum allowed the Soviet Union to gain a competitive advantage during the Cold War. The second wave spanned from the late 1980s to the early 2000s and was influenced in part by the widespread adoption of handheld calculators.

Studies of the Math Wars present sharp disagreements over their characterizations and consequences. Nonetheless, they offer two important lessons. First, technologies that replace mental skills may demand educational reforms. Second, educational reforms tend to be complicated and controversial processes.

The second wave of Math Wars began in the 1980s, triggered by growing pressures to focus math education on applied concepts rather than technical procedures. Reform proponents urged their peers to embrace calculators as a tool to shift toward applied mathematics. Opponents warned that the incorporation of calculators in math education would create unhealthy technological dependency, impede the development of mental skills, and exacerbate inequalities given the steep prices of new technologies.

The Emergence of TI’s Calculator Ecosystem

TI introduced the first prototype of a handheld calculator in 1967. The commercialization of the technology resulted in fierce and dynamic competition, which continued into and throughout the second Math Wars. Manufacturers competed in innovation, releasing new models that rendered prior ones obsolete. Calculator prices sharply declined. Some companies did not survive the race and went bankrupt. TI established itself as the world’s leading calculator manufacturer and developed an impressive line of educational calculators.

But in 1985, Casio introduced the first “scientific graphing calculator,” the Casio fx7000G, which was capable of plotting graphs and performing various tasks with variables. Sharp and HP released their graphing calculators shortly thereafter. Casio, Sharp, and HP marketed their devices as “scientific calculators,” targeting engineers and other professionals. TI’s approach to graphing calculators was very different.

By 1983, TI management understood that personal computers were poised to replace calculators and recognized that dynamic competition was risky. TI’s attempt to enter the market for personal computers was a catastrophic failure, resulting in massive losses. TI, therefore, did not rush to introduce its graphing calculator. Instead, as reformers emerged victorious from the second Math Wars, the company developed a strategy to reinforce its position in the market for educational calculators.

TI understood that the standardization of educational technologies was essential to their successful integration into math curricula. Technological standardization was expected to reduce the costs of developing teaching materials, training educators, and classroom teaching. The company, therefore, joined forces with reformist math educators and textbook publishers to create an ecosystem of complementary products and services to support its calculators, including training programs for teachers and teaching materials. It entered the graphing calculator market only in 1990 with the release of the TI-81, a clone of the Casio fx7000G. The company declared that the TI-81 was “a result of a unique relationship with several hundred teachers who use computer and calculator technology to teach mathematics.” It quickly established itself as the largest manufacturer of graphing calculators. In 2007, Education Week concisely described TI’s ecosystem strategy:

[TI’s] school calculator franchise is protected by a fortress of advantages that frustrated rivals find hard to penetrate. . . . Those [advantages] include its early lead in the field; its extensive instructional resources and training for teachers, publishers’ inclusion of TI-specific lessons as supplements to major math textbooks; and unmatched success at getting districts to buy its calculators or require children to have them.

Each component of TI’s calculator ecosystem was designed to encourage teachers to adopt the company’s graphing calculators and enhance the value of the other components. For example, TI-funded studies of the benefits of using graphing calculators in math education were effective marketing tools, contributed to the company’s relationships with educators, and helped the company improve its training programs. Similarly, training programs and superb customer service boosted the appeal of TI’s calculators among educators and textbook publishers.

While developing its ecosystem, TI released a steady flow of new graphing calculator models. However, it learned that the cost to educators of adopting new models created a strong preference against technological innovation. In 2004, TI cemented its dominance in the market for educational graphing calculators with the release of the TI-84 graphing calculator series, which incorporated some of the features of the calculators the company introduced after 1990. TI locked in its monopoly and, thus, had no reason to develop new models. Math teachers preferred it this way. Over the past 20 years, TI has introduced several new versions of TI-84 calculators, but the innovations were mostly cosmetic.

Ecosystems and Teacher-Enabled Monopolies

In his recent book, The Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator, Keith Houston explained the common perceptions of the TI’s calculator monopoly:

The TI-81 was not the last pocket calculator, and nor should it be blamed for the calculator’s eventual demise, but its launch signaled the moment at which the calculator lost its luster. Calculators had become a commodity, and one of dwindling importance at that, subject to the same chicanery, profiteering, and general economic shenanigans as any other such thing.

The prices of TI’s graphing calculators and their increasing obsolescence have been the source of complaints, criticism, and theories about corporate greed. However, these observations overlook the significance of TI’s ecosystem.

TI’s calculator ecosystem shares certain known characteristics of other technological ecosystems, including Amazon’s flywheel and Apple’s walled garden. Technology companies develop ecosystems of complementary products and services to escape the dynamics of creative destruction. Though successful technological ecosystems sometimes enable the formation of entrenched market power, they also have many advantages.

TI’s calculator ecosystem facilitated a needed educational reform and created training resources for math teachers. Its emergence as a national standard simplified math education, reduced teacher training costs, and contributed to teacher job mobility. Educators, who may have taught for decades, even preferred the lack of innovation. Additionally, students have been able to take standardized tests and enroll in STEM courses in college without needing to switch calculators. In retrospect, it is difficult to estimate the social benefits and costs of TI’s calculator monopoly.

Lessons for the Age of Generative AI

Although the evolution of education standards is notoriously slow, society expects educators to keep up with the times and prepare young individuals for the challenges of rapidly changing technological realities. If anything, TI’s monopolistic profits should have drawn attention to the impediments to progress in the education system.

In the end, we may not need to address TI’s calculator monopoly. The College Board recently introduced a new digital SAT platform that includes a calculator app, possibly foreshadowing the end of TI’s dominance. Today, the pressing concern TI’s monopoly underscores is not the barriers to innovation but the unpreparedness of education systems to cope with new technologies, particularly generative AI. A serious national policy is essential to drive critical reforms and avoid the perils of stagnation and technological monopolies in education.

Articles represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty.