Graphing Calculators and Competition

This two-year old Washington Post article describes an odd situation that seems to persist today: Texas Instruments is still selling their TI-84 graphing calculator for about $100, though it likely costs only $15-20 to manufacture and they haven’t updated the hardware in over a decade. Phones and tablets can now do all the same things, of course, but they’re not allowed on tests, and I guess you don’t want everyone’s phone out in class either.

At a time when startups are targeting every non-tech business for “disruption,” why has a tech product like this managed to hold on to such a lucrative monopoly? The article describes a cycle in which teachers require the TI models they’re familiar with, parents have to buy them whatever the price, and TI puts a bit of those excess profits back into teacher training and support to make sure they’re still the standard.

No question that’s a big advantage, but it doesn’t sound insurmountable. The competing model mentioned in the article, from Casio, is $80 and running a distant second in sales; they claim they can’t crack that “TI ecosystem,” but my guess is the price difference just isn’t big enough. Shouldn’t someone be able to do this for $40 or $50? Or create a $10 app that locks your phone/tablet in a way that can be monitored or later audited, to eliminate distractions or cheating? (Remember, the TI calculators aren’t perfect in that regard either, since they have persistent memory that can be used for games or cheat sheets, and even the firmware can apparently be overwritten.)

It also reminded me of the RPN calculators made by HP that are still used somewhat in finance, science and engineering. If you’re going to rip someone off, a bond trader is obviously a less sympathetic target than a ninth-grader, but in any case they seem to have maintained the same inflated pricing outside the K-12 education ecosystem.

My first thought was “this is perfect for a big crowdfunding campaign.” A graphing calculator seems like exactly the kind of old-timey hardware device that a small team could design and produce without any proprietary technology, and there’s a social/education angle to the story that should help the campaign spread online. But a quick search on Kickstarter and Indiegogo shows no such projects, and after a little more thought, it’s easy to see why not. Crowdsourced products are infamous for shipping late, and a calculator that doesn’t show up at the beginning of the semester is useless. At the same time, you couldn’t give yourself too much of a time cushion, since your target audience may not even be thinking about this before back-to-school season. And these customers — adolescents and their parents — will be hard to reach anyway, since they straddle the current demographic for Kickstarter and the social networks where the campaigns are promoted.

Why not a venture-backed device startup? It’s probably not a big enough opportunity. According to the article, about 1.6 million calculators are sold per year, and that number has been slowly shrinking as more and more classrooms get school-issued iPads or other new alternatives. It’s still a great business for TI when they’ve got 90% of the market at $100 apiece, but if even if you took half their market share at, say, a $40 price point, your margins would be much lower, you’d need to spend a ton on marketing and support to get there, and when you do, no one’s going to put a tech multiple on a shrinking business.

What about a more developed secondary market? The article doesn’t say what, if anything, TI has done to suppress sales of used models. They’re all over eBay, with almost 10,000 sold in the last couple months (though this may be the seasonal back-to-school peak). That’s still not much compared to 1.6 million total units, though. Here’s one online storefront that sells them refurbished for $83, and another for $84. Again, not the level of discount that would indicate real competition.

Does this represent a gap in the funding market, an opportunity for a bootstrapped lifestyle business or an investor like IndieVC that isn’t built around big exits? What’s the minimum scale for a project like this to pay off? In any case, I’m sure there are a few other examples of obsolete hardware that’s still making 50%+ profit margins, but this seems like a particularly egregious one.