If you look around in almost any higher level math classroom in the US, you’ll find yourself surrounded with calculators made by Texas Instruments. The ubiquitous TI-84 Plus series of graphing calculators is the most popular among students going into high school math classes, alongside a smaller share of the company’s other offerings.

With a head-start in educational calculators TI has monopolized the market almost entirely in its favor, pushing manufacturers such as Casio into the back-ranks in the classroom. Now, though, the monopoly is under fire as online tools are starting to be considered as more capable, accessible, and versatile alternatives to the venerable denizen of backpacks dating back to the 1990s.

**TI Has Monopoly On Calculators?**

In the United States, the company’s offerings outsell their competitors by a wide margin. The Wall Street Journal estimated that approximately 80% of graphing calculators sold in the US were made by TI, leaving only 20% for the four competing companies (Wall Street Journal, 2014).

Additionally, TI sells half of the models of College Board-approved graphing calculators available today. Counting the TI-Nspire CX-II CAS and standard editions separately, they offer six separate models that can still be bought new today (including the TI-83 plus!). Researching manufacturer catalogs, I turned up with that same number of calculators that can still be bought new from all other manufacturers combined: Casio, HP, NumWorks, and Sharp.

Despite the presence of other offerings, you will find that almost nobody else uses them. I know only one person who has a calculator that isn’t made by TI. Almost all the calculators on loan from math classrooms are either a TI-84 Plus or a TI-84 Plus CE. If you’ve found a calculator at just about any school in the USA, chances are that it’s made by TI.

The company effectively controls the market, and their prices reflect that. They don’t have the single most expensive offering (though that does depend on the retailer you buy from), but the value for the dollar offered by TI is among the lowest offered by any manufacturer.

**How it Affects Students, Teachers, and Schools**

As mentioned, possibly the most noticeable artifact of TI’s Rule over the calculator is their prices. The TI-83 Plus was released in 1999, and still costs $75 or more. Some retailers will sell it for as much as $120 (Office Depot, n.d.), the same price it had during its launch before Y2K turned the corner (Datamath, 2020).

The high price tag is not the only effect, though. In fact, it is responsible for a number of other effects that much more significantly impact anybody involved in what goes on inside the math classroom.

Particularly for struggling students, the amount of money that even a relatively basic TI-84 Plus costs can hinder them in the classroom (MIC, 2015). The lower cost of used calculators helps with this issue, but still doesn’t solve it completely. Particularly with the relative ease of access to new calculators, many still choose to spend the $100 at almost any big box store over trying to hunt down a used option.

Schools and Students are drained of money that could be put into other areas of education or life due to the high prices, and it’s even more expensive for those who choose TI’s more advanced offerings such as the TI-84 Plus CE or the TI-Nspire CX II. Those aren’t available for under $115 at any of the retailers investigated.

In the case of schools, outfitting a 30-kid classroom with the fairly standard “school property” labeled TI-84 would cost about $2500 (Math4Sale, n.d.). For high schools with a large number of math classrooms, that number can exceed $10,000. Even though it is often a one-time expense, that money would be better spent on other improvements to the quality of life of both students and teachers alike instead of on outdated, overpriced hardware.

Aside from that problem, there’s also the fact that the TI-84 plus just isn’t a very good calculator. The low-resolution screen makes rendering higher levels of detail almost impossible for the device, and skipping to specific points on a graph can be particularly irritating.

The similarly priced Casio FX-CG50 has a screen which is significantly more readable than that of the TI-84, can display color, and is even backlit. As a bonus it has a feature called “natural textbook display” (called “mathprint” by TI and yet more names by others) which, as one might guess, allows equations to be typed into the calculator so that they look the same as equations printed in a textbook.

Casio sells a cheaper model, the FX-9750GIII, which is priced at $55 (Amazon, n.d.). That’s cheaper than many used TI-84s, and the calculator has a number of features that the TI lacks. It has the same “natural textbook display” feature that the FX-CG50 does, and they also both share the ability to be programmed in python. TI doesn’t offer that feature until you get to their TI-84 Plus CE Python Edition (TI, n.d.), which often costs twice as much as what Casio sells their budget python-capable offering for.

Texas Instruments’ calculators are also slower than most of the competition. Built on the Zilog Z80, a CPU that came out competing with the Intel 8080 over 30 years ago, TI’s offerings are struggling to keep up with the more modern processors in other calculators. The TI-Nspire rectifies this, but comes into price competition with the HP Prime. There, HP offers a touch screen and a CPU fast enough to seamlessly scroll the graphs of simpler functions.

This all begs the question though: if TI’s calculators aren’t very good, then why do they even have a monopoly in the first place?

**How Texas Instruments Built its Calculator Empire**

A monopoly of this magnitude doesn’t build itself in a day… at least, not usually. TI expended a lot of effort in cornering the educational graphing calculator market before just about anybody else had even thought of entering the field.

In 1990, Texas Instruments introduced the TI-81 to the world. It wasn’t the first graphing calculator, that honor is generally given to Casio with their FX-7000G coming out in 1985(Wikipedia, n.d.). What TI did make was, arguably, the first graphing calculator targeted at schools.

Simply being first isn’t all of what got TI to the top, however. A somewhat under-the-radar nonprofit by the name of “Teachers Teaching with Technology”, created in the late 1980s by TI, has done considerable work to push the company’s calculators to the forefront.

The nonprofit states openly on their website that they provide various forms of coaching centered on “the integration of effective pedagogy and TI* *technology” (T3, n.d.). Notice, specifically, the presence of TI in that sentence. T3, as it is sometimes called, gives TI a sizable one-up in the world of educational calculators by making sure that pretty much every teacher knows how to use their products.

The ubiquity of the TI-83/84 has gained it another point of leverage in the educational world, textbooks. A number of textbooks have instructions on how to perform operations on TI calculators, but few have the same instructions for calculators of another brand. I have not encountered any textbooks with non-TI calculator instructions.

The benefits of a unified platform are substantial, which is one of the primary reasons TI calculators corner the market. With teachers knowing how to teach them and textbooks having instructions on how to use them, it may be clear to see why the calculators remain so expensive. However, the costs that come with the monopoly generally significantly outweigh the benefits. TI calculators may be a standard in education, but they aren’t a very good one.

**The Empire’s Shaky Foundations Leading into the Future**

Despite the prevalence of the TI-84, all is not well at the throne of the Texas Instruments calculator empire. Online tools vastly more capable than a typical handheld system are chipping away at the empire’s foundation (QZ, 2017). Possibly the most notable of these tools is Desmos, but more capable analytical systems are also gaining more footing as time marches on.

A number of classrooms have at least begun to integrate these tools into their teaching portfolio. You may have encountered Desmos specifically before, particularly in an algebra or statistics class. Having access to a capable graphing system designed for computers opens up new ways for teachers to demonstrate phenomena to students, and gives students a responsive interface to explore in.

More common in higher education and business is a tool known as Wolfram Alpha, which can take in natural language inputs and give an explanation of the question asked, or produce information at a request. It is not commonly used in high schools right now, but makes a useful learning tool that could help more traditional systems like Desmos topple Texas Instruments’ monopoly. Wolfram Alpha can even evaluate more advanced things such as indefinite integrals, providing another way to explain calculus to students.

Standardized testing bodies, notably steadfast in maintaining the use of graphing calculators, are one of the most stable grounds for TI to stand on. Now, even they are beginning to consider switching away from the old graphing calculators and towards more technologically forward options.

Some tests have already moved digital, such as the SAT. The digital SAT integrates a calculator into the testing application itself (College Board, n.d.), which removes the need for students to bring their own calculator for the test . In fact, the new digital SAT has integrated Desmos itself into the learning tool portfolio. This could lead into a Desmos-led environment, but even so, that would be much better than the current situation.

It may take some time before a majority of tests go digital, but the computerized SAT is already laying the foundations for the force that could bring down Texas Instruments’ long-standing empire in the math classroom. It remains to be seen if, or how, TI will respond to this new threat to the calculator monopoly.

**What This All Means**

TI has a calculator monopoly, great. What significance does it have? For many, it has little meaning or is at most a minor inconvenience. For some, it is something that they think about enough to write an article about. For yet others, it means that they can not do as well in school as they could if they were able to afford a fancy calculator.

Now, though, there are services which are slowly chipping away at the walls of TI’s castle. As standardized tests begin to switch to digital modes, the graphing calculator market as a whole is seeing its foundations pulled out from under it. It may be soon that we witness the fall of TI’s great calculator empire.

**References**

Amazon. (n.d.). *Casio fx-9750GIII White Graphing Calculator (fx-9750GIII-WE), 4 AA batteries required. (included) Small*. Amazon. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://www.amazon.com/Casio-fx-9750GIII-Graphing-Calculator-fx-9750GIII-WE/dp/B091MRRLTP/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2QNIM17C9IM9&dib=eyJ2IjoiMSJ9.25dfBsN7xpgcZ5iOXIZbFF50DPizf8Ns_N0OaHSbJXI-jvq19QWfUK-_XF0oVojNqIckxemZK8eEdx04M5LLFSf8Q5ENt3CZ7S45wOa9g3ColNLBDgK7ZnsK

College Board. (n.d.). *SAT Digital Guide*. College Board. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://signup.collegeboard.org/usa-sat-digital-guide/?SFMC_cid=EM1128585-&rid=389650873

Datamath. (2020, July 16). *DATAMATH*. DATAMATH. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from http://www.datamath.org/Graphing/TI-83.htm

Kosoff, M. (2019, November 24). *Big Calculator: How Texas Instruments Monopolized Math Class*. GEN. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://gen.medium.com/big-calculator-how-texas-instruments-monopolized-math-class-67ee165045dc

Math4Sale. (n.d.). *TI School Teacher Packs & Classroom Sets (All Models)*. Math4Sale.com. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://www.math4sale.com/TI-School-Teacher-Packs-Classroom-Sets-All-Models_c_13.html

McFarland, M. (2014, September 2). *The unstoppable TI-84 Plus: How an outdated calculator still holds a monopoly on classrooms*. Washington Post. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/09/02/the-unstoppable-ti-84-plus-how-an-outdated-calculator-still-holds-a-monopoly-on-classrooms/

McFarland, M. (2017, May 12). *Can we finally retire the overpriced TI-84 calculator?* Business News – Latest Headlines on CNN Business. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://money.cnn.com/2017/05/12/technology/ti-84-graphing-calculator/index.html

Smith, J. (2015, September 28). *Remember Your Old Graphing Calculator? It Still Costs a Fortune — Here’s Why*. Mic. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://www.mic.com/articles/125829/your-old-texas-instruments-graphing-calculator-still-costs-a-fortune-heres-why

Wang, A. X. (2017, May 8). *The reign of the $100 graphing calculator required by every US math class is finally ending*. Quartz. Retrieved February 27, 2024, from https://qz.com/977987/thanks-to-the-startup-desmos-the-reign-of-the-texas-instruments-100-graphing-calculator-in-schools-is-finally-ending