Introduced in March 1982 in Boston, the IXO Tele-computing Systems was supposed to revolutionize the way you access and interact with data stored in mainframes. The cherry on the cake, the Californian startup from Culver City, designed its pocket-sized terminal to use only the English language and be accessible to the computer illiterate. The revolution was underway. Even the 1982 April issue of BYTE magazine titled A Revolution in Your Pocket. Its cover featured an actual-sized photo of the sub-$500 terminal. It was gorgeous and looked very much like a pocket computer of the era.
IXO was eager to succeed in its revolution. Instead of slowly establishing the data terminal use model bottom-up, they moved swiftly and aggressively. They focused on the top brasses reading the Wall Street Journal, with a three-page advertisement–costing almost $400K–promising a free Pocket Terminal to the first 1000 CEOs interested in the product. That’s bold, even for a company that raised $13 million in venture capital! Although IXO delivered the goods promptly, the orders didn’t come in. Bob Doyle, genius, former NASA employee, and co-inventor, with Holly Dole of the Merlin console, blamed the campaign’s failure on the long decision-making cycles of big corporations.
Then, the company attempted to rebound on the hobby computer market, which was booming at the time. The idea of the IXO’s VP, Chief Scientist, was to offer a terminal for personal computers. The startup sampled significant publications – BYTE among them – to deliver the gospel. Alas, the Pocket Terminal was too late for the time and way too early if you consider the billions of data access terminals we use every day (a.k.a. smartphones).
In me, the pocket computer aficionado was always intrigued by this terminal, looking more like an electronic translator by Panasonic or SHARP. Now I have a better understanding and can share it here today. I have three models of terminals: TC100, TC200, and TC220. These are consecutive revisions. The models differ slightly externally and internally. You can compare the extensive set of pictures I took to find the differences. Although the overall user interface/designs are incredibly close, only a few keys moved around, and the LCD also improved slightly. The keyboard is very noticeable. I love the colored keys with their original markings: yes, no, and the excellent don’t know! The internal design has also evolved between the models. My TC100 must be an early model as it has numerous straps and a daughterboard hosting the PROM, which in my case seems corrupted. Although the overall boards’ layout stayed constant, a few chip manufacturers changed 😊.
The terminal has an RJ11 telephone jack and a mini-jack RS-232C connector. An external serial module – and printer interface – can supply to the device 9V DC, and the former can deliver 12V DC to the unit (from the telephone line). IXO uses a flat Polapulse 6V battery popularized by Polaroid cameras when the unit is disconnected. Indeed, these batteries power the motor used to eject the pictures from the camera. Did you know that the battery was in the film pack? Even today, modern Polaroid film packs contain a battery.
Contrary to what BYTE magazine stated, the terminal always draws power from the battery, even disconnected. Meaning you need a working Polapulse to power up any TC model. Although it is still possible to find new old stocks, they won’t cut muster.
The workaround is to open the terminal – there is a hidden screw behind the quality seal –to remove the mainboard (two small screws to remove) and attach a 6V DC power source to the contacts designed to hug the Polapulse connectors. It is good to know if you want to buy a TC, as they are often sold out of order. They are not! On the contrary, TCs are rock solid. To avoid opening my terminals each time I want to use them, I will create a 3D-printed insert that I could easily plug into my bench power supplies. I used the opportunity to dissect a vintage Polapulse and the battery embedded into a modern Polaroid Color 600 film. The latter could be a good – but expensive – replacement if only the positive and negative terminals were located in the right place. I could use a 3D-printed adapter, but the cost of the films makes this option prohibitive.
Overall, the TC pocket terminals are exciting devices. They fell short of commercial success, but they remain essential historical hardware and software. After solving the battery/power supply situation, I will use the TCs as a terminal for personal computers, the way IXO envisioned it. Using the RS-232C interface, the same way you can use a GR Electronic Pocket Terminal, should be possible. Enjoy your WE!