SXSW Film Review – Silicon Cowboys
When I think about the history of computing, most what I know has to do with Microsoft, Apple, and Xerox PARC. (If you are interested in the subject, and you should be because it’s a fascinating, I recommend Robert X. Cringely’s Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996) and Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (1998). Cringely is really writer Mark Stephens, and these two PBS shows are a lot of fun for the casual viewer.) Silicon Valley is the center of most stories, but watching Jason Cohen’s new documentary, Silicon Cowboys, clued me into the fact California is not the actual center of the computer universe. Turns out, Houston, Texas has it’s place in the development of the PC; one that isn’t usually discussed. It’s the birthplace of Compaq, the company that helped to displace IBM as the dominant force in personal computing.
Compaq was started in 1981 by three former Texas Instruments employees: Rod Canion – the business guy, Bill Murto – marketing, and Jim Harris – engineering. Knowing they wanted to start their own company, but not sure what they would do exactly, the three met up and started hashing out ideas. They settled on improving the then-current portable personal computer made by Osborne by streamlining the design and making their version IBM compatible so users could just use the software already available. This sounds easy, but the IBM code was copyrighted so the Compaq engineers had to reverse engineer the whole thing when creating their clone. Eventually they were successful, although their computer could be considered more luggable than portable; it weighed in at almost 30 pounds. Their system was so good that when IBM eventually created it’s own portable computer, the Compaq still ran better and supported more of IBM’s software. They did a lot of things right with their vision, company culture, and marketing, but they got another push later on when IBM made a fatal mistake by abandoning backwards compatibility. The history of Compaq says a lot, not only about them, but about the strategies IBM employed as well.
I enjoyed this film quite a bit. This was a topic I knew nothing about, and it presented its subject in a clear and engaging way. I did not get as good as sense of the three founders as one might have in a documentary about Apple or Microsoft, althugh I maybe know too much about Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates. But it would have been nice to understand the personalities behind Compac. Maybe they were bland in comparison to their West Coast brethren, but I somehow doubt that. These guys created something special and it would have been nice to see more of how they did that. The only other quibble I had with this film was the insertion of footage from current television shows like HBO’s Silicon Valley and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire. Turns out, television clips are not the same as documentary footage and should not be used in the same manner to elucidate points. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it took me out of the moment. There was a great use of period commercials and stock footage to set the tone, but they should have left it at that.
That all sounds pretty complainy, but really, I had a lot of fun with this film. I am personally engaged in the subject matter, but I don’t think one has to be in order to enjoy Silicon Cowboys. I was both informed and entertained, and it was interesting to learn more about IBM’s shifting fortunes. As I write this, they just announced a layoff of almost a third of their workforce, and I would be curious to see if they ever come back to the glory days of Big Blue. I don’t know how much the loss of the PC market has contributed to their current fortunes, but their company history is certainly worth following.