Saturday, March 12, 2016

SXSW ’16: Silicon Cowboys

Somehow the original Compaq Computers were more compatible with the IBMs they were cloning than some IBMs. Big Blue never understood the personal computer market, despite dominating it for years—and they really never got the portable business. That opened the door for an upstart clone to slay the dragon. Jason Cohen chronicles the rise, fall, and legacy of the Houston start-up that could in Silicon Cowboys, which screens at this year’s SXSW.

Ron Canion, Jim Harris, and Bill Murto had been middle managers at Texas Instruments, who found themselves at loose ends. Deciding to form a company, they kicked around a few terrible ideas, like a Mexican restaurant, before settling on an underserved niche of the IBM clone market. At the time, there was an allegedly portable IBM clone selling considerably better than it deserved to. The Compaq team came up with a sleeker design that included a revolutionary feature called a “handle.”

What really set the Compaq apart was its 100% compatibility with IBM software. That was a feat of reverse engineering even IBM could not match with its own slapped together portable. Yet, the corporate giant still refused to take the underdog Houston-based competitor seriously, until it was too late.

On one side of the coin, Cohen tells Compaq’s story (which inspired AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire), while on the flipside he depicts the arrogance and inflexibility that ultimately made IBM vulnerable to the disruptively scrappy upstart. Time and again, they made face-palm worthy decisions and doubled-down because they were Big Blue. They were practically the phone company. Perhaps this is most tellingly revealed by the vintage television commercials that make Silicon such a blast-from-the-past time capsule. IBM featured a Charlie Chaplin figure in their ads, because nothing expresses technological innovation like a silent movie star. In contrast, Compaq enlisted the unapologetic snark of John Cleese.

It is also pretty mind-blowing to watch some of the public access looking computer news broadcasts that were really the only media outlets reporting on the formative years of the industry. Cohen’s interview subjects compelling argue breakthroughs like the portability of iPods and the compatibility of the internet can be traced back to Compaq. They were also the first to establish an indulgent techie office culture. However, the doc could have also emphasized how longtime chairman Ben Rosen’s relatively modest investment helped establish the tradition of high-tech venture capitalism as we now know it.

Watching Silicon really brings home how much the world has changed in a relatively short span of time. Cohen scored interviews with just about all the notable players, who candidly and mostly nostalgically recount their tales from the IBM Clone Wars. It is a big, Texas-sized story, but Cohen captures all the personal idiosyncrasies that reportedly made Compaq such a great place to work. Entertaining and authoritative, it represents a long overdue counterbalance to Hollywood’s Steve Jobs-centric view of computing history. Highly recommended, Silicon Cowboys screens again today (3/12), Monday (3/14), and Tuesday (3/15), as part of the 2016 SXSW.