Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Silicon Cowboys (2016)

Growing up, I would hear of people having office computers that were huge by today’s standards that easily cost five figures.  For that money, you’d have processing speeds measured in kilobytes or, if they spent enough money, a few megabytes.  Today, we can hold in our hands devices that would leave those computers in the dust and they cost less than we make in a month, not more than what we’d make in our lifetimes.

My first computer was a Commodore 64.  Titles were limited by what had been made (or ported) for your system.  This meant that my family was limited by what was available for the Commodore.  For years, companies had tried to make a portable computer that was reasonably priced and could run IBM software.  This would mean that IBM wouldn’t have an effective monopoly on personal computers, much like Windows has today.  The problem was that this meant having to copy IBM’s internal code.

Enter Compaq.  They realized that they could try writing the base code and fix what didn’t work.  Yes, they were stumbling in the dark, but it was better than being sued out of existence.  It eventually worked.  Compaq was able to release a portable computer that could run any software that an IBM computer could run.  Customers were all over it.

Silicon Cowboys shows the story of how Compaq was founded and its rise and eventual acquisition by HP.  Having a personal computer was kind of a big thing back then.  It was kind of like the scene in Back to the Future where Marty is visiting his mother’s house when she was a teenager.  From him, televisions are common.  It’s common for a family to have three sets in their house.  For someone in the 1950s, not so much.

Compaq was founded in 1981.  When we first got the Commodore, I was in elementary school.  (It would have been somewhere in the mid 1980s.)   People might have had a computer, but it was nowhere near the saturation we see today, where a home might have a desktop, three laptops and a few iPhones thrown in for good measure.  By the time I was in high school, personal computers were everywhere.  My middle school and high school both had computer labs.  By the time I entered college, I already had an email address.  I don’t know that any of this would have happened without Compaq.

The story is an interesting one.  It focuses primarily on the business end of it, showing how the founders didn’t really know what they wanted to do when they quit their jobs.  They had even considered a Mexican restaurant at one point.  Considering the mortality rate of the companies that had tried before, they had no reason to expect to succeed.  Yet, they did.

There is a certain historical context that I think the documentary was missing.  I’ve come to realize that children born the day I graduated high school have since gone on to graduate high school, themselves.  That generation will have grown up with computers being ubiquitous, much like I grew up with three televisions.  The documentary compares taking on IBM to taking on Google today, but I wonder how things might have been different had Compaq failed.

It’s hard to say.  Compaq effectively forced IBM out of making personal computers.  We now have Windows dominating the market for operating systems.  Had this not happened. we probably would have still had personal computers.  If not Commodores and Apples, then some other manufacturer might have become big.  I would have liked to see the documentary go into this a little more.  Either way, the computing landscape would definitely look a lot different had it not been for Compaq.

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