Silicon Cowboys take on Big Blue

B documentary

Directed by Jason Cohen

In the early 1980s, IBM ruled the personal computer market. If your computer wasn’t made by Big Blue, it was incompatible with all the ones that were. Then a group of young, former Texas Instrument employees created Compaq, and everything changed. By the end of the decade, the PC was still the standard, but it was no longer the IBM-PC.

Jason Cohen’s breezy documentary about Compaq’s rise and (to some extent) fall tells its story in a quick and upbeat 77 minutes. David comes to life, takes down Goliath, becomes king, survives some challenges, but then loses his kingdom.

When IBM released the PC in 1981, it changed the world of personal computers. They were no longer hobbyists’ toys, but real tools for the office. And Big Blue had a monopoly; you could only run PC software on an IBM PC.

Then, in 1983, Compaq released the Compaq Portable. It was fully compatible. And you could carry the whole thing–including the built-in screen and the attached keyboard–as bulky, a 28-pound suitcase. It wasn’t the first portable (or luggable) computer, or even the first portable that was IBM compatible. But for a number of reasons, it became the most successful.

Cohen’s documentary covers the main points, and has some wonderful moments—especially the old Compaq commercials starring John Cleese. But it glides over a lot of important stuff, and fails to explain a lot that needed explaining. For instance, it covers the MicroChannel vs. EISA conflict, but never explains that these were standards for easy-to-use hardware upgrades. That’s something that could easily be explained in a visual medium.

Another problem: The film is so caught up in Campaq’s story that it misses the big picture. Although Bill Gates pops up occasionally in the story, there’s no real discussion about operating systems. IBM lost its monopoly on PC hardware, but it’s partner Microsoft kept its monopoly on the software needed to run it. To this day, the acronym PC generally stands for a personal computer running a Microsoft operating system.

If you’re at all interested in the subject, Silicon Cowboys is worth catching. If you remember those days, it can even be nostalgic. But as I watched, I couldn’t help wishing for a bigger, broader documentary about the entire industry.