Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 16, 2016 6:01 am 
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Battle of the Clones humbles a giant corporation and ushers in PC's

Silicon Cowboys, a short and generally upbeat documentary by Jason Cohen about the rapid rise of Compaq, reminded me of Geller and Goldfine's Something Ventured, about key startups in Silicon Valley - little companies in garages (like Apple) that turned into the tech business megaliths of today. But Silicon Cowboys doesn't take place in Silicon Valley. Its trio of geek and businessmen, Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto, lived in Houston. And though it's not emphasized, their eventual opponent, "Big Blue" or IBM, isn't based in California either, but in New York State. In 1981 Canion et al. wanted to start a company. When they started raising money, they didn't know actually what company. They even thought of starting a taco restaurant. Eventually they entered into a David-and-Goliath battle with IBM over personal computers, PC's. And their baby, Compaq Computers, became huge and rose to Fortune 500 status faster than any business in history.

The little guys won. They came on the scene when office workers were starting to rely heavily on computers, and to want to be able to take the computers home with them to finish their work at night. Their product, which folded up and had the revolutionary device of a handle on it, worked with IBM software. And it was portable, if not like a Macbook Air, by a long shot. Somehow to be legally protected, their designers had to create models to do this without examining IBM manuals. They did so by working backwards, taking apart assembled machines and figuring out how they had been wired. This involved an immense amount of trial and error that eventually succeeded. The film doesn't fully explain why IBM's attempt at a spoiler product failed that used IBM's own software, somehow less well than Compaq's clones. But was a Battle of the Clones, wherein the clones outfought the originals. Eventually IBM got out of the small computer business completely, remaining dominant in the big industrial-sized ones.

There's some interesting description of company "culture," a term that seems to have come in about this time. Compaq's laid back Texas world was far more egalitarian, with coffee and Cokes for employees, who found their bosses thoroughly approachable and friendly. The film makes some use of TV fiction series, including the newish "Silicon Valley" and "Halt and Catch Fire," to tell this side of the story. There is a contrast with the hierarchical, stolid "culture" of the relatively huge and stuffy IBM. But the film explains how Compaq's rapid rise from a handful, or a hundred, to thousands of employees and a little city of facilities changed things.

Interesting point, never commented upon in the film: Compaq computers were being manufactured in Texas, with American workers. Growing competition from Asia in the field of portable PCs is mentioned, but the changeover to foreign plants for manufacturing isn't. What is well described is how Microsoft and Bill Gates and Intel to a large extent played on Compaq's side in the David-and-Goliath battle between Compaq and IBM, though it was a juggling act for them since IBM was a big client of theirs too.

Eventually Canion, the amiable leader, who'd turned in his three-piece Walmart suits for soft ones in nice material, had his teeth and his public speaking skills fixed and switched his big glasses for contacts, was fired by the financial head of the company. And Compaq became defunct as a separate company in 2002 and as a subsidiary of Hewlett Packer in the US in 2013. Things get a little sad toward the end (though the overloud upbeat music never stops). And there are some details about computer history - about the format of the laptop, about the mouse, for instance - that the non-geek winds up wishing the film had explained. From the selfish personal computer user point of view, those are details that are more interesting than the business stories.

Those of us, like me, who came to computers late and are woefully ignorant of their early history, might also like to know more about the changing formats of computers during this period of the Eighties and early Nineties. How did those early, low-slung portable computers work? What could you do with them? Why were the screens so small and when and why did they become larger? In the film, the smaller, barely portable model Compaq had its first successes with, is suddenly replaced without explanation with bigger, two-tiered desktops. Actually, the word "laptop" is never mentioned. Nor is it shown that IBM made laptops, though they did. I remember a friend's daughter in college in the Nineties who had to have one of those early laptops, when they all seemed to cost several thousand dollars. (The price war was a factor in the firing of Rod Canion in 1991.)

This, for consumers, crucial issue of computer format is not very well represented in Silicon Cowboys. The film turns out to be much more about business, and about people, than about technology or about the now fascinating story of the history of computers and their relations to everyone's lives - a topic that gets interesting treatment in Alex Gibney's excellent and a lot more far-reaching documentary from last year, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

The looks Silicon Cowboys provides at the adorably clunky and somehow strange and mysterious early "portable" and "personal" computers that broke away from IBM also cause me to recommend another, very different but emotionally and aesthetically germane film, Andrew Bujalski's unclassifiable sort-of-masterpiece Computer Chess.

Jason Cohen's 2013 23-minute documentary short Facing Fear, about the meeting of a neo-Nazi and his gay hate crime victim of 25 years earlier was nominated for an Academy Award.

Silicon Cowboys, 77 mins., debuted appropriately enough in Texas, at Austin's SXSW featival, in March 2016. Shown at three other small US festivals. Its US theatrical release by Film Rise begins 16 September 2016, when it will show all over, and in northern California at the Roxie and Four Star in San Francisco and Camera 3, San Jose. 2016.

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