When people think of the PC battles of the eighties, they often, in retrospect, couch them in terms of Apple vs. PC. The reality of it was IBM vs. Clone PC. I have a vivid memory of our first personal computer. It was giant thirty-pound monstrosity with an industrial strength handle that my father lugged on the train up to Ann Arbor from Chicago for his PHD. It was the precursor of the laptop, it was the portable, and yeah…. It was a portable, sort of.
We would not have laptops or even cellphones and tablets if it wasn’t for Compaq computers, the Texas-based firm founded by three former Texas Instruments senior managers. Compaq, under the director of president and CEO Rod Canion, revolutionized the home computer industry by reverse engineering IBM’s own BIOS, making it 100% compatible. In fact, Compaqs often ran software faster than IBMs and were more backwards-compatible with older software than even IBM’s own machines were. In a fun twist of fate, Compaq eventually licensed their DOS version to Microsoft to license to other PC clones, and establish the needed standards for the industry (used ultimately by IBM itself).
The public face of this was the Compaq Portable, an all-in one transportable computer, the first on the market. It retailed for under $3000. Released in November of 1982, the computer was developed in a ‘clean room,’ because no one who had read the publically available BIOS from IBM could work on the computer. Because the IBM hardware was mostly put together from standard parts off the shelf, unlocking the BIOS was really the only thing Compaq needed to make a 100% compatible clone. Selling 53,000 models in the first year, Canion’s company became the fastest start-up to reach $100 million in sales. In February of 1984 IBM released a desktop – so Canion introduced the Deskpro, directly competing with IBM. A few years later, Compaq’s Deskpro became the first computer to use the Intel 386 microprocessor, seven months ahead of IBM. By 1987, Compaq had reached $1 billion in sales.
Jason Cohen’s film SILICON COWBOYS covers the meteoric rise of Compaq computers. A fascinating and tension filled documentary, the SXSW world premiere lifts Canion up to his rightful place next to Jobs and Gates in the pantheon of home computing heroes. The story plays out like a classic narrative, there are good guys, there are bad guys, there are twists and last minute victories. This is a true little man triumphant story, packed with informative interviews and history as well as true characters. Almost everyone involved was interviewed, witnesses to history from both sides of the battle.
With a hypnotic score from Passion Pit’s Ian Hultquist, Jason Cohen’s film zips through its 75 minutes running time. Although no one on the Compaq side comes off as perfect, they certainly seem to have more of their crap together than anyone on the IBM side who barely noticed Rome burning around them. The film captures a company on the rise, as well as one of the first instances of the fun corporate culture that has become so prevalent in start-ups and tech companies. A good argument can be made (and is made in the film) that foundation of modern computing comes from Compaq’s defeat of IBM’s market dominance.
SILICON COWBOYS is the rare film that tells a story we all sort of know (who still has a ThinkPad?) in a way that is completely fresh, surprising and fun. The graphics, music, and other artistic touches make what could have been a simple business profile into a heavy-weight showdown. Anyone who has ever used a computer should see this film, and that’s everyone by now, which is the point of the home computer revolution that Compaq lead.
I had a chance to sit down with director Jason Cohen, producer Ross Dinerstein, and Compaq founder Rod Canion at SXSW to discuss the film and Compaq’s place in history.
BEARS: How did you all come together to make this film? This is such an amazing story and it’s always odd to me when there is something like this that is so important but has just never been told.
Dinerstein: I’ve known Rod pretty much my whole life. He’s one my father’s best friends and golfing buddies and I’m very familiar with the story of Compaq computers having grown up in Houston in the ‘80s, so I always knew about it and always knew that Rod was the founder, co-founder and CEO of the company, but never really understood its impact and sort of the innovation and risks that these guys took until I read his book “Open”
Canion: “Open: How Compaq ended IBM’s PC domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing.”
Dinerstein: It was one of those experiences where you open page one, and then you close the book and you say, “Oh my gosh, I actually just read that entire book without getting up to go to the bathroom.” At the end of the day, I saw a good guy story, Hollywood, a David vs. Goliath, you know, the good guys win, spoiler alert. But with a real three act structure, it just seemed ripe for a documentary. We made a movie about tech and made a movie about Texas, it couldn’t’ve been more of a SXSW film and having had a lot of success at SX, and having this be my home state and my favorite film festival, I’m always sort of looking at how I, once I get in, how can I get in again.
BEARS: And how did you pitch Rod about the film?
Dinerstein: Over a couple beers at my little brother’s wedding and, you know, I said, “I know people in California and I think I can find us a really great filmmaker. And that’s going to be the key ingredient.” I brought in my friend Glenn Zipper who’s a very prolific independent documentary filmmaker. I gave him the pitch and he said, “You gotta take it to my friend Jason.” Jason and Glenn went to college together and had been talking about working together for years.
Canion: Now, I have to tell you, I was skeptical. I’d written the book, I thought the story was a story that really needed to be told, but I had no experience in what works in a documentary. So I just said, “I’ll set up the interviews, you guys go do it.” And Jason turns out- I guess other people already knew this – he’s a genius. He told this story in 75 minutes and made it so interesting, so dramatic. I sent out an e-mail to a lot of the Compaq people and said, “You really gotta see this, this is not the book.”
Cohen: When I first read the book, what mostly drew it to me was this narrative arc to the story, and there was a lot in there that we knew we wouldn’t be able to get into, but the bones were there of this narrative with plot points, with a good guy and bad guys, you always need conflict. To be honest [the book has]stuff you don’t always find in a documentary as a story teller. When this came, I’d just been getting off the wheels of my last film which was pretty heavy subject matter about hate crime, forgiveness and reconciliation.
And this is fun, this would be such a fun story to tell and then, the nostalgia. I grew up in the ‘80s, I remember my first computers, I remember the cassette drive, waiting 45 minutes for the game to load. You know, super great memories of being in my dad’s office and the green flashing cursor which was like symbolic of that era. I knew that was going in the film somehow, someway. I knew the graphics were going to go so retro and the graphics guys were so geeked out that they could go back to doing something that did not look slick,
BEARS: Right, I love the way the titles become part of the whole aesthetics of the film, or like the sounds of typing.
Cohen: All the typing is actual from the actual first comportable. And the first thing I did, I was like, “Here’s the computer, we gotta shoot these letters, we gotta shoot that font and that cursor. We gotta shoot the machine shutting off, and we want that- that’s what it’s gotta be for everything we use in our lower thirds.”
BEARS: So Rod, looking back at it now, through the process, was there anything about your company that became clear, having a 3rd party come in and tell your story?
Canion: Well, I did a lot of research when I wrote the book. And so I was very careful to tell the story very factually and completely. But what I didn’t do was find anybody inside IBM that could tell their side of it. So, in the process of doing the documentary we found two people who I think add so much to it. That is part and parcel to sort of building the story up and the final battle, if you will.
BEARS: I think that’s one of the things that really elevates the documentary into being fantastic because you’re taking a story and looking at it from both sides. So, how did you find those guys?
Cohen: Well, one of ‘em, funny enough, Bob Jackson, who was in the technology licensing, and we have a whole scene in the film about how IBM started going after people with their patents to try to take advantage of what they could, and eventually they got to Compaq, and that’s one of the big scenes in our film. Bob Jackson actually ended up going to Compaq, so he knew Rod, so he was easy to find. The other gentleman, Bill Aulet was somebody that Rod had met.
Canion: You know, this is so serendipity. I ran into Bill when I was at MIT talking to an entrepreneur class. Bill, it turns out, had gone to IBM and was heading up their entrepreneurship program and so a mutual friend actually got us together for drinks. And when I found out I could pick his brain for what was IBM thinking during this and that? I was in heaven, I mean, this was unbelievable.
BEARS: Also adding to the retro feel is the score, which was done by Ian Hultquist of Passion Pit. I know he was also the composer on a film Ross had at SXSW last year “The Diabolical,” so I am assuming he brought you together. What were the conversations like about how you wanted it to sound?
Cohen: I’m a music nerd. And I had a lot of influences in my head going in and we had a bunch of temp music going in, – I try not to use too much mainstream temp music because I hate when I get tied to songs that I know we can’t afford. But when I sat down with Ian for the first time, I was pretty pointed. I knew what I wanted, but he got it. I spent months just driving around with the new wave station and the one hit wonder station on the satellite radio in my car. But, when a song would come on, I would just whip out my phone, take a picture of my satellite radio so I remembered, and so I have all these pictures all these songs. Ian just got it. I would say, “I want it to sound like the one hit wonder bands of the 1980s. And it should be fun and do that.” Then we have a couple pretty heavy scenes, but we wanted to stay in that synth world so we ended up having what we called these ‘Depeche Mode whips.’ We have one scene where things are going well and they’re driving fancy cars and I knew I wanted hair metal vibe to it. I grew up in New Jersey suburbia in the 1980s and I was listening to a lot of hair metal, in addition to other things.
BEARS: We all were, it’s okay. I think thematically – not just that the music’s great, but – because it’s new music, and entrenched in the period, it’s linked to the way Compaq is a story of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but we only have the things that we have today because of Compaq computers. Likewise, Passion Pit only exists today because of Pop Musik by M or Depeche Mode or Kraftwerk.
Cohen: One other thing about the music, when we laid it out the structure of this film, Rod references IBM and particularly the PS2, the big machine they put out. In the book he calls it the Death Star
Canion: And that’s the way I thought of it- I mean, it was unbelievable.
Cohen: So, that was in my head from the book. We had our good guys and our bad guys. Immediately it ended up being that Compaq were like Rebels – they were doing it grassroots and they were rebels, and IBM was the Empire. So, the idea was, “These guys are making advances, but wait a minute, let’s go check in with the Empire,” ‘cause they’re still in charge. The Star Wars thing – it was the ‘80s, so that played for me. I even got to the point where I was like, “We could actually do the wipe where we go from Compaq to IBM and start doing different wipes.” I didn’t want to steal everything from them, but it was certainly in the back of my mind.
BEARS: You had your version of the Imperial March.
Cohen: Exactly, and that music kicks in when they go to the IBM scene. I knew the music was gonna be a big part of getting to Compaq world to IBM world each time we left it.
BEARS: So, Rod, seeing as how this is SXSW and there are probably 5,000 start-ups here, do you think there are universal lessons to learn from the Compaq experience?
Canion: There are a lot of them, in fact it would be very hard to pull them all out. The story is about a 10 year time frame, even though it goes on after that for another decade. But there were so many challenges along the way that were truly life threatening, and I guess I never really realized when I was going through it – how much risk we took. There are very few foes like IBM. When it was in its prime in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was a total dominating player in the computer industry. We never wanted to go up against IBM. Truth is, we came out with a portable- guess why? Because we didn’t want to be where IBM was. So, we saw a niche, an unmet need. We had the ability to go do it, so we designed a very rugged, nicely styled portable. So it would survive, we made it run the IBM PC software, but then IBM comes toward us, and the IBM guy really brings that out well. He says, “We didn’t notice ‘em,” but then, “So they had this record $111m first year. Well, maybe we ought to do something about that.” I don’t know how much influence we really had. I don’t think anybody’s alive that could really tell us, did we really influence them going to the PS/2, the Death Star, because they couldn’t kill us? They had to take very extreme measure- And it was a very good, very well thought out strategy when they came out with the PS/2. I don’t think the documentary even really tells how they were almost- they were on the 2nd yard-line to taking over and making it totally proprietary. And our solution was truly a Hail Mary.
[Bears’ history lesson. The PS/2 was entirely new operating system that someone would again have to reverse engineer to make sure software would run properly on it, a long drawn out process that may have never even be achieved. This was IBM’s attempt to make everything completely proprietary, both software and hardware, take a stranglehold on the market, and put all its competitors (the so-called clones) out of business. Compaq’s solution was to bring together the Gang of Nine (Compaq, AST, Epson, Hewlet-Packard, NEC, Ing, Tandy, Wyse, and Zenith), which at the time represented 33% of the market. They put together a new standard for the market that they would all follow, thus guaranteeing that software like the new ‘Windows’ from Microsoft would play on all machines identically.]
BEARS: So Compaq spearheaded the revolt, basically sharing their technology with competitors, right?
Canion: We knew how to make an advanced bus that was backward compatible. IBM would’ve done it if the knew how, they had just never bothered to learn how to make things backward compatible. None of the other clones knew how to do that. That was a technology we had developed from the beginning, refined along the years, and then when it was all or nothing, we built the company on it. So it wasn’t all wasted, we gave it away. Really, that’s what pulled all of the industry together- it was a gang of 9, but there were 80 computer companies that were really up there with us.
BEARS: It seems like one of the big things that came out of that is the movement away from hardware to software. It was interesting that Bill Gates plays a small role in the clones vs. IBM debate, but in the grand scheme, this is when he starts to amass his fortune and his dominating control over the market as well, just in a different way.
Cohen: In the film, we acknowledge that. Somebody in the film literally says, “Bill Gates understood that the compatible market is the reason why he is gonna be a multi-billionaire and the richest man in the world.” He understood that early on.
BEARS: It was the same thing with the Intel processors- they wanted ‘em to work with everybody.
Canion: So, let me say something a little controversial here, that’s always good.
BEARS: Ooh I like that.
Canion: Part of IBM’s plan — I’m really certain when they came out with PS2, it wasn’t just to get rid of all the clones – it was a step along the way of having their own processor and their own operating system. I mean, they had bought manufacturing rights to the 286 from Intel and they had developed oS2, which nobody remembers now, but that was the operating system to the PS2. Microsoft had helped them, but it was one more step to where they had cut out the clones and Microsoft. So they were on the fringe, right on the edge of the cliff of going away, or at least, going to being a much smaller company. But because we were able to stop them from doing it and ensure the longevity of the extended industry standard, what it meant was, we knew we couldn’t take control of it like IBM had. So basically, it automatically handed it to Intel for the processor and Microsoft for the software, Then we were on a level playing field with all the other PC makers.
Dinerstein: The interesting thing is a lot of people who work on the genre movies, worked on this movie. The guys who did the graphics did “The Nightmare,” composer did “The Diabolical.” Part of the reason I’m drawn to the genre space is because I like that aspect of my imagination and I like being able to tell a story like that, so I really approached it in no different way. I will say, being with doc makers is a lot different than hanging out with midnight filmmakers. Don’t worry, I’m not giving up my midnight roots. But, going forward, I’m going to try to make one documentary a year, Jason and I are talking about a couple ideas and I think it’s as important as the genre stuff that I’m doing. I really had a blast. We edited in my office and at one end of the hallway we’re editing Silicon Cowboys and the other end we’re editing the psychological thriller. In the middle, where my office was, we’re developing this face transplant movie, so it was a very interesting couple of months for me going from room to room to room, really having to turn on different parts of my brain and my creative, and I loved it.
Canion: I gotta give Ross credit, though. One of the hardest things we ever had to do at Compaq was come up with a name. You know, we started off as Gateway Technology and it was almost time to announce and we still didn’t have a name.
BEARS: Then someone took that name later.
Canion: Yeah, Gateway was one of the mail order companies. I knew names were hard to come up with, but this guy, 4 o’clock in the morning, Silicon Cowboys comes to him. And, could there be a more perfect name?
Cohen: Yeah, we bandied out a lot of names, and then it literally of course hits him in the middle of the night.
Dinerstein: I texted Jason and woke up the next morning and he was like, “That’s a great idea.” And I had to remember what he was talking about.
SILICON COWBOYS world premiered at SXSW last month. FilmRise aquired the world distribution rights and is planning a fall theatrical release.