'Silicon Cowboys': How Compaq cowpokes brought down IBM

The new documentary offers a glimpse into the humble beginnings of a major player in the personal computing revolution.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

"You know they say 'Are you a Mac or a PC?' The reason they don't say Mac or IBM is because of Compaq."

So opens "Silicon Cowboys", a new documentary available now on video-on-demand, telling the story of Compaq, the outfit that went from an office surrounded by cows to the fastest company ever to hit $1 billion in sales.

"Cowboys" draws its name from the Compaq founders' roots in Texas. Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto were three engineers at Texas Instruments when they decided to branch out on their own in 1983. Those humble beginnings 1,500 miles from Silicon Valley provide a herd of fun down-home details, like the fact their first portable computer was sketched on a placemat in a pie shop or that the founders nearly started a Mexican restaurant instead.

The main narrative in "Silicon Cowboys" is about Compaq's challenge to established computing behemoth IBM, nicknamed Big Blue. Personal computers were a new market in the 1980s, full of upstarts who were nonetheless beholden to IBM's software. If you learn anything from this documentary it's the importance of compatibility. The discussion of compatibility culminates in IBM's failed attempt to barge into the "luggable" computer sector with its Portable Personal Computer, which -- unlike Compaq machines -- couldn't run some of Big Blue's own software.

Certainly IBM was arrogant and complacent, relying on its market position and armies of lawyers rather than innovating like Compaq and other nimbler rivals. But that doesn't quite explain the satisfaction the documentary takes in painting Compaq as the IBM-killer. That'll teach IBM for helping the Nazis, maybe?

The film ends with a self-satisfied coda revealing IBM slid out of personal computers while Compaq merged with HP in 2002 to become the biggest computing company in the world. However, it glosses over the fact Compaq was struggling in the wake of the dot-com bust, thousands of employees lost their jobs in the deal, and in the ensuing years the Compaq name has all but disappeared.

"You cannot get to the iPhone without Compaq," the film also claims. While IBM sold big computers to big businesses, it's fun to learn today's mobile-first world began with a couple of guys meeting over a beer and hitting on the idea of putting a handle on a computer.

In amongst footage of HBO's startup comedy "Silicon Valley" and AMC TV series "Halt and Catch Fire", is plenty of footage from the era. Marvel at the fashions, news reports and adverts of the early 1980s, including Compaq's run of surreal ads starring John Cleese. Highlights include glitzy product launches featuring David Copperfield, the Pointer Sisters and Irene Cara (from "Fame").

There isn't much in the way of human drama. When Compaq exploded in value, the film tells us, the founders bought sports cars, spent too little time with their families and eventually got eased out by the board. It's not exactly "The Social Network" or "Steve Jobs". It's not even "Pirates of Silicon Valley".

Still, "Silicon Cowboys" is worth a look for the '80s footage, the amusing details and the glimpse of an era when putting a handle on a computer could make you a millionaire.

And hey, those cowpokes sure showed IBM what-fer, right?

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