Silicon Cowboys Review

Silicon Cowboys (2016) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin

Director: Jason Cohen
Writers: Jason Cohen,  Steven Leckart
Stars: Rod Canion,  Jim Harris,  Bill Murto

Having been born in 1976, the silicon cowboys story was only just about to begin for Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris. Home computers and Consoles have always been in my life from my uncles Atari 2600 to my very first computer in 1988, the ZX Spectrum 128k+2. It’s hard to imagine today that back in the late 1970’s there was one company leading the way in business and about to be personal computers…..International Business Machines Corporation (IBM)

The story and the dream of Canion, Murto and Harris’ having an idea of a Compaq portable computer at a Texas diner in 1981 would soon see themselves battling the giant IBM, for Home Computing supremacy is one story that so few have realised. Thanks to filmmaker Jason Cohen we get to witness first hand accounts of Compaq’s incredible journey from idea to conquerer through the Texan entrepreneurs behind Compaq.

I’m glad Cohen made this movie as Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris don’t roll off the tongue as frequent or as naturally as Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg. None of these three have the same persona, character or magnetism as the later but this is a story of a little company taking on the giant that is IBM at their own game and for that they deserved their moment in the spotlight. It also reminded me of another independent movie I had watched a few years ago Calle “Atari: Game Over” that was in the same era of technology.

From a personal point of view, I worked for a sub contractor for IBM from 1992 to 2000 and knew the rivalry between both companies growing up in my teens. It was satisfying to finally see and understand how that came about and how it ended for both companies. IBM had been a global giant throughout the 60’s and 70’s without conflict, confrontation and a competitive market. By 1980 though, several cloning companies began to sprout up which at first didn’t bother IBM as they held all the cards on compatibility and finance.

IBM only really began to take notice when Compaq’s very own portable computer could run IBM compatible programmes and what really infuriated the giant company was their very own portable computer couldn’t run their own software that was designed for home PCs, whilst Compaq’s could.

“Silicon Cowboys” was an enjoyable 82 minute documentary that really dug deep into the minds and scenarios Compaq had gone through between 1981 and 2002. It appeared all the main players where interviewed from both IBM and Compaq’s past and the film didn’t at any point take sides and every story had a balanced insight on how both companies ran their business.

It was interesting to see the early days of their latest releases and how they presented their products in an event that is more a common theme in today’s market of Apple and Android products. There was also some amusement in watching businessmen trundling through airports with their “mobile device” that was the size of a small suitcase and also a really funny advertisement from Rod Canion and his crew “rapping” to their latest release. The film also serves as a historic perspective of the past 30 to 40 years in development of home computing and how Compaq slotted into the evolution of the PC.

If you are old enough to remember the  days of personal computing in its infancy I would recommend watching this historical insight as the journey is fascinating and inspiring to an interested audience. All three of the men who created Compaq give an honest and emotional reflection on that journey and you can connect and understand some of the sacrifices some of them made to be successful.

“Silicon Cowboys” ends on a rather damning conclusion to what happened to both companies with Compaq merging with HP to become the largest company and manufacturer in personal computers in 2002, whilst IBM, the one time giant of the computing world ceased to manufacture home computers in the same year. A highly recommend piece of historical film making from Jason Cohen.

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