Movie Review: ‘Silicon Cowboys’

Greetings again from the darkness. After countless projects spotlighting Steve Jobs and Apple, it’s about time the tech-nerdy Texas entrepreneurs behind Compaq get their moment on the silver screen. Filmmaker Jason Cohen turns his camera on Rod Canion, Bill Murto, and Jim Harris … none who have the persona or magnetism of Mr. Jobs … and tells the story of how they took on Goliath IBM at a time when most wouldn’t dare.

Taking us back to 1981, the 3 friends (and Texas Instruments co-workers) quit their jobs to start a new company – only they have no real plan on what that company should be or even what industry it should be in. There is a re-enactment of a conceptual drawing of a mobile computer on a diner’s paper placemat … a drawing that helped them secure a big investment from Ben Rosen at a time when Venture Capitalism was non-existent for technology companies (yep, 35 years ago).

Those early days of a slow developing Silicon Valley featured more hobbyists and non-commercial efforts than anything going on these days. Mobile computing was not really even a product category when Compaq stuck a handle on their case … the visuals of businessmen toting them through airports is comical. This was truly the beginnings of the home computer era, and even the tech start-up. The film serves as a historical perspective of the times, while also documenting how Compaq fits into the evolution of the personal computer.

It’s pretty easy to draw comparisons to the great and powerful IBM ignoring the “little guys” to the 1970’s when GM and Ford overlooked Honda and Toyota. It’s always easy to chuckle at the arrogance of big corporations, and when Compaq computers were more compatible with IBM software than IBM computers were, it’s a real head-scratcher. The dawn of “clones” were more than a thorn in the side of Big Blue (IBM), and eventually it got worse for them. Head-to-head advertising campaigns of IBM’s Charlie Chaplin vs. Compaq’s John Cleese further emphasized the contrast between those out of touch with those who clearly understood the market.

Normally a movie that spends much of its time interviewing such down to earth guys as Canion, Murto and Harris, would feel like it’s dragging, but the historical significance is such that contemporary comparisons to Dell, Google, Apple and Facebook keep it briskly on track. Though the electronic background music seems out of place, many viewers will enjoy watching a true story where the nerds win!

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