A fascinating account of maverick innovators during the Wild West era of personal computing.
Tech geeks, entrepreneurial wannabes and anyone fond of David-vs.-Goliath dust-ups likely will enjoy interfacing with “Silicon Cowboys,” a slick and streamlined documentary about the ambitious Houston mavericks who challenged the supremacy of then-dominant IBM in the 1980s with their revolutionary concept for a portable computer. Despite some random traces of melancholy — especially in the film’s final minutes — the overall tone is unabashedly celebratory as director Jason Cohen charts the improbable success of Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto, co-founders of the Compaq Computer Corp., the little company that could and did significantly affect the progress of digital technology during a key transitional period. FilmRise plans a fall theatrical release for this briskly paced feature — which had its world premiere in Texas, appropriately enough, at the SXSW Film Festival —but home-screen platforms appear to be its natural habitat.
By turns amusing and illuminating, and quite often both simultaneously, “Silicon Cowboys” benefits greatly from having ample eyewitness testimony from those who were witnesses at creation. Canion, Harris and Murto come across as appealingly modest yet blunt-spoken average Joes while recalling their salad days at Texas Instruments, the tech giant where they were well-compensated employees — but just restless enough to strike out with their own startup. After considering, albeit not very seriously, joint ownership of a Tex-Mex restaurant, the three men set out in 1981 to design, manufacture and sell an innovative portable personal computer capable of operating IBM desktop PC software.
At the time, of course, “portable” was a relative term in the PC world. Much like the already-in-production Osborne model, the first Compaq was more precisely a “luggable” device roughly the size of a sewing machine, with two floppy-disc drives and a built-in monochrome monitor smaller than most modern-day iPads. But unlike the Osborne — aptly dismissed by one of the Compaq founders as “extremely ugly” — the debut product of the Houston start-up actually could run the IBM software, thanks to some canny (and legally questionable) reverse-engineering and a great deal of trial and error on the part of Canion, Harris, Murto. (Film historians and movie buffs may find it amusing to compare how the Compaq guys “borrowed” from IBM to the Lumiere Brothers’ reconstitution of Edison’s kinetograph as their own cinematograph.)
Several of the movie’s arrestingly lucid talking heads — including former IBM employees, tech industry observers and creative talents behind the “Silicon Valley” and “Halt and Catch Fire” TV series — indicate that IBM was too short-sighted, or too arrogant, to immediately recognize Compaq as a competitor, even as the startup was posting record first-year sales. Cohen wittily contrasts the corporate mindsets of the companies with clips of their TV advertising: While IBM used a Charlie Chaplin lookalike to sell PCs in silent-movie-style commercials, Compaq employed Monty Python icon John Cleese as a seriocomic spokesperson in mischievously clever bits that took none-too-subtle potshots at its more established rival.
Here and elsewhere, “Silicon Cowboys” strongly suggests that the Compaq founders achieved breakthrough success not only because they offered a good product, but also because IBM made so many mistakes while launching a counteroffensive in the marketplace. (Ironically, when IBM finally did get around to launching a competitive product, their version was found to be inferior by early purchases because it couldn’t run IBM desktop software.) Ultimately, it was left to IBM’s patent-savvy legal team to slow down Compaq’s progress. And even then, Compaq — aligned with other manufacturers of PC clones — managed to undermine IBM’s other attempts to stifle competition.
“Silicon Cowboys” offers a vivid and evocative portrait of an era when innovators might rough-sketch their grand plans for PCs of the back of restaurant placemats, then rely on bank loans, not venture capitalists, to turn dreams into reality. It tells a fascinating story — complete with cautionary references to the ways that corporate success can fray family ties, and visionaries often are superseded by bean counters. Cohen skillfully uses Ian Hultquist’s pulsating electronic musical score to sustain narrative momentum, so that “Silicon Cowboys” winds up seeming even shorter than its 76-minute running time.