Silicon Cowboys

IBM no longer makes personal computers, but they were the big name in PCs in the early ’80s, and the company now lives on in Lenovo Thinkpads the way dinosaurs live on in birds. Jason Cohen’s documentary Silicon Cowboys looks back on how the Nerdy McNerdlingers who founded Compaq Computer Corporation in 1981 created one of the first of the so-called clones — devices reverse-engineered to run IBM PC software and peripherals — at a time when the laws about such things were still in flux. Compaq’s machines were also much smaller and came in a comparatively portable package; these were the days when just putting a handle on something made it “portable,” so it wasn’t quite as small as today’s laptops or smartphones, but still a step in that direction. They also won hip points for using Monty Python’s John Cleese as their spokesperson, while IBM used a not-quite-as-hip Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Silicon Cowboys makes liberal use of footage from the series Silicon Valley — and especially Halt and Catch Fire, which creator Christopher Cantwell says is very much inspired by the story of Compaq. The unacknowledged irony is that Halt didn’t really find its voice until it moved away from the Compaq story in its second season, but Silicon Cowboys tells the true story very well indeed.

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