Silicon Cowboys Review

Computing the Future

Compaq began with a reading of The Entrepreneur’s Manual and a drawing of a computer on a restaurant placemat. Two decades later, after a merger with HP, the underdogs at Compaq capably silenced IBM as a maker of personal computers.

Glossy and professional, the aptly titled Silicon Cowboys follows Compaq’s trio of Texas-based founders from their company’s 1981 inception to the eventuality of corporate life – that trio retiring or removed after the first quarterly losses.

Silicon Cowboys story is infinitely American, that small, hard-working start-up conquering the beastly, egotistical, too-big-too-fail corporation blinded by a competitor’s success. IBM’s PC defeat came by way of progressive culture, forward thinking, and homegrown ingenuity. It’s a battle of capitalist wills, told with a smooth moving style as the back-and-forth financial tussle passes through the ‘80s.

For context, Silicon Cowboys uses iPhones and iPads to introduce Compaq’s lasting influence, then fading back to an era of “luggables,” the tech press term for 30-pound PC giants, the laptop’s predecessor and Compaq’s defining product. Silicon Cowboys makes a case for Ron Canion, Ben Rosen, and Bill Murto being the fathers of contemporary mobile design, some 20-years ahead of their time.

Silicon Cowboys smartly pieces together a narrative which puts Compaq behind the advent of Google, Facebook, and others

IBM’s own ego left their product line stagnant. In advertising, IBM had Charlie Chaplin. Compaq had the eccentric John Cleese, a striking metaphor for how these two technology behemoths saw their user base – one aged and focused on upper class corporate sales, the other the geeky computing underbelly aimed at appeasing the wider marketplace. Silicon Valley’s use of well worn archival footage reveals how naive – or arguably just new – Rosen and crew were during the announcement of their first product. Dressed in a Wal-Mart suit and speaking with the shyness of a grade school kid, Rosen presented the Compaq Portable. Awkward presentation or not, that moment is crystallized in computing history.

Surprisingly, Silicon Valley’s story isn’t of betrayal or dissent. Compaq’s key players, in their own words, remember their time during the industry’s infancy kindly. Until Rosen’s forced departure, the crew show no signs of problems as they retell their small business saga, one as important to computing as Apple’s own.

If this sounds familiar, AMC’s Halt & Catch Fire dramatically spins Compaq’s history, albeit under a different name. Under director Jason Cohen’s directing hand, Silicon Cowboys offers just as much thematic weight as the fictionalized account, building a team of key characters while filling in their stories with a litany of interviews and footage.

A statement piece, Silicon Cowboys makes its case against the eventual sterility of corporate culture, honing in on Comaq’s forward thinking in attracting employees, not unlike Atari during the same period. In execution, Silicon Cowboys smartly pieces together a narrative which puts Compaq behind the advent of Google, Facebook, and others, Compaq still there even without a public face, pulling strings with their decades of influence.

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