Forward Compatible

Silicon Cowboys details how Compaq took down IBM

The Eighties ascendancy of Compaq Computer may now seem brief – to those who remember it – but its impacts live on. Today we take for granted that we can use our computers, cell phones, and other devices on the go and that they're compatible with one another. As Silicon Cowboys director Jason Cohen says, these notions now seem mundane. But in the IBM-dominated computer industry of the Seventies and Eighties, they were revolutionary – and far from guaranteed.

"If IBM had been successful, what does the world look like today?" asks Cohen. "Do we have an iPhone? And what does the Internet look like? And could I, on my iPhone, and the guy sitting next to me, on his Samsung Galaxy, connect to the same Internet? Because that's compatibility. And then there's the question of portability. ... Does the time frame that we get to the mobile phone end up being 10 years longer or 15 years longer?"

No one knows, because against all odds, IBM was dethroned by three guys whose big idea – originally something they sketched on the back of a placemat at House of Pies – was to make a portable computer. The problem was that consumers wouldn't buy it unless it could operate the IBM software they already had. So in an office next to a cow field on the outskirts of Houston, they and a handful of employees worked feverishly to reverse-engineer IBM's code. The result was a 28-pound, IBM-compatible, portable PC whose 1983 debut marked the beginning of IBM's downfall and paved the way for the rise of Apple and Microsoft.

Documentary Silicon Cowboys pursues the ripple effects of this dramatic upheaval throughout the industry and within the lives of the company's founders, including soft-spoken, bespectacled CEO Rod Canion, whose My Fair Lady metamorphosis visibly embodies the sensational transformation wrought by Compaq's coup. "They went from kind of nerdy engineers and middle-managers to, within five years ... running a billion-dollar company and being on the cover of every magazine," says Cohen.

The film explores both Compaq's rise and its inevitable decline as it took on "that corporate culture they all railed against when they started," as Cohen describes it. Along the way, it gleefully exploits the story's Eighties nostalgia factor, making liberal usage of archival footage – such as early Compaq commercials starring John Cleese – culled from boxes of Betamax tapes belonging to a former Compaq employee.

The era is partly what drew Cohen to the project. "I remember the smell of printer paper in my dad's office and the color of the green cursor," he says. "All of that was really nostalgic for me." After a string of projects exploring much heavier subject matter – hate crimes, war crimes in Uganda, and the bombing of Hiroshima – Cohen was also ready for a fun narrative. Silicon Cowboys fit the bill. "One of the biggest hurdles," he says, "was finding a Betamax player."

Documentary Spotlight, World Premiere

Silicon Cowboys
Friday, March 11, 5:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 12, 2:15pm, Alamo Slaughter
Monday, March 14, noon, Marchesa
Tuesday, March 15, 5pm, Alamo South Lamar

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