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The Pirates of Silicon Valley
The History of Apple and Microsoft?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

I watched the TV show on the history of microcomputers called, "The Pirates of Silicon Valley". As usual, Hollywood (or where ever it was produced) took lots of liberties with dialog, and how things happened to try to tell a story and make it more entertaining.

Sadly, they make it entertaining by sensationalizing things that have some factual basis -- the only question is through all this "creative process" does the basic truths get through? That is tough to say. I wouldn't want someone thinking the story as told was "the truth" -- but it had elements of truth throughout. But what they edited (both added, removed, and altered) did sort of change the flavor of what happened. So it is a nice story that is based on the truth. They got most of the history basically correct (conceptually) -- but the details dropped could have been pretty critical.

Some examples include:

  • They started the movie by showing the 1997 Mac World Expo with all the Mac geeks outrageously booing and yelling at Gates and his products and support during the Keynote. There were certainly a few that booed and were upset -- there were also quite a few that may not like Microsoft's methods but are happy about the support for our platform. Certainly they dramatically overplayed the dissatisfaction. The show also ended by saying that Microsoft now "owns" a part of Apple -- implying a significant part. Microsoft's $150M (nonvoting) of a multibillion dollar company was nothing by token support and is insignificant (less that 5% of the company). The show wasn't wrong by stating that they do own a part -- but they were completely unbalanced (misleading) in how it was presented.
  • The TV show played things off that Gates and Microsoft went to IBM to sell them DOS and they were still just a couple guys in a small company. Actually, by then Microsoft was doing pretty good business selling languages -- and IBM came to Microsoft, because Bill Gates Mom (Mary Gates) and IBM's executive (Akers) were both in a charity together (United Way?), and Mary said that IBM should check out what her son had to offer. Before you knew it, the little rogue unit in IBM creating the PC was told to give "Mary's boy Bill" a call -- and soon after the DOS deal was signed. Microsoft did get the contract, and Microsoft did convince them to do a royalty thing -- but the details got overlooked by the show. At least they didn't perpetuate the Digital Research and Kildall out flying thing.
  • They talk about Apple's visit to Xerox, and fail to mention that Apple paid about $1,000,000 in stock to just see what was going on (and bought the rights to use what they saw). But they did get the story right that some in Xerox were annoyed with showing Apple the "family jewels". Of course what Apple saw was very impressive for its time -- but it wasn't exactly the Mac. Apple took the concepts and furthered them and created a whole lot as well. The Mac is a lot more than just a revamped Alto. They also made a mistake in saying that Xerox created the mouse and exaggerating that point -- they licensed it. Xerox brought a lot of concepts that existed before together and furthered them, just like Apple did.

I could go on, and on. There were lots of little technical misrepresentations -- not usually outright errors (though there were quite a few), but just not exactly telling the whole truth.

The Characters

The amusing thing was that at least everyone involved could be offended by their portrayal. I don't think Jobs, Woz, Balmer, Gates, Allen or anyone would be really flattered. The story picked up on one or two issues (flaws) from each person, and then played those to an extreme. (They seemed to really like Woz though).

Jobs was sometimes a prick (aren't we all?)-- but he wasn't always one, and you certainly didn't get that from the story. -- the show only showed the worst. Sure Jobs pushed people, and was known to yell and drive people and be harsh, but the caricature was much more extreme than I believe Jobs was/is. Ironically, Gates and Balmer were also real harsh, abrasive yellers as well -- and they pushed as much (and exploited more), yet the plot chose to ignore those flaws in these characters (and exaggerate them in Steve). The show did use a lot of Steve's quotes -- but many were out of context. The writers seemed to try to make Steve into this big brainwashing cult-leader, or artistic weirdo, or salesman extrordinaire. They dragged us into Jobs dropping acid (I'm still trying to figure out what that had to do with plot) -- and other discontiguous events. You were seeing an exaggeration of the media construct of Jobs, and little events completely out of a frame of reference. It would be hard to do a two hour show on just Steve Jobs -- and the time they gave to him just wasn't enough. In some ways Steve has flaws worse than the show presented, in many ways he is far, far better. Steve Jobs has an ability to make you like him, or believe what he is doing because he has charisma and a confidence (belief in himself) -- I don't think the show really got that across. I did like some of the mannerisms as presented, and they did a pretty damn good job of researching the wardrobe for various events (I had to chuckle at that, "Hey, I remember that suit") -- though they did forego Jobs whole blue-jeans and turtleneck phase. Anyway, the point is they got part of the character across, but not really the feel overall.

They did the same for others -- picking Balmer as clueless. Balmer wasn't a geek, but he wasn't completely clueless either. He wasn't this little Gates following sheep either, nor the only guy with a social clue. Balmer is renowned for being a screaming tyrant when he wants to be as well. As stated, the character seemed a shallow shadow that had only a little in common with the real person.

The story played Gates off as something -- I just couldn't figure out what. From all that I've read and known about Gates this caricature was as shallow and hollow as well. They just didn't have time to get into the depth of the man. In some ways they were way too nice to the real Gates. In most ways they didn't get the right feel at all. I don't respect Gates means to some ends, but I do know he is not a complete bumbling idiot (nor super-genius). I think of him just as an insecure person who hasn't created much and believes in doing anything to win -- and the size of his company has given him many opportunities to stretch the rules and be ruthless. But the cardboard cutout on the show just had a few eccentricities (like bad driving, and sometimes quirky hygiene) exaggerated, without a feel for the person. I also don't think Anthony Hall did a good job of getting his mannerisms.


What you have to remember about the events is that most people don't plan for their success. They just kept doing what they do, looking for opportunities and not believing that the ones falling in their lap, and not believing that they are getting as big as they are. The next thing you know, they under estimated how big an opportunity they took (or risks) and they are huge. It isn't that they stupid and don't realize the potential -- they are just in there in the storm, trying to ride it out (holding the tiger by the tail as we used to call it). It isn't genius, and it isn't pure luck -- though there are elements of both. They had opportunities, and they took them. Some smarter people failed, some dumber people succeeded. Many had the right ideas at the wrong time. They were just in over their heads and trying to stay afloat, and the rising tide put them way WAY up.

I don't think most stories of the time (or people) are good at conveying that truth. They either play one extreme (luck) or the other (ruthless/genius) -- and they miss the balances and craziness of the time and situations.  


The writers really had an impossible task -- they were trying to cram about 8 - 12 hours of material into 2 hours. So they had to give up on little things -- like all character development or depth of character, and just gave us little cliché quotes peppered throughout on a cardboard cutout of the people. The little story fragments had about the same depth -- they tried to tell many of the little stories (fragments) of the events, but they had to simplify so much that you really lost the whole feel for what happened and why. I really felt they should have focused on one or two far smaller timelines, and just give us that. The creation of Apple, the creation of the Mac, the creation of Microsoft or DOS all would have been good stories and more interesting history -- trying to cram all those into one 2 hour show was somewhat a failure (if you value history or understanding).

It was a fun story, lightly entertaining. I knew too much to really enjoy it. So when they represented things wrong I would be saying, "no, no, no!" -- so I have no objectivity, and no distance to see the stories as a first time viewer would. Maybe others enjoyed it more -- it seemed to be well done in parts, and they tried real hard. I just couldn't recommend it because it would likely make some people think they knew a lot more about events than they really would after seeing the show. If you have no interest in the historical accuracy, then it was probably fun and entertaining -- but even then it seemed a little too "jumpy" to me, having little real flow.

Created: 06/20/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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