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SXSW Movie Review: “Silicon Cowboys”

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"Silicon Cowboys"
"Silicon Cowboys"

“Silicon Cowboys”

So you know how the AMC show “Halt and Catch Fire” is about the computer industry in Texas in the early 1980s? Well, Jason Cohen’s “Silicon Cowboys” is the true story of Compaq Computers, the outfit “Halt” is based on.

It’s the early 1980s in Houston. After checking out the sheer enthusiasm of the early Silicon Valley movers and shakers (almost before Silicon Valley really existed), three T.I. senior managers — Rod Canion, Jim Harris Bill Murto — started Compaq Computer at a Houston House of Pies in 1982. They weren’t even sure what kind of business they wanted to start (a Mexican restaurant was briefly discussed). They settle on building a portable PC that would take dead aim at IBM. This was a time when portability wasn’t even on the table, but also when IBM pretty much ran the business. Compaq did what they do in “Halt” — they took apart IBM PCs and reverse engineered a machine that would run all of IBM’s software, which pretty well cracked open the PC market like a pinat (though they did have to settle a patent claim with IBM).

“Cowboys” makes the case that this emphasis on portability changed the game fundamentally and set the stage for the computer in our pockets that is the smart phone.

“Silicon Cowboys” is a fun watch but it struggles to find conflict other than their battle with IBM (which Compaq more or less won) and the ouster of one executive (about which we could have learned a little bit more). Compaq as a brand isn’t around anymore (it eventually merged into HP and the brand discontinued) but the machines they built absolutely, positively changed the industry, opening a market up to competition where none had quite existed before. And they did it all from Harris County building with real live cows in the field next door.

Silicon Cowboys” screens again 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Alamo Slaughter; noon Monday, Marchesa; 5 p.m. Tuesday, Alamo Lamar D.


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