The Silicon Valley myth with a life of its own

In "Pirates," HP, Xerox and other big companies play the fools of the PC revolution, and only the lone visionary "gets it."

Topics: Microsoft, Silicon Valley, Apple, Steve Jobs,

There’s a scene in “Pirates of Silicon Valley” in which a cigarette-smoking Hewlett-Packard executive turns up his nose at Steve Wozniak (as played by Joey Slotnick) and his shabby-looking little Apple I prototype. “A computer for ordinary people?” sneers the bewildered exec. “What on earth would ordinary people want with computers?”

In current tech society, it’s one of those scenes that have ascended to the level of high mythology: A demigod descends to earth to offer up his discovery to humanity; but stone-blind mankind, stumbling through the darkness, wouldn’t know fire even if Prometheus stomped into its office and plunked it down on the desk. In the yupscale watering holes of Silicon Alley and Multimedia Gulch, people now roll their eyes when talking about how poor, dumb HP passed up the chance to lead the PC revolution. I mean … duh!

But I get where HP was coming from when it turned down the Woz’s brainchild. In the summer of 1977, when I was 13, the parents of the smart kid next-door bought an Apple II. It cost $1,300 — a fortune at the time. I’d seen computers before, in the basement of the Sacramento Bee newspaper building, where my father still works as an editor. They didn’t seem to do very much, except blink their lights and put hot-lead typesetters out of work.

The Apple II, though, was different. This, my neighbor told me, was a personal computer, and it could do all sorts of things. Could it answer questions, like the main computer on board the Starship Enterprise? Well, no.

In fact, the only way to get the Apple II to do anything remotely interesting was to program it yourself, using arcane symbols. And that required being good at higher math — which I wasn’t. This, I thought, was a total gyp. So with the exception of some dabbling in BASIC in high school, I stayed away from computers for a very, very long time. And so did a lot of other ordinary people.

The executives at HP had their heads screwed on OK. It isn’t that the portrayal is untrue — HP did blow it — but, like most historical dramas, “Pirates of Silicon Valley” is a movie concerned more with vivid, colorful myths than with the subtleties of truth.

What actually happened was that in March 1976, the Woz brought his invention around to his supervisor in HP’s Advanced Products Division. The super was impressed enough to contact the company’s other divisions to gauge their interest. You can imagine the calculations that went on in the minds of HP’s decision makers when they looked at the prospects for an $800 computer directed at consumers — people who thought “computer” meant “really smart machine like the one on board the Starship Enterprise” — and for which there were virtually no applications.

Given the realities of building, marketing and supporting a new and entirely untested product, dismissing Wozniak’s machine was a no-brainer. Wozniak himself later admitted, “It’s not like we were all smart enough to see a revolution coming … There are a million people who study markets and analyze economic trends, people who are more brilliant than I am … None of them foresaw what was going to happen either.”

But such complexities aren’t part of the Silicon Valley mythology. They probably wouldn’t make a good movie, anyway. With “Pirates,” writer and director Martin Burke has made a film that repackages the trope — call it The Man Just Don’t Get It — into bite-size nuggets for easy consumption.

Burke works The Man trope over and over. His first variation is The Man as HP. Then The Man is Xerox, then IBM, and finally a self-satisfied and complacent Steve Jobs himself (played by Noah Wyle), who has been given the shaft by that wily Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall).

If “Pirates” makes HP look bad, check out the treatment of Xerox: Apple’s fabled “raid” on Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center is played as some premeditated attack by the visionaries on the clueless fools.

At PARC, so the legend goes, Xerox had literally been squatting on the PC revolution for years. PARC scientists had come up with an impressive array of newfangled widgets, built into its Alto and Star computers, that were designed to make computing easier and more accessible to non-geeks. These included a detached keyboard, software that created “windows” on the screen and icons that could be clicked using a little, wheeled contraption called a mouse. But the stodgy suits at Xerox HQ just didn’t get it and, the thinking was, they never would.

Enter Steve Jobs. Xerox had made a $1 million investment in Apple prior to the start-up’s initial public offering in 1980. For the privilege of investing in Apple, Xerox agreed to let Apple employees visit PARC and take a look at the Alto and the Star. At the end of 1979, a team led by Jobs made two trips to PARC.

In the film, Apple descends upon PARC like a horde of Visigoths, pirating away PARC’s technology to create the Lisa and, later, the Macintosh. In turn, Bill Gates and Microsoft filch the technology from Mac prototypes — given to Microsoft as part of a software development deal — to begin work on Windows.

But accounts vary as to what actually happened during the raid on PARC. Burke’s script has Wozniak present, while other histories of that famed moment don’t mention him. Regardless of just what occurred in 1979, this legend of The Man remains one of the valley’s most persistent.

It’s easy, 20 years after the fact, to point the finger at Xerox management, first for never bringing PARC’s PC innovations to market and second for giving up the farm to Apple. But Xerox made its fortune — and continues to do so — by thinking up new ways to handle paper documents. For Xerox brass to up and spin 180 degrees in favor of some remote idea of a new and “paperless” office dreamed up by a bunch of bearded hippies in California was a lot to ask. Besides, Xerox did profit from its relationship with Apple; its original $1 million investment became $17.6 million when Apple went public. Then there’s the irony that some of the wow-’em technologies Xerox PARC is known for — like the graphical user interface and the mouse — weren’t invented at PARC at all, but had been demonstrated back in the ’60s by engineer Douglas Engelbart.

And although Jobs allegedly got the import of PARC’s innovations — while Xerox management had its nose buried in the paper-products business — this much-ballyhooed notion of Jobs’ insight may be little more than an invention of Apple PR.

As journalist Michael Malone points out in his book “Infinite Loop: How Apple, the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane,” the Mac and Lisa projects were both proposed in the spring of 1979 and begun in September, a good three months prior to the raid. Malone also points out that the PARC technologies had nowhere near the usability of those eventually incorporated into the Lisa and the Mac, making the similarities seem almost incidental. In fact, Xerox lost a lawsuit that accused Apple of infringing on its intellectual property.

Apple’s PR interest in creating and perpetuating such a myth is subtle, but effective. This interpretation of history gives us a morality play in which the virtuous (Jobs) defeats the wicked (The Man), not by bullets or brawn, but by the valley’s most prized virtue, brains. Mix that with a little piracy for sex appeal, and the virtuous Jobs makes Apple hip.

But Jobs is not spared in “Pirates.” Having shown both HP and Xerox to be the fool, the film then fits Jobs into The Man role. How could he not get what Gates was up to?

Director Burke toes the plot line of the Silicon Valley myth faithfully. The relentless public relations machine, and the media that covers its creations, together anoint gods only to dethrone them when the once-brilliant show the slightest twinge of not getting it. Along the way, the valley’s mythology creators have shown a talent for making tech culture — and technology itself — actually seem sexy. That talent has been so great, in fact, that Turner Network Television decided it could hawk a movie without gunfights, car chases or even cleavage to Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public; a movie that in the end is about nothing more sensational than well-worn legends — and computers.

Michael Mattis is associate editor at Business 2.0.

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