Edit: This was originally Part 2 of a series on commercial computer history, the first part talking about and showing in online video the 3-part documentary, “Triumph of the Nerds”. That didn’t work out. So instead I rewrote the first part in a post entitled “Triumph of the Nerds,” which just describes the series. This rewritten post is newer than the post date for this blog entry
Three years after “Triumph” aired, TNT produced “Pirates of Silicon Valley”, a made-for-cable-TV movie starring Noah Wiley as Steve Jobs, Joey Slotnick as Steve Wozniak, Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates, and John DiMaggio as Steve Ballmer. It’s an allegorical telling of the history of Apple Computer and Microsoft, based on the book, Fire In The Valley, though there are many parts that seem taken right out of “Triumph of The Nerds”. This isn’t coincidental as the people who made the film had the actors watch this documentary to research their characters.
Others portrayed in the movie are Paul Allen, Ed Roberts (head of MITS), Mike Markkula (the Intel exec. who helped found Apple Computer), and John Sculley.
Other people who are portrayed briefly are Ridley Scott (the movie director), Captain Crunch (the hacker), Ella Fitzgerald, and Joan Baez. Holly Lewis plays Adele Goldberg at Xerox PARC (Holly is “Xerox Project Manager” in the credits). Maybe Goldberg didn’t want her name in the credits, but anyone who knows the history of Apple and Xerox would recognize her being portrayed in this movie. You could easily miss Charles Simonyi being portrayed, someone I’ve written about before. He’s played by Brian Lester, and only appears briefly in the scene where Gates & Co. visit Apple for the first time, and they’re introduced to Apple’s software developers.
Not everything that’s portrayed in this movie is real. As usual, some artistic license was taken to summarize the story. What this movie really does is give you a flavor for the personalities that built these two companies, and dishes about their private lives. It starts when they were young and in college, in 1971, before they started their companies, and ends sometime in 1984/85. It uses Steve Jobs’s keynote speech at the 1997 MacWorld Expo as bookends to the story.
The real revelation for me when I first saw it was that Steve Jobs had a daughter, named Lisa with his girlfriend, and that he was an absent father until later in her life. The movie speculates, as it’s been speculated for years in Silicon Valley, that the Apple Lisa computer was named after his daughter, even though Apple claimed the name was an acronym for something else.
The way Steve Wozniak characterized the accuracy of this movie is that every event that’s portrayed actually happened, but the dialogue within the scenes was made up. He said some of the events were done in the wrong chronological order, but this was done to make a point. None of the real people portrayed were interviewed, because of legal concerns.
I found the full version of “Pirates of Silicon Valley” online, and I’ve posted it here, with some related videos. It’s 1-1/2 hours in length. I’ve seen times when this video doesn’t work. If it doesn’t play just try back later. (Update 9/23/08: I had “Pirates” embedded here for a while, but it’s disappeared. I guess it was posted illegally. So I’ve taken it out of this post. You can rent it on DVD.) Here is the trailer for it:
Here is Noah Wiley doing his best impersonation of Steve Jobs at the 1999 MacWorld Expo 🙂
Here is the video of the real Steve Jobs keynote at the 1997 MacWorld Expo, where Jobs announced Apple’s partnership with Microsoft.
Something I thought “Pirates” captured well was how Steve Jobs misjudged Microsoft’s intentions in those early years, and did not look at the business landscape clearly. The movie starts out showing the production of the famous “1984” Mac ad, where the enemy is portrayed on a huge screen, representing IBM. Then it switches to the 1997 MacWorld keynote where Bill Gates is brought up on the big screen, and Jobs and Gates both announce a business partnership. I hadn’t made the connection between those two images until I saw this movie, and I think it makes a very good point. Not in the sense that Microsoft is “Big Brother,” but rather that in business it’s best to judge your opponents carefully and pick your fights.
A few notes about the 1997 keynote. Even though the above video doesn’t show it clearly, Bill Gates really did appear on the big screen in the auditorium. The video just shows the direct video feed when Gates came on. A funny little piece of trivia is that when Bill Gates’s video feed first came on the screen, the audience thought he could not hear nor see them, when in fact the video link was made to be bi-directional. So he could see and/or hear everything that was happening. I can only guess, but maybe that was the reason the audience felt so free to jeer him. You can kind of see the disappointment cross his face.
Viewing this video now, it’s apparent to me that was a different time. Steve Jobs had just rejoined (and taken over) Apple that year. He saw that it was in bad shape, and needed to get back on its feet again. That’s what his whole speech was about. Nowadays, Jobs (and Apple) is confident, and he regularly makes jabs at Microsoft, just as he used to with IBM, though it’s apparent to me that with age he has become wiser about his business practices.