“Triumph of the Nerds”

I originally called this post “Commercial PC History, Part 1,” which was based around 3 videos from the PBS mini-series “Triumph of the Nerds,” by Robert X. Cringely. I had included the online version of this video series with this post, but those videos were taken down recently. It goes with the territory. I thought they were posted legally since they had been up for several months on Google Video, and I figured Google was good about taking videos off its service that violate copyright rules. Oh well. But I can at least talk about this series and you can check it out for yourself on video sometime. I was inspired to write this because I found this series online. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. By now it’s 10 years old. Part 2 is here.

I wouldn’t call “Triumph of The Nerds” an all-encompassing documentary on personal computer history, because it covers only part of that history. The history I talk about here is barely discussed in our industry.

The mini-series was broadcast on PBS in 1996. It gives a good account of the commercial development of the personal computer from 1974 up to the mid-90s, with interviews from the people who were involved in developing this market.

It focuses on the businesses who were involved in the personal computer industry, and who have managed to survive and endure to the present day: Microsoft, Apple, and IBM. The exception is MITS, which made the Altair computer. It was probably impossible to skip it, because it was the inspiration for the founding of Microsoft, and it was indirectly an inspiration for the founding of Apple Computer. It does not touch on Commodore’s involvement at all, which was also a big name in the personal computer business of the late 70s, and into the 1980s. In terms of raw sales numbers, to the best of my knowledge, Commodore beat out everyone else (yes, even the Apple II and the IBM PC). It doesn’t even get an honorable mention in the documentary. I consider that an oversight. Cringely did get complaints about this from viewers, but by then what was done was done.

What probably happened is that since Commodore computers were never a large presence in big American corporations, and the IBM PC and Apple II were, they got included and Commodore did not. This documentary has a business focus.

It gives credit to the work done at Xerox PARC (in the 3rd part), but it doesn’t even touch on Engelbart’s work.

A disappointment I’ll mention is that the video of this series that’s been released on videotape and DVD does not contain the full content of the series as it was originally broadcast. The series that was broadcast on PBS was I think 3 hours and 30 minutes (minus announcements about funders, sponsors, etc.). The video version of this series is 3 hours (minus the same announcements). So some segments and interviews have been cut out. Why PBS did this I don’t know. Still, this series is a definitive guide to how the PC market developed. If you have some time on your hands, it’s a good program to watch. If you get a chance to see it broadcast on PBS, I would encourage you to watch it. You will get more information that way. You don’t have to be technically literate to enjoy it, just interested in computer history.

Part 1 of the series talks about the microcomputer industry in its infancy in the 1970s. You can see the story of the Altair computer, which is generally recognized as the first microcomputer (Cringely calls it a “personal computer,” but I wouldn’t put that label on it). This has been disputed, because some have discovered earlier microcomputers, but nevertheless the Altair was the first one to create a big splash among “nerds,” and it kick-started the founding of Microsoft, which is also discussed in this segment. There’s the story of the founding of Apple Computer as well. It also touches on the beginnings of what would now be called the open source software community for microcomputers, though it was not nearly as formalized as today. The version of this series that was broadcast on PBS got into the rivalry between Bill Gates and the open source community of the time, when he asserted the right to sell software commercially.

Something I noticed as they were talking about this history is while Gates and Allen, and Jobs and Wozniak were working on the Altair and the Apple I, respectively, the people at Xerox PARC, like Alan Kay, Adele Goldberg, Dan Ingalls, et al. were working on Smalltalk and the Alto. While the people at Microsoft and Apple were developing 8-bit circuitry and software to drive it, for hobbyists, the Xerox folks were working on developing the fundamentals of the graphical user interface, user interactivity, personal computer networking (using Ethernet), messaging (using e-mail), WYSIWYG, and laser printing. These two communities were worlds apart, even though they worked in the same geographic neighborhood, at the same period of time.

Part 2 talks about the IBM PC/Intel/Microsoft business in the 1980s. It gives background on IBM, and how it decided to get into the personal computer business. It tells the story of how MS-DOS came to be chosen as the standard operating system on IBM’s then-new PC, and the birth of the IBM PC clone business. It shows what led IBM and Microsoft to end their relationship, and the beginnings of Microsoft’s development of Windows. There’s also a “post-mortem” of the IBM/Microsoft relationship.

What’s interesting about the story of MS-DOS is it shows that things might’ve turned out differently had Digital Research (the maker of the CP/M operating system) seized the opportunity with IBM more vigorously. I’d call this a case study in business-to-business relations. What it clearly shows is that Microsoft gave DRI the first chance at bat with IBM, since CP/M was what IBM was really after (IBM, at first, mistakenly thought Microsoft could license it to them). Once DRI dropped the ball, Microsoft managed to buy QDOS, a CP/M look-alike product from Seattle Computer Products. It was renamed PC-DOS, and the rest is history.

These comments by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are particularly interesting, because it gets to what Microsoft’s motivation was at the time:


Digital Research didn’t seize that, and we knew if somebody didn’t do it the project was going to fall apart, so…


We just got carried away, and we said look, we can’t lose the language business. That was the initial thought. “We can’t afford to have IBM not go forward. This is the most exciting thing that’s going to happen in PCs.”

It’s obvious to me that some thought was put into the operating systems business by Microsoft, because of the way they structured the deal with IBM, but the initial motivation for them to do the deal at all was Microsoft wanted to greatly broaden their programming language business, which was primarily what they had at the time.

Part 3 talks about Apple Computer in the 1980s. Cringely goes in “the way back machine” and starts with the work done at Xerox PARC and the Alto, beginning in 1971. It tells the story of the development of the Macintosh, and it shows a portion of the event where the Mac was introduced for the first time, along with the famous Super Bowl ad for the Mac, called “1984.” It shows the advent of desktop publishing, and the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft in the “GUI wars.” At the end Cringely speculates on the future (from the perspective of where things stood in 1996) with Larry Ellison, the head of Oracle.

To me, this is the most compelling part of the documentary. There are several important and memorable quotes in it. Steve Jobs was interviewed for this part. At the time he was still the head of NeXT, and had not yet rejoined Apple.

Steve Jobs recounts his visit to Xerox PARC in 1979:

They showed me, really, three things, but I was so blinded by the first one that I didn’t really “see” the other two. One of the things they showed me was object-oriented programming. They showed me that, but I didn’t even “see” that. The other one they showed me was really a networked computer system. They had over 100 Alto computers all networked, using e-mail, etc., etc. I didn’t even “see” that. I was so blinded by the first thing they showed me, which was the graphical user interface. I thought it was the best thing I had ever seen in my life. Now, remember it was very flawed. What we saw was incomplete. They had done a bunch of things wrong, but we didn’t know that at the time. Still, though, the germ of the idea was there, and they had done it very well. And within ten minutes it was obvious to me that all computers would work like this, someday.

Jobs’s comment is somewhat confusing, considering what Adele Goldberg recalled in the documentary:

[Steve Jobs] came back, and…I almost said “asked,” but the truth is demanded that his entire programming team get a demo of the Smalltalk system. And the then-head of the Science Center asked me to give the demo, because Steve specifically asked for me to give the demo, and I said, “No way.” I had a big argument with the Xerox executives telling them that they were about to give away the kitchen sink. And I said I would only do it if I were ordered to do it, because then of course it would be their responsibility. And that’s what they did.

The area in bold is my emphasis. The Smalltalk system was both a GUI and an object-oriented system that was programmable. Jobs recalls these elements as separate things, but they were in fact one and the same.

This is the demo that gave the Apple team inspiration to create the Apple Lisa and the Macintosh. To see what I’m talking about, follow the third link at the top of this post.

Update: 10-17-2011: It turns out, upon doing further research, that it was not this specific demo that inspired Apple to create the Lisa, and later the Macintosh. The documentary was misleading about this. Apple had started on the Lisa in 1978, at least a year before the Apple team visited PARC. They had a graphical interface working on the Lisa by 1979, but they learned how to refine it, and improve the experience of using it, from what they learned at PARC later that year. The idea of using a GUI with Lisa came from work on PARC’s GUI that had become public knowledge by the time Apple had started work on it.

If you look at my other posts on this blog you’ll know that I have an affinity for the Smalltalk system (the modern version of it is called “Squeak”). I think it is one of the best kept secrets in the technology world, even today.

Larry Tesler, who worked at PARC at the time, said about the Apple team’s response to the demo:

After an hour of looking at demos, they understood our technology and what it meant more than any Xerox executive understood it after years of showing it to them.

I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. The story of how this happened is a fascinating case study in the “low-pass filter.” Before the above quote, Cringely said that Xerox created the PARC facility because they were concerned about the computer industry taking over their business. They were cognizant of the “paperless office” concept. Xerox made copiers, which naturally involved paper. The thinking was if people got their information from a computer screen rather than paper, Xerox was in trouble. (Update 10-17-2011: According to further research I’ve done, the main reason for this may have been that Xerox just wanted to diversify their product line, fearing that if all they made was copiers, their bottom line would be vulnerable to competitors in the copier market.) Tesler said that the Xerox executives told the researchers to go explore this new realm. “We don’t know what it is,” they said.

In response, the researchers at PARC did some ground-breaking, revolutionary work. It was as if a team of scientists had been asked back in the 1950s to “go explore space travel,” because, “we don’t understand it,” and they had developed all the plans and technologies necessary to fly a crew to Mars and back, and then tried to present it to people who didn’t even understand how to get a space capsule outside of Earth’s atmosphere. In a way, this did happen. Werner von Braun developed a comprehensive plan for getting to Mars. He even presented it in a Disney film back in the ’50s. We’re still working on it…

Perhaps the Xerox executives expected something else, like a minicomputer system that worked like the DEC PDP.  The researchers had essentially created the modern personal computer as people would come to know them in the 1990s (minus the web browser)–but they had created it in the 1970s. When they showed the system to the Xerox executives, they were dumbfounded. They had no basis–no frame of reference–from which to comprehend what had been created. As I said in my post about “the low-pass filter,” if people don’t understand something, they don’t think it’s important. In fact, they tend to ignore it. True to this rule, the executives ignored this amazing creation. They had absolutely no idea what they had.

I thought Jobs’s quote about being “blinded” by his first exposure to Xerox’s technology particularly interesting in light of what I talked about with this phenomenon, though it sounds like a part of it was Jobs being dazzled, overwhelmed by what he was shown. Though he understood a lot more than the Xerox exec’s did, by his own admission his “field of vision” was also limited.

Steve Jobs said of Xerox’s executives in this documentary:

Basically they were copier-heads. They just had no clue about a computer, what it could do. And so they just grabbed defeat from the greatest victory in the computer industry. Xerox could’ve owned the entire computer industry today; could’ve been a company ten times its size; could’ve been IBM; could’ve been the IBM of the 90s; could’ve been the Microsoft of the 90s.

What follows is a series of quotes from this 3rd part of the documentary that I thought had real resonance.

Steve Jobs’s famous “Great artists steal” quote:

Picasso had a saying, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

Steve Jobs on John Sculley:

What can I say? I hired the wrong guy. . . And he destroyed everything I had spent ten years working for, starting with me, but that wasn’t the saddest part. I would’ve gladly left Apple if Apple would’ve turned out like I’d wanted it to.

Andy Hertzfeld, one of the designers of the original Macintosh, on Jobs leaving Apple in 1985:

Apple never recovered from losing Steve. Steve was the heart and soul, and driving force. It’d be quite a different place today. They lost their soul.

Cringely states ironically, “The years after Steve Jobs left were the most profitable for Apple Computer.” I think, though, given the history of Apple over the last 10 years, it was a good thing Jobs came back to it, because they hit a point where they were headed downhill.

Steve Jobs on Microsoft:

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste. They have absolutely no taste. I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their product. And you say, “Why is that important?” Well, proportionally-spaced fonts come from typesetting and beautiful books. That’s where one gets the idea. If it weren’t for the Mac, they would never have that in their products. And so I guess I am saddened–not by Microsoft’s success. I have no problem with their success. They’ve earned their success, for the most part. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third-rate products.

I find this quote interesting. It seems as though Jobs was just about to touch on something that Alan Kay has talked about, but then backed away from it, to turn it into further commentary about Microsoft, instead of commentary about our society’s approach to computing in general. Maybe he thought that would be seen as spiteful. In stories about Jobs it’s often emphasized that he saw the personal computer as a means for changing the world. I don’t know what was in his mind at the time, but I get the sense that he was disappointed that personal computers changed the world much less than he dreamed they would.

The documentary ends with the state of the computer industry at the time it was made, in 1995/96. Obviously things have changed since then. “Triumph of The Nerds,” while it does give some technological background, focuses a lot on the business deals. This is important, but with the exception of the 3rd part, I don’t find it that inspiring. It’s a “capstone” on the PC business, which was at its peak at this time. After this point the web started to take over, and the relevance of the PC as the central computing experience for people gradually diminished, as it continues to do.

An older documentary mini-series PBS broadcast around 1992 called “The Machine That Changed The World” focused on what really went into creating the electronic computer (mainframes and minicomputers), then the personal computer, and the people who did it. It did not focus on the business deals. It’s one of the few documentaries that featured Alan Kay and Douglas Engelbart, and their work. They’re featured in the part in this series called “The Paperback Computer.” I watched it recently (I have it on tape), and I was gratified to see that this show defined the personal computer as a new medium.

By the way, if you really want to geek out, take a listen to Steve Wozniak’s story here and here. It’s a two-part series of MP3’s, at Gnomedex 4, where Wozniak tells his story from the time he was a teenager, until Apple was founded. He described his process of making electronic devices for fun, and ever more efficient circuit boards, and what drove his creativity. From this you can get an idea of what led him from “A,” to “B,” to “C,” ultimately creating the Apple I and Apple II computers.