Tag Archives: computers

Impressions of “Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invest Modern Computing,” by Rod Canion

There’s basically two histories of consumer technology. In the standard, California history of technology, East Coast institutions (ARPA and Bell Labs) created Arpanet and the semiconductor, which created the foundation for California’s’ explosion. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Google, Oculus, Yahoo and the rest are the real story. Then there’s the everyone else, including Canadians, Europeans, and the Japanese. There are few pioneering stories from the middle of the country. But Open, the story of Compaq, is just such a tale.

It’s immediately clear in Open that Compaq’s founders are not tech visionaries. They are successful, if unhappy, employees of Texas Instruments that believe they could be more successful, happier, and richer if they went into business for themselves. The opening section is in some ways the best part of the book, as the last minute worries around leaving corporate health insurance, and the details of what venture capital around 1980 looked like, are fascinating.

Compaq’s initial strategy, to be totally compatible with IBM computers, was all the more striking in that IBM itself wasn’t compatible. IBM’s initial PC portable did not run all the programs its initial desktop PC did, leading to Compaq to decide if they wanted to mimic IBM (including breaking compatibility) or be more useful for IBM customers tan IBM was (by ensuring compatibility). They chose compatibility, and that combined with operational excellence and good legal advice, made much of the difference.

“Open” is written by Compaq’s founder and CEO (and given the relatively dry style, either literally read by him or fleshed out by an unimaginative ghostwriter). It is interesting him describing corporate successes that either are now standard (such as free pop and t-shirts) or dated (such as promising retailers never to sell directly to consumers). Rod Canion’s excitement at the celebrities who appeared at Compaq’s press events is still obvious.

Canion describes the IBM PS/2 as the “death star,” and the portion of Open dedicated to Compaq’s reactions to it are the most exciting parts of the book. While earlier IBM releases were only partially incompatible out of lack of work, IBM attempted to intentionally break compatibility with every add-in board, and many pieces of software, by switching to a new system of internal and external ports called “Microchannel.” Simultaneously, IBM was working with Microsoft to develop OS/2, a would-be replacement for DOS. He also speculates that IBM was seeking long-term to replace Intel as a source of chips. Before I read Open I was excited to learn more about OS/2 but thought the hardware story was boring. I had not realized the threat that the PS/2 posed to the existing PC market, and I wish this section was extended.

Compaq retaliated by funding development of EISA, the “Extended Industry Standard Architecture,” and licensing it freely to all competitors. This allowed other companies to have similar technical advances to what the IBM PS/2’s “microchannel,” offered, but with retaining backwards compatibility.

Open‘s denouement is extended, and is a series of vignette’s of Canion’s last days at Compaq. A retailer pushes for better deals. Stock market expectations. And so on. To me the end of the book dragged on, as the details of Canion’s last days were not particularly interesting, and not enough detail was spent on EISA to elevate the work.But… there was more to the story! A documentary, Silicon Cowboys, was filmed based on this book, with extended interviews with Canion and others!

The documentary makes Canion’s exit more interesting, if more tragic, as the high-end strategy began to crack on the wave of the early ’90s PC boom. Instead, Compaq’s early investors pushed for a new CEO capable of competing in the low-end, volume market. This was done, and Canion may have been uncomfortable in writing of this process, but Compaq’s glory days as an industry leader was behind it.

I enjoyed reading Open. I expected a book like Losing the Signal about Blackberry or Transforming Nokia, but instead the book read as a start-up success. Canion is not a writer of the quality of Black Harris, but Harris’s histories of Oculus and Sega of America are the nearest things that come to mind.

Compaq was young once.

And it defeated IBM.

I read Open: : How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invest Modern Computing in the Audible edition.

Review of “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

The outline of Steve Jobs’ life has been told so often there is not much to gain by regurgitating it. His hippie past, his co-founding of Apple and eventual ouster by John Sculley. His forays at Next and Pixar, which struggled before being sold to Apple to Disney, respectively. His triumphant return as CEO at Apple, his introduction of the iMac, iPod, and iPhones. His cancer, his death. His sour personality, and his focus on design.

More interesting to me are themes which are hinted at, but not explored in great depth. What he learned from his failures, and how his second time as CEO was radically different from his first. During early yearls at Apple, then Next and Pixar, Jobs was manipulated, unfocused, and eager to embrace technology. His last years at CEO, during which he took it from near bankruptcy to being the most valuable company in the world, Jobs was more manipulate, he was more focused, and was more skeptical of the advantages of technology.

During his early time at Apple, Steve Jobs displayed a lack of empathy and inability to build non-obvious support networks. His rivalry with John Sculley was not just bitter, but it was self-sabotaged. While Sculley took steps to prove himself to the Board of Directors and support internal stakeholders, Jobs felt free to alienate both. Likewise, while Sculley made extravegent shows of giving Jobs second, third, and fourth chances, Jobs insisted that Sculley be dismissed immediately. Sculley successfully manipulated the environment such that the Board insisted twice that he dismiss Jobs: imagine being in a position all important stakeholders are insisting on your approval to fire your rival!

Jobs was wiser after his return. He became a patron of the Marketing and Design departments, ensuring internal support for initiatives. He also chose a board that was generally supportive of him, removing Board Members like Eric Schmidt when they showed signs of independent thought. Just as Sculley had, decades earlier, maneuvers for the board to beg him to fire Steve, Jobs maneuvered for the board to beg him to return as CEO.

During his early time at Pixar, Jobs was unfocused. The company burned through a large amount of money attempting to break into medical imaging and other fields. The whole time (at least according to Walter Isaacson’s biography), Jobs’ passion at Pixar were its work in animation, both providing equipment to Disney and especially the films created by the artistic staff. Jobs would not make the same mistake at Apple: instead products were killed for the good of the company, and apple even dropped the “Computer” from its former name of “Apple Computer, Inc,” to emphasize it was primarily in the devise business.

During his early years at Apple and Next, Jobs demanded clean, fully automated, high-tech assembly lines. Now, as Mike Daisey states in his amazing one-man play, The Agony and Esctasy of Steve Jobs, we live in a world made by hand. You may have more phones in your household made by hand than your parents did at your age. Our handicraft world was made possible by Steve Jobs, recognizing his early failures by trusting machines against economic sense, and of course Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

There’s a ton more in the Steve Jobs biography to read. I strongly suggest you do. In spite of having earlier read Fire in the Valley, iWoz, iCon, and The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, I more than doubled my knowledge about Apple and Jobs by reading this book. But the most interesting lessons may be the ones least explored.

I read Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson, in the Kindle Edition.

Review of "iWoz" by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith

iWoz is the sort of book I would have loved ten years ago, and indeed it’s the sort of material that makes for a great radio interview. If written in 1995, it would have been one of my favorite books of all time. As it is, Stephan Wozniak’s autobiography is a fine partial history of the era that saw the rise of the personal computer. It belongs in the same class as High Noon (about Sun Microsystems) and The Second Coming of Steve Jobs (about the Next-Apple transition). A step below true classics like Fire in the Valley, iWoz is quite good.


How He Founded Apple, Invented the Personal Computer, and Had Fun Doing it (, And Afterwards)

iWoz is broken into several large parts. The first section focuses mostly on Wozniak’s electric-logic experience, from earlier science fair experiments to an arpanet terminal that would eventually morph into the Apple I. These include early pranks and feature elements of obsession, sacrifices, humility, and geography that I would find as the basis of creativity in my series on Coming Anarchy. Woz’s systematic exploration of electronic circuitry would finally come together in the Apple II, a product he is quite proud of and truly one of the grandest achievements of the 1980s.

A second, gloomer half documents Steve’s inability to horizontally apply these skills to other aspects of his life. Two marriages fail and after the second he writes painfully of losing his house. Likewise, with grace and modesty Wozniak documents betrayals by Steve Jobs and poor treatment to the news media. Similarly, Wozniak documents the failures of his US Concerts to be either what he intended or profitable, and likewise his shortlived CL9 start-up firm.

In an earlier review of Robert Weisberg’s Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, I criticized that author for his differentiating “horizontal” and “analogical” thinking. While Weisberg’s book retains many problems, this distinction is not one of them. While analogical thinking is the root of all creativity, horizontal thinking is worthless — expertise does not “translate” from one domain to another unless analogies help bridge those domains.

So all in all, iWoz is a very enjoyable book. It’s a fun guided tour of the early days of the Personal Computer, and has some valuable things to say along the way about the nature of creativity.