Reviewed: Pirates of Silicon Valley

As a sort of amateur historian of the early days of the personal computing revolution, I was looking forward to TNT's "Pirates of Silicon Valley," which debuted last weekend. But unlike many critics, including such industry luminaries as John Dvorak and New York Times' Stephen Manes, who complain of historical inaccuracies and literary license, I found the two-hour treatment to be reasonably accurate given the limitations of time and the medium. You have to remember that TV, by definition, condenses complex story lines into digestible bites. And the audience for this show is not dedicated PC buffs such as myself but rather the average viewer.

On that note, I have a few complaints.

First, the accuracy issue: We can easily pick apart the small historical problems, such as Gates and company traveling to Florida to sell MS-DOS to IBM when, in fact, the opposite occurred (IBM approached Microsoft; but not for the OS originally). And the whole Macintosh introduction was an awful compression of time, where we're led to believe that Windows--which was still almost two years away from shipping at the time--was secretly unveiled backstage so that Jobs could find out that Gates had lied to him. It just didn't happen that way. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

The biggest problem with "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is its fixation on Steve Jobs, who is both praised and demonized in this TV movie. Jobs, who was portrayed almost perfectly by ER's Noah Wyle, was infamous for his abuse of employees during his early days of Apple. If anything, his portrayal in the movie is somewhat kind, given the reality. But to reduce Gates to the bit player he is in this story is somewhat misleading: Microsoft contributed to the design of the Macintosh's original system software and developed the first application software that mattered for the fledgling system, thus helping to usher in the age of graphical computing. And though Windows was clearly an attempt to bring the Mac's friendly face to the PC, the story isn't that simple: Gates offered to cede the OS market to Apple in the late 1980's if Apple simply agreed to license their OS to other hardware makers. Apple declined, forcing Microsoft to continue with Windows and, at the time, an MS-DOS follow-up called OS/2.

And maybe that's the real problem with this movie: The truth is so much more interesting. When it comes down to it, a far more compelling story for this generation would have involved the rise of the Internet, not the PC industry. It's been suggested to me that an A&E Biography series would have been more compelling and I almost have to agree. But it wasn't horrible: As I mentioned previously, Wyle is an amazing Steve Jobs and Anthony Michael Hall deserves kudos for his depiction of Gates. The problem with the Gates character in this movie just isn't Hall's fault, as he was the victim of lackluster screen-time. Side-kicks such as Steve Wozniak and Steve Ballmer were poorly cast and inaccurately portrayed, sadly, and their use as narrators was misguided since neither person was present at most of the events depicted in the movie.

The heck of it is, I actually liked it. If I had to rate it, I'd probably give it three out of five stars. Of course, I welcome any attempt at sorting out the early history of the PC industry: I've read every book I can find about this topic, some several times, and I'm a huge fan of Robert X. Cringely's two "Triumph of the Nerd" serials, despite the fact that they focus too much on people close to Cringely who were bit players in the revolution. But criticism comes easily, and I think we need to cut "Pirates of Silicon Valley" some slack. It's decent entertainment, aimed at a non-technical crowd. If you can overlook the historical inaccuracies (which wouldn't be obvious to most people anyway), and focus on the broader themes, I think you'll get a kick out of it.


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