InMarket: Halt and Catch History

If you’ve been tuning in to AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire series, you’re getting a glimpse of Texas in the 1980s when we were called the “Silicon Prairie.” It was a time when Texas was morphing from an agrarian, oil and gas-powered state with wide-open spaces and sleepy small towns into the modern, bustling technology-fueled, cubicle-filled world we now inhabit. Some people don’t realize the role Texas played in the computer revolution of the 1980s, though at the time few people beyond some dreamers in Austin and some engineering types in Dallas had much of an idea where it might take us. (You might want to put on Timbuk3’s “The Future’s So Bright, I’ve Gotta Wear Shades” as you read this.)

To simplify the story line of both reality and the Halt and Catch Fire series, a group of engineers in Dallas decided to “reverse-engineer” some firmware in the original IBM personal computer. Since most of the original PC was built from existing parts, the engineers knew that if they did it right, they could “clone” the machine without breaking any patents. In the series, a group of engineers at the fictional Dallas electronics supplier Cardiff “reverse-engineer” an IBM PC. In reality, a group of engineers from Texas Instruments (developer of the original microchip), figured out a way to legally and technically clone an IBM PC and founded Compaq Computer Corp. Other companies had figured out how to clone the IBM PC, but they were all shut down by IBM because of patent and trademark infringement and, if some are to be believed, sheer intimidation. In the AMC series, IBM is less feared for its technology than its lawyers. That was true in reality as well. “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” is a statement from the series and from reality as well. Compaq, led by Rod Canion, did it legally. And did it better. Compaq also brought out the first successful IBM PC clone that was portable – well, in a fashion. Anyone who picked up one of those 15-pound boxes of metal and silicon today would hardly call them portable. They were also able to run the same software as the IBM PCs, a key to their success.

The Compaq Portable was a hit with nerdy computer types, but also with salespeople who lugged it on business trips and into meetings. In its first year, Compaq sold 53,000 of the things and generated sales of $111 million, making the Houston-based company the fastest startup to reach $100 million in sales. Compaq won the hearts of manager-types who wanted out from under the Big Blue (IBM’s nickname) thumb and the all-powerful, “get-in-line buster,” corporate IT department. If Compaq had just done that it would have earned a spot in the technology history e-books. But the company’s real claim to fame was what it did next. When IBM dilly-dallied around after Intel produced the next generation 386 processor, Compaq’s nerdy engineers went to work developing a system that would win the hearts of the burgeoning technology class of business leaders who were seeking innovation and productivity. I was there for that little moment in history. I had just joined Datamation, an old-school computer magazine trying to come to grips with the new world of upstart PCs.

I was sent to New York to cover Compaq’s announcement of the first 386 computer – the DeskPro, it was called. It was Compaq’s coming-out party, beating IBM to the punch and rubbing it in their face on their home turf near Wall Street. It was the barbarians (wearing ill-fitting suits and Coke-bottle glasses) sacking pinstriped Rome. It was seven months before IBM answered with its own 386 system but by then the barbarians were drinking champagne, playing golf and finding their trophy spouses. Compaq itself was taken down a notch or two by another Texas company, Dell Inc., a few years later. And Compaq was purchased by Hewlett-Packard a few years ago. But Compaq was the first one there and I’m lucky enough to have witnessed that piece of business history. Halt and Catch Fire gets at least some of it right, so you, too, can witness a Texas company doing a Daniel number on Goliath. If nothing else, the 80s music soundtrack is a lot of fun.