Triumph of the Nerds: The Personal Computer


triumphofthenerdsTriumph of the Nerds is a three-part documentary about the history of the personal computer industry.  The documentary begins with the PC’s origin with hobbyists, continues through the era of IBM compatibility, and concludes with the emergence of graphical user interfaces and start of the Internet Age.  The media continues to release new documentaries and movies to cash in on mainstream interest in the high-tech industry.  Here is a good documentary from 1996 about the history of the personal computer industry told through interviews with the real people that lived through it: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Larry Ellison, Ed Roberts, Steve Wozniak, and more.

Impressing Their Friends

popular_electronicsThe Land of Enchantment – New Mexico – is where the story begins.  Albuquerque was the birthplace of the personal computer.  Not Silicon Valley.  The computer’s creator was a calculator company named MITS that showed off their new MITS Altair 8800 in the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics Magazine.  Microsoft co-founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates saw the Altair on the magazine cover, wrote a BASIC interpreter for it, and started Micro-Soft to sell software.  Meanwhile, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were in California starting their own company, Apple Computer Inc.  Hobbyists everywhere were building and buying their own computers at a phenomenal pace.  Apple’s innovative product was a pre-assembled system, the Apple II, that quickly gained a reputation as the must-have computer.  A revolution was in the air.

Riding the Bear

ibm_pc_5150International Business Machines (“IBM”) originally sold big expensive technology like mainframes, not personal computers.  By 1980, the Apple II was becoming popular with businesses.   Software applications for Apple II like VisiCalc meant personal computers could be used for real work.  IBM decided to make their own PC because they couldn’t afford not to be in that market.  Computers require an operating system, which is software that controls the hardware.  IBM licensed the operating system for their new PC from Microsoft rather than develop its own software.  Microsoft’s software license to IBM was not exclusive.  That meant other companies could make computers that ran the same software as IBM’s PC as long as they used the same CPU and Microsoft operating system.  Thus was born the “IBM-compatible”.

Great Artists Steal
macintoshPersonal computers were everywhere by the early 1980’s.  But they still weren’t very friendly.  Steve Jobs recognized that pictures, not words, were the future of computing during a visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.  Xerox invented the graphical user interface (“GUI”) yet failed to grasp its importance.  Apple took that technology and used it to create the Macintosh.  The Macintosh had a GUI that was easy-to-use, intuitive, and empowered regular people to use computers.  The killer app for Macintosh was desktop publishing.  The Macintosh was expensive, though.  Microsoft eventually made its own GUI called Windows for low-cost IBM-compatible PC’s.  Low-cost hardware meant greater market-share.  And greater market-share meant developers preferred to write software for Microsoft Windows instead of Apple Macintosh.  Ultimately, after many years of litigation between the two, Microsoft won the war against Apple as the world’s most popular operating system.

Information Appliances
webtvNowadays we just call them “devices”.  In the mid-90’s they were still called “information appliances”.  Triumph of the Nerds concludes just as the Internet was becoming a mainstream phenomenon.  When Windows 95 launched in 1995, the real thing on everybody’s mind was the exciting new information superhighway.  The new World Wide Web only required a web browser application to use.  And the web browser functioned the same on every operating system, making the OS and hardware device somewhat irrelevant.  With everybody in the world getting connected online, would the personal computer remain an important part of peoples’ lives?  Or would we all use something else?  At the end of this documentary, the answer to that question was still beyond the horizon.

Accidental Empires

accidental_empiresTriumph of the Nerds is based on the 1991 book Accidental Empires and also narrated by the book’s author, Bob Cringely, the tech industry’s longest-running gossip columnist and Apple employee #12.  This the one documentary about the personal computer with real interviews of all the real people that were actually there and made it happen.  The age of this three-part documentary series is part of its value as a crossroads in the history of technology.  PC’s were still the primary technology device people used to communicate and the Internet was still uncharted territory.  If you see only one documentary about the history of the personal computer industry, make sure its Triumph of the Nerds.

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