Pirates of Silicon Valley: The Rise of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates
There's a popular play on words that says "the geek shall inherit the Earth". TNT's Pirates of Silicon Valley follows perhaps the two most influential geeks that set out to do just so. The made-for-TV film chronicles the birth of Microsoft and Apple during the 70s and how they became two of the most important and influential corporations, not only in the IT field, but in the world, propelling their founders to international popularity and massive wealth. Let's take a look at each of them first:
Steve Jobs was born on 1955 in San Francisco, California. He was adopted at birth by Paul and Clara Jobs, who Steve later referred to as his "parents 1,000%". During high school, he met Steve Wozniak, who would become his partner and co-founder at Apple. Although he initially enrolled at the expensive Reed College, Jobs eventually dropped out and started taking random courses while sleeping at friends dorm rooms. During this time, Jobs also traveled to India, began practicing Buddhism, and experimented with LSD.
In 1976, Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple Computer Company, to sell their first product: the Apple I, hand-built by Wozniak. The popularity of the computer was such, that it propelled Apple into success and made millionaires of Jobs and Wozniak. Apple continued its groundbreaking pace, designing one of the first graphical user interfaces in the Apple Lisa, and following it with one of the most successful personal computers ever, the Macintosh.
However, despite the success of the company, personal issues with Jobs and his clashes with the Board of Directors, led by John Sculley, ended up with Jobs being pushed out of his own company. After that, he embarked in other ventures like founding a computer company called NeXT, and buying Pixar, among other things. Meanwhile, during Jobs's absence from the company, Apple began to decline and sunk into near bankruptcy.
In 1996, Apple "bought" NeXT, paving the way for Jobs return to the company. Eventually, he found his way back to the CEO chair, while announcing a joint venture with perennial rival Microsoft. As part of his restructuring process, Jobs terminated a number of failed projects and launched some new ones. With the release of Mac OS X and the new iMac, Apple returned into its former relevance in the computer world. Meanwhile, Jobs led a variety of branching out efforts that ended up with the launch of the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, and back into mega-success.
In 2011, rumors about Jobs's declining health started to surface. Jobs resigned as CEO in August of that year, and passed away in October, at the age of 56, from complications of pancreatic cancer.
Bill Gates was born on 1955 in Seattle, Washington to a prominent family. During prep school, he met Paul Allen, who would become his partner and co-founder at Microsoft. In 1973, he enrolled at Harvard College where he met Steve Ballmer, who would also become his future business partner at Microsoft.
In 1975, Gates and Allen began operating under the name of Micro-Soft while working on a software for the MITS Altair 8800. The company was officially registered the next year and Gates never graduated from Harvard. Perhaps the defining moment of Microsoft and Gates's history was his approach in 1980 to IBM to offer them an operating system for their upcoming IBM PC. Gates made a series of risky yet crucial decisions, like offering them someone else's software, and asking to retain the license over the software, which wasn't customary at the time. Both decisions proved to be accurate as DOS became one of the most important operating systems of the time, and software licenses became the prevalent form of software distribution, turning Microsoft into a key player in the IT industry.
But Microsoft's biggest claim to fame came years later with the release of the Windows software. Despite being largely similar to the Apple operating system, Windows availability to different computer manufacturers turned the software into the most used operating system in the world and Microsoft into the largest computer software company, while making Gates one of the wealthiest persons in the world.
Despite Gates's success and the popularity of Microsoft, he has been often criticized by his business practices, which have been labeled as monopolistic and non-creative. Still, Windows continues to thrive and Gates has topped the Forbes list of wealthiest men in the world for years and years. Since 2008, Gates stepped down from his full-time job at Microsoft and dedicates most of his time now to philanthropic ventures.
Back to the Film...
Pirates of Silicon Valley manages to present most of those events accurately, at least those that happened until its release in 1999. Other real events that are shown on the film are:
- Wozniak burning one of his first computers.
- Gates's drunk driving arrest.
- The groundbreaking 1984 Mac ad, directed by Ridley Scott.
- Jobs's clashes with his employees.
- Jobs humiliating an aspiring Apple employee.
Although the leads are Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Gates (Anthony Michael Hall), the film features characters like Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and Ballmer (John DiMaggio) narrating some of the key events within their respective companies, which gives the film a quasi-documentary feeling. There are separate moments where Wozniak and Ballmer break the fourth wall to highlight the importance of events like the birth of the graphical user interface in Apple, or the DOS pitch from Microsoft to IBM. Some of these narrated moments work out pretty well, but there are some that feel a bit awkward in their delivery.
None of the performances excel, but Wyle and Hall are still solid leads, despite the film's decision to play its cards too easily. Jobs is clearly given the lead, protagonist role as he is portrayed as the "cool" rebel with deep personal struggles while Gates receives the antagonist role as he is portrayed as the "evil" mastermind with the twisted look. This gives Wyle more dramatic opportunities to shine as he deals with his paternity and emotional issues.
Pirates of Silicon Valley
June 20, 1999
Paul Freiberger, Michael Swaine
Noah Wyle, Anthony Michael Hall, Joey Slotnick, John DiMaggio
It's clear the film wants us to empathize with Jobs, and it focuses most of its energies with him, developing several angles of his character, while showing Gates merely as a socially awkward yet cunning "nerd." I think a bit of balance in those portrayals could've been beneficial in the end, considering its decision to focus on the Jobs-Gates relationship. Still, despite the lack of depth in their characters, the story still manages to be engaging.
Finally, some dialogue might feel cheesy and forced, which reminds us that we're indeed watching a TV film. Also, aside from some quirky flashes here and there, the direction isn't much to write home about.
Regardless of its flaws, the film manages to be both entertaining, interesting, and engaging. As a computer instructor, I can say I've used the film several times to teach my students about the birth of the personal computer, and the feedback has been pretty good. Maybe the film will never reach the levels of popularity of Windows XP or the iPhone, but it's well above Windows Me or the Mac "hockey puck" mouse. Grade: B