A Tale of Three Steves and a Bill

This week I watched an almost-forgotten 1999 made-for-television docudrama, Pirates of Silicon Valley, about the origins of Apple and Microsoft. The movie focuses its attention on Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, with Steve Wozniak and Steve Ballmer both acting as narrators.

Neither Gates nor Jobs was portrayed very attractively. While Jobs was a visionary who combined art and science, he was also a slave-driver who demeaned and insulted his talented staff, a misguided manager who incited a near war between the Macintosh team and the rest of the company, and a dead-beat dad. Gates applied the strategic talent of an expert poker player to position Microsoft in the most lucrative sweet spot of the rapidly-evolving computer industry. Nonetheless, in his demeanor as well as his laughable attempts to impress women, he was a classic geek.

In retrospect, these portraits do not appear far off the mark, particularly that of Jobs, which is in its essentials close to that drawn by Walter Isaacson in his recent biography. Steve Wozniak and Steve Ballmer are both sympathetically portrayed as regular decent guys who, as narrators, explain their flawed genius partners to the audience. This perspective, however, downplayed their similarity with their partners. In Ballmer’s case, certainly, his similarities to Gates have emerged in his role as his successor at Microsoft. A number of YouTube videos of Ballmer catch his hyper-aggressiveness, topped off by his own very particular brand of simian whooping.

Made-for-television movies have a tendency to be melodramatic, or, as their audience would likely say “cheesy,” and this was no exception. Nevertheless, this movie was prescient about the trope that was captured in the title “Pirates of Silicon Valley.” There was a recognition on the part of the major players in the early years of the personal computer industry that an enormous amount of value was about to be created, and the big question was who would seize the lion’s share of it.

Much of this question revolved around intellectual property. Both Gates and Jobs recognized that Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) had invented things that Xerox’s corporate leadership were ignoring, so each went off to steal as much as possible from PARC. In fact, the most interesting scenes in the movie are those involving the principals and their entourage touring each other’s facilities to steal ideas from one another. Jobs explicitly said that “great artists steal,” And Gates, in a confrontation with Jobs about whether Windows was an infringement on Apple’s intellectual property, claimed ‘Steve, all cars have steering wheels, but no one tries to claim that the steering wheel was their invention.”

Flash forward a decade to The Social Network. Here, too, the essence of the story is about claiming the rewards from the creation of intellectual property. Mark Zuckerberg, in words almost identical to Gates’s asks “does a guy who makes a really good chair owe money to anyone who ever made a chair?” The Social Network, too, focuses on the question of appropriating the value of intellectual property, though the narrative device it uses is the deposition-taking involving Zuckerberg, Saverin, and the Winkelvi. In this legal hearing, issues of ownership are debated, and flash back scenes are aired as evidence.

By and large, visual narrative is not effective at depicting the act of creativity particularly if it is the creativity of one individual. One exception I can think of, thought, is the scene early in The Social Network where Zuckerberg launches his Facemash website comparing the attractiveness of Harvard women. Creativity can at least be represented by the different images flickering on his screen.

Visual narrative is effective at depicting human relationships, whether conflictual, cooperative, or something in-between. Pirates of Silicon Valley rightly devoted a good deal of attention to conflict over the appropriation of ideas and to negotiations, in particular Gates’s negotiations with the potential corporate of Microsoft’s first operating systems.

Thus Pirates of Silicon Valley was on the right track. It was prescient in confronting the key issues of the technological entrepreneurship genre. Later films, particularly The Social Network, would do this much more elegantly, but at least Pirates of Silicon Valley was there as a precursor, just as a Lisa was a distant precursor to an iPad.

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