Tech Pirates

No, I’m not talking about those who use pirated technology. I’m talking about the movie I saw last night, Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999). I know, it’s super old, but since it covers the history, psychology, and business philosophy of the two major computer companies, the age of the movie definitely does not get in the way of its content. I feel like I’ve gotten a better grasp on the mentalities driving Apple and Microsoft. In lots of ways, it confirmed some theories I had, and in even more ways, it taught me the might of willpower.

What theories did it confirm? You know how every time Apple has a new product to launch, they build this big huge hype machine in the form of a Mac conference? I always thought that the hype was bigger than the product (not because Apple sucks, they clearly do not). While I always thought that the hype machine was probably something just created by the advertising executives in the PR department, I now realize (if this film is accurate), that the hype has always been created by the man himself, Steve Jobs. He’s got products, and he is happy, nay, bursting with eagerness to sell them. It also appears that at least some of the image-building is born in insecurity. I’ll let you dig up the film to find out how I come to that conclusion.

Another theory confirmed? Bill Gates is a serious nerd. Steve Jobs is an artist, a creator, but Mr. Gates is a bona fide nerd. Both companies could have had a nerd as the face of the company (Apple could have had Steve Wozniak as it’s primary face), but the person representing the company really is symbolic of the philosophies driving each company. While Mr. Gates was hacking out code and dropping out of Harvard, Mr. Jobs was out there developing a brand that people would buy into. This is seen most clearly in the difference between the offices of Microsoft and Apple. Apple’s office building is like their products: full of clean, uncluttered workspaces that look like they don’t need to be sterilized because they self-sterilize. Microsoft’s offices look like they have no idea what uncluttered means. You wouldn’t dare venture into the space of nerd, would you? The space of an artist, though, is more welcoming, more reachable. A compelling part of Apple’s face is Jobs’ notion that this whole tech thing is “a movement, a religion.” I found this particularly compelling in the link between his vision and the reality as portrayed by the film Macheads (2009), in which quite a few self-proclaimed Macheads do self-identify as cultists. This spiritual vision clearly contrasts sharply with the functional, just-make-it-work approach found in Gates’s company, products, and consumers. Which approach is right? Both. It takes all sorts to make the world go round, and how can one make fun of a “religion,” which is really a set of deeply held beliefs and ideals that serve to fulfill the human spirit? By the same token, the functional get-it-done method may seem boring, but may actually be just as fulfilling.

What did I learn? While Apple had no illusions about being pirates (as evidenced by the pirate flag they flew outside their new building in 1983), Mr. Jobs was easily placated into believing that Mr. Gates hadn’t a similar pirate’s nature. The way in which the two men made their early deals with Altair, IBM and Xerox is very revealing of the way their business minds work. Mr. Gates presented no illusions about being a go-getter, in the way he retained licensing rights with IBM for an operating system he didn’t even have yet, and in the way he got royalties for the Altair machine he didn’t even build. On the other hand, Jobs being given Xerox’s GUI and mouse-driven system, seemed to think that being given something is identical to creating it. The final confrontation between the two men is nothing short of spectacular.

Another thing I learned is that while Mr. Jobs was busy creating divisions between his development teams, the Microsoft group of very happy geeks was very tightly knit. I wonder how much more successful Apple would have been if there had been no strains of divide, conquer, and intimidate to contend with from within? It makes a very good case for the idea of just doing your thing, not giving a flying fig what else is going on in the world or what anybody else thinks about what you’re doing.

I also learned that vision really is the art of seeing the invisible*. Xerox’s execs literally had no idea what they were looking at when they saw the very first mouse. As the movie says, to them, it “might as well have been a dead rat.” Amazing.

Anyway, if you think I’ve written a lot but told you nothing that you wanted to know, then try to get ahold of this movie. You will not be disappointed. There’s so much that I haven’t even touched on. It’s good stuff.

*Vision is the art of seeing the invisible is a quote by Jonathan Swift that I used to integrate into my banner, until this current one.


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