'Silicon Cowboys': SXSW Review

Courtesy of SXSW
A lively look at an underexposed tech-biz success story.

An upstart Texas company sells the world on mobile computing.

Do we all owe our smartphones and wearable electronics to a few guys in Houston who, in 1981, risked their careers to make PC-clone computers the size of a commuter's overnight bag? So says Silicon Cowboys, Jason Cohen's look at the unlikely success of Compaq. Based on a memoir by company co-founder Rod Canion, the doc offers a no-nonsense narrative with just enough surprises to hold our interest, spiced up with a hefty dose of endearingly terrible "futuristic" dawn-of-the-computer-age graphics. Of interest in an ancient-history way to those who follow the contemporary startup scene, it will play well on TV but isn't grabby enough to have much art-house appeal.

Texas Industries was a great place for mechanically-minded Texans to work when, at the start of the '80s, three TI employees decided to go into business for themselves. What kind of business? Who knew — maybe a Mexican restaurant. They soon hit upon the idea to refine a mobile computer device made by Osborne Computer Corporation, streamlining the design and ensuring that their version would run any program sold for IBM's personal computers.

Reminding us what a wide-open hobbyist scene computing was at the time, the doc explains how Compaq reverse-engineered the IBM, then used brute force to test every piece of software sold for the thing to ensure compatibility. They did such a good job that when, some time later, IBM decided to make its own portable, it was less successful at running desktop IBM software than the copycat.

Outside observers (including creatives from the series Silicon Valley and Halt and Catch Fire) offer perspective on the business world these innovators inhabited, where would-be corporate titans actually had to go to banks and apply for loans instead of awaiting a venture capital guru. The company's ascent was swift, and offered cute foreshadowing of tech-biz culture to come: Compaq actually provided free coffee and sodas to employees, hoping to keep them happy in the workplace.

Compaq's story is sufficiently integral to that of the PC in general to maintain our interest beyond the biographical details of these three men and their increasingly populous company. It might be easier to sell Compaq's importance in the end of IBM's market dominance than to credit them for the entirety of mobile computing, but in any event it’s impressive how much they changed a world whose headquarters was on the other side of the country.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Production companies: Campfire, Zipper Brothers Films
Director: Jason Cohen
Screenwriters: Steven Leckart, Jason Cohen
: Ross M. Dinerstein, Glen Zipper
Executive producers: Jason Cohen, Samantha Housman
Director of photography: Svetlana Cvetko
Editor: Jake Pushinsky
Composer: Ian Hultquist
Sales: Campfire

Not rated, 76 minutes