The introduction of personal computers to the market revolutionized almost every aspect of human life today. “Triumph of the Nerds” is a 1996 documentary about the history of personal computing since the creation of the first Altair personal computer to the launch of Windows 95. This paper will provide a summary of the documentary.
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The story begins with the first personal computer Altair. It was a simple machine capable of little and with switches and lights as its only input and output devices. Despite its extremely limited features, it captivated computer enthusiasts who became interested in writing programs for it. Bill Gates then partnered with Paul Allen, one of its creators, to write software on it after they figured out how to load it with BASIC. Subsequently, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs began creating the first consumer-friendly personal computer as a new company named Apple.
Their first model was more of a prototype, but Apple II became a big success. It had a slick form factor and included everything for a user who is interested in software but not hardware to use. They were able to raise money through venture capital to build their first 1000 machines, and with business software like VisiCalc, it became a desirable tool for home, school, and work.
The second part of the documentary starts with the creation of the first IBM PC. Apple II was a success, but it was not seen as a necessity in business because the company did not have a respectable status. IBM, on the other hand, was one of the largest companies in the industry. Its culture, however, was at odds with the new era of programmers. When they were approached by Bill Gate’s Microsoft, he proposed a plan to create an IBM PC in a year instead of four that the company expected.
By using off-the-shelf parts, the company would be able to save money on research and create a quality personal computer in record time. Eventually, the deal went through, and with the help of Microsoft the first IBM PC legitimized the use of PCs in office settings. The first sign of underhanded tactics could be seen in the way Microsoft developed the OS for the IBM PC. It was almost directly copied from a system by Gary Kildal called CPM. Later, IBM ordered the second OS from Microsoft, but the company was more focused on creating a graphical interface called Windows. IBM rejected the proposed Windows deal, and Microsoft ended their partnership.
The idea of a graphical interface for personal computers was first prototyped by Xerox in 1973 with their Alto computer. However, it was too expensive for the time, and many of its ideas were forgotten until a decade later. After visiting the Xerox PARC facility, Steve Jobs became inspired by the Alto’s interface and started work on a similar computer codenamed Lisa. His attitude and the large budget of the project forced the company to remove him from the project.
Luckily, Jeff Raskin had an idea for a 600$ computer with a similar interface that he named Macintosh. Jobs joined him, and they began working together. Mac could not run IBM software which initially prevented it from gaining success, but with the help of Gates and other industry figures, it gathered enough attention to become a viable machine. Apple positioned itself in opposition to IBM while Microsoft was developing its own GUI. Windows was designed to work on IBM PCs, and due to their popularity, the market for Windows was bigger. Apple sued Microsoft but did not win the case, which left Apple in a dire situation. A decision was made to fire Jobs, and with time, the company gained a following with its machines.
The documentary provides an interesting time capsule of the era. Jobs, Gates, and IBM are intertwined, and each party is responsible for another’s success while also being a bitter rival. It is a compelling story but looking at it now reveals a lot of faults with the way Silicon Valley businesses operated.