Impressions of “Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing,” by Rod Canion

There’s basically two histories of consumer technology. In the standard, California history of technology, East Coast institutions (ARPA and Bell Labs) created Arpanet and the semiconductor, which created the foundation for California’s’ explosion. Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Google, Oculus, Yahoo and the rest are the real story. Then there’s the everyone else, including Canadians, Europeans, and the Japanese. There are few pioneering stories from the middle of the country. But Open, the story of Compaq, is just such a tale.

It’s immediately clear in Open that Compaq’s founders are not tech visionaries. They are successful, if unhappy, employees of Texas Instruments that believe they could be more successful, happier, and richer if they went into business for themselves. The opening section is in some ways the best part of the book, as the last minute worries around leaving corporate health insurance, and the details of what venture capital around 1980 looked like, are fascinating.

Compaq’s initial strategy, to be totally compatible with IBM computers, was all the more striking in that IBM itself wasn’t compatible. IBM’s initial PC portable did not run all the programs its initial desktop PC did, leading to Compaq to decide if they wanted to mimic IBM (including breaking compatibility) or be more useful for IBM customers tan IBM was (by ensuring compatibility). They chose compatibility, and that combined with operational excellence and good legal advice, made much of the difference.

“Open” is written by Compaq’s founder and CEO (and given the relatively dry style, either literally read by him or fleshed out by an unimaginative ghostwriter). It is interesting to read about corporate patterns that either are now standard (such as free pop and t-shirts) or dated (such as promising retailers never to sell directly to consumers). Rod Canion’s excitement at the celebrities who appeared at Compaq’s press events is still obvious.

Canion describes the IBM PS/2 as the “death star,” and the portion of Open dedicated to Compaq’s reactions to it are the most exciting parts of the book. While earlier IBM releases were only partially incompatible out of lack of work, IBM attempted to intentionally break compatibility with every add-in board, and many pieces of software, by switching to a new system of internal and external ports called “Microchannel.” Simultaneously, IBM was working with Microsoft to develop OS/2, a would-be replacement for DOS. He also speculates that IBM was seeking long-term to replace Intel as a source of chips. Before I read Open I was excited to learn more about OS/2 but thought the hardware story was boring. I had not realized the threat that the PS/2 posed to the existing PC market, and I wish this section was extended.

Compaq retaliated by funding the development of EISA, the “Extended Industry Standard Architecture,” and licensing it freely to all competitors. This allowed other companies to have similar technical advances to what the IBM PS/2’s “microchannel,” offered, but with retaining backward compatibility.

Open‘s denouement is extended and is a series of vignette’s of Canion’s last days at Compaq. A retailer pushes for better deals. Stock market expectations. And so on. To me the end of the book dragged on, as the details of Canion’s last days were not particularly interesting, and not enough detail was spent on EISA to elevate the work.  But… there was more to the story! A documentary, Silicon Cowboys, was filmed based on this book, with extended interviews with Canion and others!

The documentary makes Canion’s exit more interesting, if more tragic, as the high-end strategy began to crack on the wave of the early ’90s PC boom. Instead, Compaq’s early investors pushed for a new CEO capable of competing in the low-end, volume market. This was done, and Canion may have been uncomfortable in writing of this process, but Compaq’s glory days as an industry leader was behind it.

I enjoyed reading Open. I expected a book like Losing the Signal about Blackberry or Transforming Nokia, but instead the book read as a start-up success. Canion is not a writer of the quality of Black Harris, but Harris’s histories of Oculus and Sega of America are the nearest things that come to mind.

Compaq was young once.

And it defeated IBM.

I read Open:: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing in the Audible edition.

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