Book Review - "Open-How Compaq Ended IBM's PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing"

Open: How Compaq Ended IBM’s PC Domination and Helped Invent Modern Computing by Rod Canion

4.5/5


I have been interested in the Compaq story for some time. The first computer I remember having was our Compaq Presario desktop, so you might say that it was the first name in hardware that I knew. I’m not the only one who is fascinated about Compaq - not only is there a book about it, but it provided the inspiration and base storyline for the fictional AMC television series Halt and Catch Fire.

The rise of Compaq and the Industry Standard

If you’re not familiar with Compaq’s beginnings, take yourself to Texas in the early 1980s. At the time, the PC industry was dominated by IBM and its proprietary standards. If you bought a new computer or switched brands, you had to buy new versions of all the software that it ran. (I was not around at this time, and I’m sort of glad about it). Three guys quit their jobs at Texas Instruments and created a computer manufacturing startup that aimed to corner a market that IBM didn’t have - portable computers (I wasn’t around for those either). To increase the competitiveness of their product, they decided that it needed to be compatible with all of the IBM versions of software. After a lot of tough decisions, innovation, and luck, Compaq became an industry leader and created the industry standard of compatibility that we all take for granted today.

The book is written by the founder/CEO, Rod Canion, so the focus is on the big picture and business decisions. Obviously, it carries a bias in Compaq’s favor, but I am weirdly attached to Compaq lore that I don’t mind.
I was hoping for an engineer’s perspective on a couple of the technical challenges, but the book mostly glazed over those.

For example, my favorite part of the Compaq story. The fledgling company needed to reverse-engineer IBM’s BIOS; if they just used IBM’s BIOS or even looked at its code while building one, IBM’s lawyers would descend in a heartbeat and sue them out of business. The way they got around this legally is to have one guy read the BIOS code (it was published in IBM’s manual) and write a specification. A second guy then read the spec and built a BIOS from the spec.

Isn’t that just so cool?! I wished that Canion would have given that more than two sentences and gave a perspective from one of the engineers who did it. There are several other reverse-engineering instances in the company’s history and none of them got more than a sentence. Ex-Compaq-engineers, if you’re reading this somehow, write a companion book about your endeavours in reverse-engineering!

There are a lot of dramatic points like this in the company story. One of them is when Compaq led the “Gang of Nine” - nine companies who publically showed support and manufacturing commitments to a 32-bit bus. This was a direct attack on IBM’s new PS/2 machine which used the proprietary MicroChannel bus. As you may know, I work on buses (something that’s rarely in the public eye), so I particularly enjoyed seeing it in the spotlight in this part. My sister is extremely fond of telling “bus driver” jokes since, you know, writing bus drivers. Canion seems to be fond of these himself and I was a little bit gleeful when he threw one in:

“…we were now confident the [other companies] would be relatively easy to convince that the “bus” was about to leave the station and they needed to be on it”

A second companion book I’d like to see is one focusing on IBM. Big Blue plays the antagonist in most of the Compaq story - they eventually were run out of the PC business thanks to the “revolution” incited by Compaq, but they were able to diversify their business mix enough to stay afloat and remain an industry player. The book highlights the shots Compaq fired at IBM as well as provides an analysis on how IBM failed in responding to them, which was good for Compaq, but led to the demise of IBM’s PC business.

The End of an Era

Canion was booted from Compaq in 1991 - for a multitude of reasons (one could argue that the techniques that set Compaq apart in the 1980s didn’t work anymore in the 90s), profits dropped. Disagreements on how to move forward resulted in the board of directors forcing Canion’s resignation. All outside sources I can find indicate that Canion was an extremely popular CEO among employees. Though his departure is (wisely, I thought) glazed over in the book, I couldn’t help but feel like I was reading the end of an era, even though I was not around for it. The company did turn around to become the largest supplier of PCs in the 90s, but not with Canion at its helm.

If you don’t know the end of the Compaq story, here it is: Compaq was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2002. In 2013, HP retired the Compaq brand name, which makes me feel almost sad, but companies have to make branding decisions that help their business.


Texas, 1982

One major thing I noticed that’s more subtle in this book: Many people I’ve met look back fondly on these “Wild West” days of the computing industry. “What a time to be in technology!”, they say - I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to be in an industry that’s The Next Big Thing.

However, I can’t help but read this book and think “what a terrible time it would have been for me to enter my career in technology”. The major players have one technological victory after another and take on big projects that are huge risks and end up paying off - what would I dislike about that? Rod, Jim, Bill, etc: it’s SUCH an old boys’ club. The barriers of entry for women in technology careers are much lower today than they were at the time. Texas, 1982. The white boys got to have it all. Washington, 2015: I can, too.

Recap

The book is a little dry at points, but if it doesn’t want to make you go out and build something, then I don’t know what will. Recommended to anyone interested in business or the computing industry. 4.5/5

Written on September 26, 2015