The 8 Best Documentaries on the Personal Computer Industry (Ranked)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the personal computer.

Without the PC, we might not have had the commercial Internet (“The World Wide Web”).

Without the PC (and thus the Web), we likely wouldn’t have smart phones.

Without the PC, Silicon Valley would be, well, not very sexy.

Here are the best true stories I’ve found on the people and companies behind the PC revolution!

1) The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires (1996)

“The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” is like watching a tech version of “Game of Thrones” – minus the dragons, plus the floppy disks.

Think of it as a Silicon Valley origin story.

Directed by Paul Sen, and hosted by Robert X. Cringley, this is a fun history lesson on the personal computer market.

The doc is based largely on Cringley’s awesome book “Accidental Empires”.

Cringley was one of the most connected tech writers during many of the PC hey-day years (from its birth in the 1970’s to its maturation in the early 1990’s).

The battles & competition include:

  • PC companies vs. Xerox PARC: How Apple, Microsoft and other PC pioneers capitalized on the innovations developed but not commercialized at Xerox’s PARC research center in the 1970s/early 1980s.
  • PC clones vs. IBM: The rise of PC clone makers like Compaq reverse-engineering and undercutting IBM PCs in the mid-1980s is also a major theme. This eroded IBM’s initially dominant PC market share.
  • Microsoft vs. IBM: The partnership and eventual split between Microsoft and IBM in developing PC operating systems and software in the 1980s. This covers Microsoft establishing MS-DOS as the standard for IBM PCs, through the development and abandonment of OS/2, leading to Microsoft’s dominance by the 1990s.
  • Microsoft vs. Apple: The graphical user interface (GUI) wars between Apple and Microsoft from the 1984 launch of the Macintosh through Windows 95 in 1995. This includes Apple’s lawsuit against Microsoft for copying the Mac GUI.

And you can’t ask for a better host. It’s OG tech guru Robert Cringely (real name “Mark Stephens”).

Watch “Triumph of the Nerds” for free on YouTube by clicking the video embeds above or going here:

https://dailydoc.com/the-triumph-of-the-nerds-the-rise-of-accidental-empires/ (this is my 1,600 word review of “Triumph of the Nerds” which includes some backup links to stream it).

2) Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age (1985)

“Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age” – is a 26-minute sprint through PC history.

You’ve got some early Apple gems like:

Andy Hertzfeld’s story of selling a Multi-tasking feature to Apple for a one-time flat fee of $100,000 (Hertzfeld later joins Apple as employee #435 and helps architect the Mac).

You hear about Apple’s early success being due to its “open” architecture, letting hobbyists play around with the hardware (ironic given that Apple later became infamous for its closed architecture).

Apple’s Bill Atkinson (MacPaint) shows his newest application called MacVision (turns video into images).

There’s some great gamers interviewed like Robert Wizasry, an early hacker who created Wizadry, the game that paved the way for Dungeons & Dragons.

You get to hear from videogame pioneer Doug Carlston, President of Broderbund Software (“The Print Shop,” “Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Myst”).

An early version of the Well (“Whole Earth “Lectronic” Link”) is shown (one of the first online communities).

They’re innovators, thinkers, creators – the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates before they were household names.

The setting? The legendary Hacker Conference in 1984 in the Headlands (Marin, CA).

It’s like the Woodstock for computer geeks.

You’re transported to a world where the boundaries of technology were being pushed, broken, and redefined.

You’ll hear from the wizards themselves – the likes of Lee Felsenstein, moderator of the Homebrew Computer Club, and Stewart Brand, creator of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’.

Programmer Andy Hertzfeld sells a Multi-tasking feature to Apple for a one-time flat fee of $100,000.

And (nerd alert) the doc covers the evolution of programming, covering languages like BASIC and FORTRAN.

Watch “Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age” for free on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOP1LNr70aU

3) Silicon Cowboys (2016)

I love this doc.

It’s the story of David versus Goliath in PCs as startup Compaq takes on IBM (“Big Blue”).

If it sounds familiar as a show, you may have seen the AMC TV series “Halt & Catch Fire”, a fictionalized version of the same story.

It’s the origin story from computing’s early heyday!

We’re interfacing with the mavericks behind Compaq, who crafted the first PC clone.

See, back when IBM kicked off the desktop revolt in ’81 by moving 750,000 beige boxes, three disenchanted Texas Instruments engineers (Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto) started envisioning their own micro revolution Thursday nights at a local diner.

Nursing tall stacks of pancakes, they sketched out plans using The Entrepreneur’s Manual as a bible.

Risking TI resignations, they formed their stealth startup on September 1st, 1981 with a toast and vow to transform portable computing.

Once Compaq had an IBM PC prototype humming by 1982, they tempted venture capitalist Ben Rosen into forking over $750,000 in seed funding to launch their reverse-engineered “Portable” contraption.

On November 4, 1982, Compaq erupted from behind the Silicon Curtain with their PC clone!

Compaq’s sales velocity left even Bill Gates gobsmacked. They pumped out 53,000 units in year one, hitting $111 million in revenue!

The fastest ever sprint to $1 billion, Compaq even joined the Fortune 500 in a mere 3 years – shattering most every business benchmark.

But rapid success wasn’t all Jack Daniels and roses. Chairman Rod Canion endured a messy divorce while designer Bill Murto retired early, unable to stomach the breakneck pace.

Big Blue soon sicced patent attack dog lawyers on these plucky PC cowboys!

But by coordinating with Gates and Intel, Compaq emerged stronger as IBM’s own proprietary designs grew dinosaur bones.

Their projectile success ultimately helped dethrone longtime computing kingpin IBM itself by the mid-90s!

If it weren’t for Compaq, people today might not say “Are you a Mac or a PC?” — they’d be asking “Are you a Mac or an IBM?”.

Watch “Silicon Cowboys” for free here:

“Silicon Cowboys” is also available for free (with ads on Peacock, Tubi, Freevee, PlutoTV and Vudu Fandango). You can also rent it for $ on Amazon, Apple TV et al.

Check here for the latest streaming options: https://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/silicon-cowboys

4) Silicon Valley Revolution (2017)

I love interviews with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as much as the next tech fan.

But sometimes you need to go beyond the famous public faces.

“Silicon Valley Revolution” does just that.

Directed by Jan Tenhaven (Autumn Gold, Schön kann jeder! and 4 Wände Berlin) in 2017, the doc has exclusive interviews with PC pioneers such as Lee Felsenstein (one of the original members of the Homebrew Computer Club).

Daniel Kottke, Apple’s first hire and Andy Hertzfeld (from Apple’s original Macintosh team) talk about the early Apple and Mac early days.

Tim Paterson, the architect of MS-DOS, shares Microsoft’s response to Apple’s PC.

On the PC software applications side, VisiCalc inventors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston recount the birth of the first spreadsheet program.

And Heidi Roizen shares her thoughts from both a software CEO perspective (she was co-founder/CEO of T/Maker) as well as, later, a venture capitalist.

The film also brings in influential writers such as then New York Times journalist John Markoff and MicroTimes Editor Mary Eisenhart to dissect the tech boom.

Computer historian Bruce Damer, Zen priest Les Kaye and video artist Galen Brandt lend their memories too.

Watch “Silicon Valley Revolution” for free on YouTube by clicking the embed links above or here: Part 1 and Part 2.

And if you read German, you can watch “Die Silicon Valley-Revolution” here.

A little known fact: The original “Silicon Valley Revolution” had an awesome soundtrack with Bob Dylan and Neil Young songs. For legal reason, the doc’s makers had to swap in some boring library music. Director Jan Tenhaven tells me that was “a pretty painful process”.

5) The Commodore Story (2018)

Do you know which desktop computer is the best selling of all time?

It’s not Apple.

It’s not IBM.

It’s not Dell.

It’s the C64 (Commodore 64)!

“The best-selling desktop computer of all time is the Commodore 64, which was manufactured by Commodore International (USA) between August 1982 and April 1994….Commodore founder Jack Tramiel estimated between 22 and 30 million units, Commodore’s official estimate was 17 million units while a credible modern estimate puts the figure at around 12.5 million units. The C64 is still the most popular single model of desktop computer, even with the most conservative numbers.”

The Guinness World Records

In 1983, Commodore became the first personal computer company to exceed $1 billion in annual sales (Apple didn’t reach $1 bil. in sales till 1984).

So, an article on PC documentaries wouldn’t be complete without a doc dedicated to Commodore.

“The Commodore Story”, the 120-minute doc directed by Steven Fletcher, is the best doc on Commodore I’ve found.

The doc is full of legendary stories like this one on the Commodore PET, the company’s first home computer.

The PET was launched in January 1977 (5 months before the Apple II (June 10, 1977).

Commodore’s Leonard Tramiel was due to demo the PET at the Hanover Fair in Germany in the Spring of 1977 (April 25th to May 6th).

As he’s passing through German customs, security is scratching their heads at his ‘computer in a suitcase’

You see, back then, computers were mammoth beasts that needed entire rooms to stretch their digital legs.

But Leonard’s not one to be deterred by customs kerfuffles.

After missing his connecting flight, he hatches a plan with a sidekick: they’re renting a VW microbus and driving from Frankfurt to Hanover—with the PET crammed in the back, of course.

Now, here they are at the show, setting up the PET.

They plug it in, ready to dazzle the world… except it doesn’t work.

But our heroes aren’t ones to throw in the towel. They whip out their trusty phones and play a bit of tech detective (turns out, there’s a rogue resistor missing on that circuit board).

Once they nail that down, voilà! The PET springs to life, stealing the spotlight at the show.

The major Commodore milestones covered in the doc are:

  • PET launched (late 1976/early 1977)
  • VIC-20 launched (1981)
  • Commodore 64 launched (1982)
  • Commodore acquires Amiga Corp (1982)
  • Amiga 1000 launched (1985)
  • Commodore declares bankruptcy (1994)

“The Commodore Story” is super-thorough with interviews of notable Commodorians, such as:

  • Dave Haynie: Engineer who helped design Commodore’s Amiga computers
  • Rob Hubbard: Musician who composed music for Commodore 64 games
  • Chris Huelsbeck: Composer best known for his soundtracks for Commodore 64 and Amiga games
  • Andy Finkel: Developer who wrote games for the Commodore 64 and Amiga platforms
  • Bil Herd: Hardware designer who worked on the Commodore Plus/4, 128, and Amiga computer lines
  • David Pleasance: Former managing director of Commodore UK
  • Michael Tomczyk: Marketing manager involved in launching the VIC-20 and Commodore 64
  • R.J. Mical: Co-inventor of the Amiga computer architecture for Commodore
  • Trevor Dickinson: Founder of A-EON which makes new Amiga computers
  • James D. Sachs: Early employee at Commodore who later founded enhanced Amiga clone maker DCE Computer Concepts
  • Leonard Tramiel: Son of Commodore founder Jack Tramiel and former CEO of Atari Corporation
  • Ben Daglish and Jeff Porter: Musicians who wrote game music for Commodore platforms

Watch “The Story of Commodore” for free on YouTube by clicking the embed above or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTjcGdQ22Vs

6) Welcome to Macintosh (2008)

Yes, the Mac deserves its own doc.

Actually, “Welcome to the Mac” is more than just the Mac.

The doc covers 3 key periods in Apple’s history.

If I were naming the 3 acts, it’d be:

Act I: Woz & Jobs Make Thingamajigs in Cupertino (1976-1984)

This opening act follows young tech dorks and goofy 70s guys Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs – totally putting computers together and junk in their funky California garage.

While Woz does the nerd engineering stuff, Jobs zooms around with crazy ideas on how to actually sell the gizmos.

After their DIY Apple I and II machines become surprise big deals at hippie festivals, they get some Wall Street firepower (like Mike Markkula and Arthur Rock) to give them money to start a real company.

Jobs goes nuts with power and makes many people cry, while Woz just wants to keep goofing around with microchips and be friends with everyone.

But somehow The Steves, Andy Hertzfeld and team create another magical miracle: The Macintosh

Cue the 1984 Super Bowl ad and “Big Blue” IBM blows yet another gasket!

Act II: Jobs Gets Bagged from His Own Company (1985-1998)
More drama. Jobs gets kicked to the curb in 1985 from the company he started after throwing a tantrum at the Apple leader he recruited: John Sculley.

Apple, financially, soars. Sculley knows how to scale!.

But, product- (and soul) wise, Apple starts flopping around without Jobs cracking the whip.

They release flubs like the “Newton”.

Meanwhile, Jobs is off making snazzy new computer at NeXT called “Cubes”.

In 1996, Apple looks like roadkill, so they beg Jobs to come back and save them.

Jobs somehow becomes Apple’s head honcho again in 1997.

He starts throwing Apple’s lame products in the trash and brings back the magic.

Act 3: iCrazy iDomination! (1998-2007)

Back running Apple, Jobs somehow gets his groove back.

He’s whipping up kooky colors on computers (iMacs) that drive Microsoft and PC Clone makers crazy.

Then Jobs puts a thousand songs in your pocket with the iPod.

Jobs becomes a rock star again, with fans willing to sell their VW vans just to get another hot Apple thingamajig, even if they don’t know what it does!

Apple starts openings stores faster than Starbucks.

For his next trick, Jobs & team create the “Swiss Army Knife” of devices: the iPhone. It’s got a camera, a phone, email, iPod, flashlight and, later, just about anything you can think of.

You can’t make this sh!t up!

Watch “Welcome to Macintosh” for free on YouTube by clicking the embed above or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TklWMC5o_Os

7) Thinking Machines: The Creation of the Computer (1996)

Personal computers wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the giant computers before it.

“Thinking Machines: The Creation of the Computer” is a great doc to give you the history of all computers (including the mighty PC).

The beginning of the doc covers the behemoth mainframes (led by IBM) and minicomputers (led by DEC).

The doc’s segment on personal computers

At the 38:42 mark, the doc covers the key “big bang” moment for the PC.

Ted Hoff at Intel grabs the spotlight here.

In 1970, he is asked to build 12 separate integrated circuits for a Japanese calculator.

Hoff proposes uniting the entire processing unit on a single chip. And by 1970, they had a working model of a microprocessor (the Intel 4004).

Smaller than a fingernail, the micropocessor contains key pieces of a computer (control unit and clock).

Fast-forward to 1976 and the “Two Steves” (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) start work on what would be the first PC: the Apple I.

In the Fall of 1976, Mike Markkulla (retired from Intel) saw the Steves’ work on the Apple II in their garage and was so impressed he joined Apple.

The Apple II becomes the first commerically successful PC.

The doc then retraces the evolution of the mouse and graphical user interface.

The mouse was first demonstrated by computer scientist Doug Engelbart in 1968 at a San Francisco conference (he also demo’d the word processor!).

Xerox PARC, near San Francisco, developed the Alto computer in the ’70s, introducing the mouse, graphical interfaces, and networking.

Despite its innovations, Xerox couldn’t grasp the potential of its computer developments.

Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC in 1979, inspiring the creation of the Macintosh computer.

This further revolutionizes personal computing.

Then, Bill Gates at Microsoft recognizes how important software will be to the PC (and builds his empire).

You can watch “The Creation of the Computer” for free on Daily Motion by clicking the embed above or here .

There’s a lower quality version on YouTube here.

8) Moleman 2 – Demoscene (2011)

Well dip my dot matrix in demo sauce.

The doc “Moleman 2 — Demoscene: The Art of the Algorithms” traces a 40-year movement back to early 80s.

The demoscene is a subculture of digital artists focused on creating “demos” – small audiovisual presentations made using computer programming.

These demos have nothing to do with Powerpoint-type demos.

A demo in the demoscene is (nerd alert!):

  • Generated in real-time by code rather than pre-rendered video
  • Focused on technical mastery and creativity within hardware constraints
  • Created by underground groups/artists as a hobbyist endeavor rather than for profit
  • Shared and competed with others at demo parties rather than for a mainstream audience
  • Usually a few minutes long

And the demos are not done with fancy computers. No no no — that’d be too simple.

They’re done with old-school PCs like Commodore 64s (aka “C64”), Amigas, Apple IIs, Atari 800/STs, and ZX Spectrums!

And these demo folks know how to party.

The demoscene has spawned dozens of demo parties across the globe over the past 30+ years.

Some of the longest running and most frequent events include

  • Assembly in Helsinki (held annually since 1992)
  • The Gathering in Norway (1992)
  • Chaos Constructions in Russia (1999).

Northern European countries like Finland, Germany, and Norway have hosted multiple large-scale parties attracting thousands, alongside established Eastern European events.

Revisions in Germany has emerged as the world’s largest scene-focused event.

Historically notable parties also thrived in Denmark and The Netherlands in the 1990s. While not as abundant, North American parties have endured as well – from the 1990s NAID event in Canada to recent gatherings like @party in Massachusetts.

So while the Northern European heartland has been most emblematic of the scene, the creative coding movement has penetrated globally enough to sustain demo parties for nearly three decades and counting.

Watch “Moleman 2 — Demoscene” for free on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRkZcTg1JWU

MISC

I found this short video clip during the early days of PCs really funny.

It’s of the ultra-private Director Stanley Kubrick saying (in 1983) that he wants a Fortune computer for Christmas because “it has the best chip architecture…and the most advanced operating system…it’s called Unix”.

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly, Chief Maniac of Daily Doc