The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires

“The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires,” the 1996 tech-tale, 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.

I rank “Triumph of the Nerds” #1 doc in my 8 Best Documentaries on the Personal Computer (Ranked).

The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires

Watch “Triumph of the Nerds”

You can watch it for free on YouTube here:

You can also stream it with a CuriosityStream subscription here.

And the Triumph of the Nerds DVD is for sale on Amazon last I checked here ($26.88 and up).

You might also find”Triumph” on PBS which is where it was first broadcast in December 1996).

Review Scores:

  • My Score: 98/100
  • IMDB Score: 8/10
  • Rotten Tomatoes Scores: N/A

Review of “Triumph of the Nerds”

It covers the launch of the PC in 1975 and the ensuing tech battles through 1995.

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 Robert Cringely (real name “Mark Stephens”).

Cringely was both Apple employee #12 and an insider tech journalist. He’s got access to just about any tech titan there is.

Plus, Cringely is just plain fun.

He cruises around in his Thunderbird and seems to enjoy interviewing guests in hot tubs or donning full-blow suits to hang with IBM.

Below are summaries of the 3 parts. I’ve watched the doc twice and also reviewed the transcript.

Part 1: “Impressing their Friends”

“Impressing Their Friends,” is like the origin story of the Avengers, if the Avengers were computer geeks.

1975 kicks it off with the Altair 8800.

It’s the big bang of personal computers, setting off a chain reaction in garages and basements.

Then Apple enters the scene.

Venture capitalist Arthur Rock’s description of Steve Jobs? “Very articulate.”

Rock backs Apple.

In 1978, Apple II drops at the West Coast Computer Faire.

Picture Steve Jobs and Woz as the tech world’s Lennon and McCartney. The Apple II is launched at Jim Warren’s 1978 Computer Faire and, as Steve Jobs recollects:

“We stole the show”.

–Steve Jobs (regarding Apple’s performance at the 1978 Computer Faire)

1979 brings VisiCalc, the Apple II’s killer app.

Apple’s on the rise, and Jobs and Wozniak are the new rock stars of Silicon Valley.

Fast forward to 1980, Apple goes public. Jobs and Wozniak are now multimillionaires.

The early ’80s are all Apple. They’ve got 50% market share.

That’s like saying Shakespeare had a way with words.

Lots of key PC pioneers are interviewed in part 1

Mark Hostetter from Ardi and Gordon Moore of Intel make appearances.

Lee Felsenstein, the guy orchestrated the Homebrew Computer Club (started by Gordon Moore and Fred Moore in Menlo Park, CA in March 1975), where the seeds of the PC revolution were sown.

Part 2: “Riding the Bear”

Host Cringely then dives headfirst into the 1980s.

This is where the big boys play: Apple, IBM, and Microsoft.

Let’s set the scene: Apple, the cool kid on the block, climbed the charts in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Meanwhile, you hae IBM.

“Big Blue”, as IBM is called, doesn’t like to sit on the side lines.

To counter Apple’s new PC, IBM’s Bill Lowe suggests an open architecture PC (every part but one being built by someone other than Big Blue). That’s more heresy than Harvard Business Review.

But IBM supports Lowe.

Now, the plot thickens.

IBM taps Microsoft, the brainchild of a young Bill Gates, founded in ’75. They’re the go-to for everything from Basic to Cobol.

But here’s the twist – IBM thinks Microsoft has the operating system (OS) they need, but surprise! They don’t.

Cue the frantic search for an OS.

Enter the scene where IBM wants to meet with Digital Research (run by Gary Kildall).

Kildall snubs Big Blue, sending only his wife Dorothy to the meeting.

IBM’s got NDAs; Dorothy’s got hesitations. It’s a corporate stand-off with more tension than a thriller.

Microsoft, watching from the sidelines, knows it’s do-or-die.

Paul Allen finds an OS for IBM: Q-DOS, a “Quick and Dirty Operating System” by Tim Patterson.

They buy it for $50,000.

Spoiler: It’s the deal of the century.

Fast forward, and IBM PCs are selling like hotcakes.

But wait, there’s more – enter Compaq, brainstormed in a House of Pies in Texas. They reverse-engineer the IBM PC, and suddenly, there’s a new player in town.

The market’s wild, with IBM clones everywhere.

Dell, AST, Compaq – it’s like Silicon Valley’s version of the Wild West.

IBM’s scrambling, dropping prices faster than a stock market crash.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is the puppet master, pulling strings in every PC.

IBM, desperate, partners with Microsoft for OS/2.

But Bill Gates, ever the strategist, plays both sides, developing Windows.

Eventually, Gates picks a lane – Windows. IBM? Left in the dust.

Larry Ellison sums it up:

“I think IBM made the single worst mistake in the history of enterprise on Earth…it’s astounding that they could basically give a third of their market value to Intel and a third of their market value to Microsoft…by accident. Those two companies today are worth…a hundred billion dollars. Not many of us get a chance to make a hundred billion dollar mistake.”

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle

IBM’s blunder is the stuff of legends, a hundred-billion-dollar oops moment.

PART 3: “Great Artists Steal”

Part 3 catapults us into the graphical user interface (GUI) era, from 1984 to the edge of the Internet boom in 1995.

1984 is iconic, not just for Orwell fans.

Apple launches the Macintosh, a marvel with a GUI, a mouse, and a dream.

But dreams can be tricky, and by year’s end, Mac’s in trouble. It’s like scoring a touchdown and then fumbling the ball.

Cue Microsoft with Windows 1.0 around the same time. It’s more ‘Windows 0.5’ – a bit of a joke, but hey, every empire starts somewhere.

Fast forward to 1988, and it’s court drama time. Apple sues Microsoft for copying the Mac GUI.

It’s like David and Goliath, if both were tech giants.

1990 rolls in with Windows 3.0. Microsoft’s playing the long game here, selling 30 million copies in year one.

By 1995, Windows 95 is the new king.

Now, let’s rewind. Xerox PARC, where the magic began, is the unsung hero here (though the financial loser).

Bob Taylor, ex-head at PARC, knew they were onto something big. PARC’s innovations? Stuff of legends – the GUI, a mouse, laser printers.

But Xerox leadership? They’re snoozing on the goldmine.

Enter Steve Jobs, the maestro at Apple. He sees PARC’s GUI and knows it’s the future. He’s like a kid in a candy store, but with microchips and pixels.

Jobs and team, including the likes of Bill Atkinson, go full throttle on the Lisa PC.

The Lisa flops, but no one said changing the world was easy.

Cue John Sculley, the PepsiCo hotshot.

Jobs lures him with the line of the century:

“You want to sell sugar water…or change the world?”

Spoiler: Sculley chooses world-changing.

As the Macintosh brews, Jobs hustles Microsoft into building apps for it.

The Mac’s Launch

As the Macintosh launch approached, the Apple team was under immense pressure, epitomized by Andy Hertzfeld’s marathon effort:

“I was up for three days in that very last push.”

It was a final, frenzied dash to the finish line.

Adding to the drama, Apple aired its iconic ‘1984’ ad during Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984, a bold move that set the stage for what was to come.

On January 23, the night before the big reveal, the rehearsal was a disaster, a nerve-wracking prelude.

But when the launch date hit on January 24, 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh to the world, marking a new chapter in computing history.

It was a mix of last-minute chaos and groundbreaking innovation, the kind of rollercoaster ride that defines tech revolutions

Jobs exits Apple stage left, and Microsoft starts its ascent.

Windows 1.0 evolves into Windows 3.0, then Windows 95. It’s not just a win; it’s a revolution.

And the Internet? It’s waiting in the wings, ready to rewrite the rules.

In 1995, Cringely interviews Larry Ellison of Oracle who dreams of “information appliances,” ditching PCs for Internet-centric devices.

It’s like predicting smartphones before they’re even a twinkle in tech’s eye.

Steve Jobs is out, running Pixar, while Apple scrambles.

Microsoft, on the other hand, is minting millionaires (2,000 of them).

Cringely signs off at the end of part 3 with a:

“See you in ten years”.

Thanks for reading!

Rob Kelly, Chief Maniac, Daily Doc