One of the best decisions the show made was to set the series at a series of fictitious minor companies and startups struggling down there in the trenches of the computer revolution without ever quite making it big. This avoids the trap of teleology and gives you a sense of how things could easily have turned out differently. It is why the show is so much better as both computing history and drama than all those films about Apple or Steve Jobs and the rest that tediously rehash the same stories of the winners. (Although one of the main characters, Joe Macmillan, has some Jobs-like character features. I do not mean this as a compliment.)
Who remembers the short-lived Lucasfilm project 'Habitat'? Accurately rendered in the show as the interactive social network.
My only gripe was that it seemed in season one, they tried a bit too hard to add drama to the show to appeal to a broader audience that isn't that interested in the technical stuff. Especially Joe Macmillan just felt over the top and just not credible at times. They made up for it in season two though, adding a lot of back-story for him and making him just more consistent in general. But even then, season one is still the best imo.
Loved Halt & Catch Fire
Pirates of Silicon Valley was pretty great, no? Idk about its accuracy though.
I was a teen who knew little about the history about personal computers when I first saw it. I had just gotten my Windows 95 machine, my first computer and was stoked cause I paid for a third of it with my own money from working odd jobs. My mom paid the rest.
Anyways, I found the subject matter engaging so I have a fond place for that movie.
The first season of HCF in particular was spectacular (the others are still amazing but for a first season HCF smashed it out the park).
*Well almost perfectly. I don't remember many engineers or coders being as attractive as the actors on this show.
I've only been working in this field since about 1997 or so, so I can't speak to what things were like in the 80's. But I can say that I've seen more than a few software engineer / programmer types who were very attractive, or could be if they chose to dress / style themselves so as to play up that aspect.
Not sure if my perception is just "off" or if there was a point in time where this changed. Or maybe it's a geographic thing - I'm on the East Coast (NC specifically).
Still, the old stereotype of the unwashed, nacho and crumbs covered shirt, neckbearded, basement dwelling programmer guy does linger...
This always amuses me about American-produced shows. Even the guy cast as 'background hobo #2' is a handsome person with token dirt and ragged clothes applied.
She was doing well as a programmer when the company folded.
Other than this one programmer, I’ve never seen any programmers or product managers or engineers as attractive as in this show.
 “In a book called Computer Power and Human Reason, a professor of computer science at MIT named Joseph Weizenbaum writes of a malady he calls “the compulsion to program.” He describes the afflicted as “bright young men of disheveled appearance, often with sunken, glowing eyes,” who play out “megalomaniacal fantasies of omnipotence” at computer consoles; they sit at their machines, he writes, “their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler’s on the rolling dice.”
― Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine -
By the way, Big Iron's abilities in the physical world were real. I occasionally operated a System/360 with 4 2311 disk drives, 7.5MB monsters with the form factor of washing machines. When running the IBM sort program, these clunkers were apt to move around the machine room.
You had replied to a comment of mine asking what I’d meant by “Google figured out hardware didn’t matter on the server” by 2000 and how that changed the internet to make Bill’s vision come true. I do not check this site often and found I could not reply, and there was no email on your profile, so I am replying here:
To keep it brief, Google was the first company to figure out server farms of cheap machines were cheaper and - counterintuitively - more reliable, than massive, powerful servers. Solaris, DEC and IBM would ring a bell to a lot of the sysadmins from that time. Once Google figured out you can decouple work from hardware, handle hardware failure in software, and drive utilization from pathetic levels (20% at most internet companies over a year) to high 80s for free, the modern internet got a huge shot in the arm. At night, you could run batch jobs. It was a beautiful monstrosity. If not for the work by some of the guys (including 6 or 7 of my friends) who went from DEC - ironically due to the dot com crash* - AWS or cloud computing would not be a thing.
* - another ironic twist: If the utilization problem was solved, a lot of these companies’ finances would have looked much much better to the point that the bubble burst would not have been nearly as devaststing.
I really want to see this, can't find it by googling though. Maybe you know where to find it?
This show is so good I don't recommend it to my friends because I'm not sure I could handle it if they didn't like it as much as myself.
If you haven't seen the show, watch season 1 episode 1. If you don't like it, this isn't your show. You don't have to invest 20 hours of your life 'to get to the good season'. It's all good right from the start.
So we don't need a warning when they do. What's not to understand?
Additionally, you are quite wrong. I distinctly recall the first time I was ever literally moved to tears by music, and it was precisely when the choir sang their first note in A Survivor from Warsaw, op 46 by Arnold Schoenberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TbFVYbDuVg
Since then, I have been touched by sadness, beauty, anger, awe, and many other emotions as a result of experiencing art.
If I could criticize anything, it might be the death of one of the major characters. I mean, it was good drama, and definitely a heart-wrenching sequence. But almost too much so, if such a thing is possible in a drama.
I may have to try again..
- Pirates of Silicon Valley (this largely follows Gates and Jobs): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0168122/
- Micro Men (this is about the British tech scene in the 80s): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00n5b92 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1459467/
And General Magic  - a documentary about the startup General Magic with interviews with early employees who went on to Apple, Google, etc
And Silicon Cowboys  - documentary about Compaq in the early days, pretty much the real story version of Season 1
I listen to it when I want ~medium to high focus when working, and sometimes to get me "in the mood" so to speak.
Westworld, American Gods, Man in the High Castle and Halt and Catch Fire.
The second season felt like it had a more soap opera to it, so I stopped at the end of it. I got the sense from descriptions of the later seasons that this got worse. Found it odd the consensus where I looked was that the last two were the best and the 1st to be "tolerated".
I don't agree that Cameron was "zoomed out" after the first season either. Her role in the 2nd season was bigger than the first. Frankly I like the way they written her in the later seasons because even from the first season she reminded of engineers who have more attitude than skill (and we've all worked with people like that!) so seeing her career largely wash out felt more authentic to how a character like her would have survived through those eras.
On balance though, I felt this show was largely overrated. It had some good content but it was waaaay over the top with the melodrama. Unfortunately geek drama rarely satisfies American audiences so they need arson, punch ups and adultery to weaved into the story line.
The reason I enjoyed Season 4 so much was to see the arc of how individuals evolved over time, how they learned from their mistakes, got past failures, and enjoyed the ride.
Personally I think it's better than Mad Men.
This is a great description.
>silicon valley nascent tech startup era
Even better is that they start in Texas, and going to the up-and-coming Silicon Valley is one of the story lines.
Which at the time was referred to as the "Silicon Prairie". I still remember my Dad working for Control Data and he travelled frequently back and forth between Minnesota and Texas. I also remember a lot of conversations my parents had first about moving to Texas and then later moving out to CA when SV really took off.
We never moved, but during those years when tech really took off, he was constantly being recruited by companies in the valley.
Some examples (very low spoilers but you've been warned):
1. In one of the first episodes, a couple characters design up a circuit to step through the values of an EEPROM to read off the value of each address. They use a series of 8 LEDs and convert the binary value to decimal in their head and then write it down on paper. Even if you were going to do something very manual like that you would want to use a 7-segment LED and driver so you could at least just write down the hex value.
2. One of the characters writes some firmware in assembler, and other characters keep saying that their code is "beautiful" and "art".
3. Later on in the series, some of the characters run an online game company and run a distributed game server on networked IBM XTs. They don't actually say if they're using some custom OS or how the accomplished that, but that also isn't the point of those episodes either.
4. There are brief flashes of assembler, basic, and C on a computer screen and most of it seems to be at least slightly incorrect.
All of that being said, I would give it a B+ for technical accuracy - and an A for being an awesome show.
Sure, fake Google comes a little early in the timeline, and Mutiny doesn't exactly map to anything that's familiar to me, but it all feels like it could have happened. Verisimilitude is really what matters here, and they pull it all off to an absolute T.
On the technical aspects, I loved when Donna got to do her thing those couple of times and do data recovery on disks. I wish they had been able to give her a bigger role in the early part of the series, because her character really shines when allowed to.
And, we have to mention the set design. It's perfect, right down to the little touches, like Donna and Gordon's J.C. Penney TV, or the Yars' Revenge poster hanging up in the Mutiny frat house. Sometimes I literally watch the show just to look at the sets.
As far as getting the window-dressing and feel of the time right, there's also Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Real-time chat? Compuserve's CB Simulator. Craigslist? Compuserve certainly had classified ads as I'm sure did most of the others, including BIX. Usenet/Bullet Boards for interest groups? Compuserve Interest Groups, and every other service had that as well. Online gaming was also available on most of the networks, but special shout-out to Air Warrior that ran on GEnie.
You could also purchase airline reservations via SABRE which was supported by Compuserve and GEnie, get news, stock quotes, etc.
And yes, most of those services started out buying timeshare cycles from the likes of oil, insurance, and banking companies during evenings and weekends.
They didn't exaggerate much there - it was a space with plenty of competition, to the point that for a lot of people the Internet seemed like a boring step down in capabilities for some time, with networks like AOL and Prodigy believing they could stem the tide and keep people walled in.
For my part, before I got internet access, I reinvented a bunch of that stuff myself, and worked on a graphical BBS client and capability for federation. And there's nothing unique in that - I know many others who also did, unaware of what existed, and without thinking we invented anything new, because they were small, incremental obvious steps from what we did know about.
It's simply a natural set of things that people wanted, and the limiting factor was not the ideas, but access to time, talent and capital and a willingness to go ahead and do it.
That's often how these things work. Things get independently reinvented all over the place. Not necessarily well, or fast enough etc.
And you'll note Cameron is not the only one to invent any of the things she does in the series either.
Yes, it was basically re-inventing IP for no good reason because lack of internet access meant lack of info about what already existed...
When I, a few years later, got an internet connection and started reading the relevant ISPs, it was pretty annoying to see what had already existed.
If so, that's an interesting idea, but it kind of sounds like a good way for your users to run your phone bill up rather than theirs, while possibly not even engaging with your BBS at all. (For those who aren't familiar, back in the BBS days, you had to actually pay for "long distance" phone calls. And, "long distance" often wasn't very far away.)
Do I have it right, or was it something different?
In terms of cost, it was normal at the time to charge per minute fees for services on the big online services, so enabling remote services multiplexed over a network like that would be an opportunity for BBS operators to federate into a bigger network and gain revenue by charging for services, and start out without having the traffic to justify a fixed line.
But obviously, just like the big online services, that model became unviable the moment the internet went mainstream.
There are basically only two ways to construct a TV series that has any continuity to it whatsoever. You can either keep most of the main characters together for the entire series, and watch them grow and change, like most series do; or, you can do like American Horror Story does and just scrap everything and start anew every season or so. Some series don't care about continuity, like Seinfeld, so they fall outside the scope of this statement, but, the majority of TV series will be one or the other of these.
And, there's nothing really wrong with this construction, either. Like I said, it's just something you have to accept, kind of like how every TV home or apartment is absolutely massive compared to what real people live in, or how people are able to comfortably fly on airplanes without squishing themselves into the seats or their heads being within inches or less of the roof of the cabin. Or the fact that if anybody coughs on TV, they're usually deathly ill.
I'll have to check out Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, though. I've been putting off watching it for some reason -- maybe because for most of 2020, I felt like I was living in a Black Mirror episode.
Speaking of Netflix series that really get the time period correct, Stranger Things is 100% exactly like what it was like to be a kid in the 80s. Starting from the bowl haircut on Will, right on down to every last detail of the mall from season 3, and battling the Demogorgon in a friend's basement. Absolute 10/10 set design, and I never noticed a single anachronism.
An alternate could have been to fade characters in and out over the seasons. Joe and Gordon are the stars of the PC-clone season, with Cameron and Donna playing supporting roles. In the Online Services season, Cameron and Donna step forward while Joe and Gordon become secondary characters and characters such as Yo-Yo and Tom increase their presence. Season three could have had Cameron and Donna fall back to secondary characters while Yo-Yo and Tom became the main characters in creating a what would essentially be something like Sierra Online or Electronic Arts. Each season could have introduced a new period of tech and introduced new minor characters that would be the center of the next season. For continuity, the common thread in all of the companies could have been Boz, moving from company to company in a sales and business development role.
This way the show could have continued on though to present day and even taken a branch here and there during periods of higher than typical innovation. The big downside is that you end up rotating out some very talented actors. All of the main cast of the show as filmed were really good and it would have been a shame to lose that but the storytelling would have been better for it.
Tony West is the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, the account of Data General creating a new microcomputer in the 80s. The first season of H&CF borrows heavily from it. He was ahead of the curve on a lot of things - laser printers, computers, laptops, thin clients...but never had the ability to bring it all to market in a meaningful way.
The tech industry is full of people like this - people that can build the future but not sell it. I didn't find it unrealistic.
Sometimes I shrug when someone says “I invented Facebook in 1990.” But sometimes that happens, although people don’t normally talk about it in public.
I’ve worked with co-workers who “invented” aspect oriented programming, Jenkins, ajax, nosql sui generis. A few years later in each case I remember thinking “oh yeah this is what John Doe” was building.
So I just chalked this up to people in this company “inventing” mobile computers, dial-up communities, and portals at the same time as compaq, prodigy, and yahoo.
If anything, having a big breakout success is so rare that "almost succeeding" many times is a lot more common.
It sucks - e.g. I was part of building a tablet years before the iPad (we were not first, either, and not the last pre-Apple attempt) - but after a couple like that you get used to it and learn from what the successful attempt did different instead of being annoyed at it.
And then you try again with something else.
The "second generation" tablets were very much treated as a separate category from Newton, PalmPilot, PenPad etc. on one hand, and Tablet PCs on the other hand, in that they tended to be built around internet connectivity and browsers as more important even that portability (you were expected to use them around home or the office), and with media consumption as an essential element. The marketing assumption was that people would have a PDA for work, and tablets would be media devices that were largely separate things.
The second generation devices, including ours, and Ericssons, and a number of others, flawed in that they were still too low res (though much better than the "first generation" like the PenPad or Newton), too expensive, and too slow to be attractive for anything but techie early adopters, and with abysmal battery lifetime which meant they couldn't compete with the PDAs, and you were basically chained to home. This was also before wifi was widespread, and various alternatives were still competing for the wireless space - e.g. ours had a data extension to DECT.
Apple's greatest stroke of genius with respect to the iPhone and iPad wasn't primarily technical, but to recognise that it was too early and the hardware wasn't up to it, and wait instead of releasing a sub-par product. "Everyone else" launched tablets as the next step after PDAs around '99-'05 or so, didn't get any traction, and gave up or failed and then a lot of us subsequently laughed at Apple, because "everyone knew" something like the iPhone even wouldn't work.
That's not to say I assume we'd have competed if we'd waited, but we'd at least had a much better shot. There was a very distinct failure to understand the gap between the quality that was exciting to a tech audience vs. what would be exciting to a wider market... That was a very useful lesson.
Here's the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTdyb-RWNKo
I found it interesting. There is a bit of hagiography going on, though (and note the trailer seems way more antagonistic towards Sculley than the documentary actually is.)
One thing I found striking is that none of these people seem to need or care about money. They say so explicitly, "we didn't care about the money", and that it was all about the vision and passion. Yet somehow they managed to remain clothed and well fed. If that's not the definition of privilege, I don't know what is!
I also really enjoyed Accidental Empires (which was later made into a documentary, Triumph of the Nerds).
My only comment about it is the first handful of episodes are the weakest. After the first half of the first season they tone down the Joe MacMillan character to be less of a kind of over the top trope anti-hero and more of a real character with depth and things get better. They're not bad early on, but you'd probably notice that and it's worth watching anyway.
Whether is was intentional or not, I think the way Joe moves into a more "believable" role worked well from a character development standpoint. Like, the cookie-cutter sales person isn't going to fly in SV (or Texas), and he was fooling himself anyway.
I grew up in the 80s and this show brought back some memories and filled in some gaps. I'd definitely recommend the first series.
At first, "What matters?" was a question the show's creators themselves couldn't answer. When Cantwell and Chris Rogers wrote the pilot for Halt and Catch Fire, they had little in mind but jumping on board one of the shows they already liked. "We're both in our early 30s, so the shows that made us wanna do this were the great 'difficult men' shows: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire," Rogers says. "We wrote the pilot in a way that was set up to ape them: Joe McMillan is a traditional antihero, and the world is organized around him in that way." But when the pilot was bought by AMC for production, rather than simply used as a staffing script to land "The Chrises" (as Halt's cast and crew universally call them) in a writers' room for a preexisting series, things changed. "As we got in there and started doing it, we had a writers' groove. We figured out what was our voice, as opposed to the voice that felt like it was emulating the shows we liked."
In many ways it's the opposite of what I feel like happens to most shows where they have extensively planned and worked on their first season because it's a multi-year effort in the making and then when they get renewed (if they get renewed) they have to figure out where to take it in a fraction of a time that they'd never really planned for.
In addition, I see Mad Men's episode "The Monolith", about a computer being installed in the office, as a comment on the (at that point) upcoming Halt and Catch Fire series.
And w/r/t accuracy, I dont mean technical accuracy but rather the characters types, the ups-and-downs of startups, the failures, etc.
I love this show so much. I worked for a bunch of misses and I like seeing a description of the times that were so important, but not told by the winners.
Ten years ago, I would have been able to buy this show on physical media from abroad. Now, if no streaming provider purchased the television show rights, I can't get it. And there's not enough purchasing power to produce a physical version of it. Isn't this globalization in reverse?
For the record: I live in Norway. Please let me know if there is any way to see the series.
Actually, the first season of H&CF cribs a lot from the book (from the overall plot to a few very specific anecdotes).
I feel like they are conflating sadness with grit and unnecessarily concentrating only on the sad/difficult parts. As a counter example, look at breaking bad or better call saul. Breaking Bad is perhaps the most successful prestige show since Sopranos (I think it might be even more successful if only looked at commercially). But the show has fun with its universe. Even The Wire, which is a show about everything that can go wrong with the city has moment which feel human and are not sad/difficult.
Amusingly enough, I remember this 2015 article comparing the two, as well as Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, when both shows were still on their early seasons:
I don't like silicon valley either, and its precisely the same issue. They are laser focused on some characters and thus suffer from it.
Breaking Bad does as well. What goes right for Walt? He loses everything. Maybe I'm missing something.
I get that it's fiction but still .... you gotta keep it somewhat believable.
It would've been better if, much like Forrest Gump, all these revolutions happened in the background but they weren't necessarily at the forefront of them.
I have to admit I really miss the days of being able to type in a game from a book (meh.... not really).
I didn’t have a hard drive so I would spend all day typing in the program, run it and lose it when the computer shut down. I remember being mad when my sibling would turn off the computer unexpectedly.
And in case you didn't have a disk drive, the magazine included the BASIC source code listing of the program that you had to type _those_ programs into.
The ensemble cast was phenomenal. They delivered believable, vulnerable, and often completely frustrating performances.
I'm a sucker for period character-driven drama and there are few shows that do it as well as HACF did.
I was drawn in by Lee Pace and my extreme nostalgia for the early days of PC computing. I stayed because I fell in love with the characters.
You can pick apart the technical side of it all day(jwz did) but you would entirely be missing the point, at least in my opinion.
That being said, I had a good time watching with my mom who is also in technology, and getting her insights on the references and depiction of 80s tech. She thought it was/is very well done.
BTW, does anynone know where I could buy the complete series on bluray or dvd?
I loved watching the show on TV at its time, but cannot find all the seasons to buy and rewatch.
I initially started with GatsbyJS/React, but it was stopping me from getting to what I needed to do (CSS + content). So even though I was going to start with full JS, it ended up JS-free (I don't use any trackers), which also saved me from having to jump through the right hoops to be more accessibility-friendly!
It's been a few years but that's how I remember it.
The main difference between Gordon and Donna is that she has a lot more 'drive' than he. Gordon was happy to settle as being 'just an engineer' hacking away on circuit boards and such whereas Donna always dreamed of more which we see with her character development over the seasons into business management and investment.
There are a few moments where Donna shows more 'outside the box' thinking in solving a problem such as space saving in the laptop they are designing for Cardiff, however I don't think that is enough to say she was superior to Gordon. I always saw them as equals in terms of technical ability but with Donna having ideas far beyond being an engineer whereas Gordon had that 'kid at heart' personality and would quickly lose interest in the higher level managerial aspects. Cameron's character was very similar to Gordon in that respect.
Breaking it down the four main characters have some very interesting overlap. Even Joe had good technical ability but was clearly the more 'visionary' character who used his technical understanding to try new things and push forward into new waters.
hmm, not exactly. Much earlier, Gordon had 'followed' his dream and done something which ended up not working out (think of it like starting a startup and it folded). That initiative basically left them broke and they had to depend on Donna's parents or something like that. So Donna/Gordon had an agreement that he would get a 'safe' job
I guess it is kind of unfair of me to say Gordon "settled" as he was clearly still quite driven (getting involved with Joe's mainframe project, ARPANET/NSFNET, CalNect etc.) but his health issues forced him to prioritise his health and work/life balance.
Without a deep analysis into each character I guess I will leave it that my summation of Donna and Gordon leaves me feeling Donna was the more driven of the two however as Gordon's life was cut short it is impossible to really say. Donna had the opportunity to do so much more whereas Gordon did not both because of his health issues and ultimately his early passing.
And all of this has made me realise just how involved I got with the characters in this show. I am talking about them as if they were real people which is a little strange when I think about it but I think speaks volumes about just how great the show was :)
I wouldn't say that Gordon was a fool, since that would mean he was stupid. I don't think anyone on the show was stupid. He was constrained by his fears and insecurities. That was the major driver in many of the mistakes he made over the show.
Donna's genius is tempered and tamed; she spends most of season 1 being "The Adult" because she has to. Gordon is indeed presented as struggling both with being a doormat and lacking inspiration at times, even being saved by Donna's inspiration in some cases, but he more than makes up for it over time in the show. They don't stop (mostly unfairly) shitting on him throughout until maybe season 3 or thereabouts, however.
The reality I witnessed was that all these positions were held by men, usually white and Asian.
So the series paints a rosey picture where there is struggle for gender parity. This seems really rare and so the story isn’t realistic in this sense.
But this is part of the story and the characters I think are unique fiction rather than trying to be representative.
Of course there were many awesome female programmers and engineers, just they were by far rarer than their male counterparts. Thus there’s Jobs+Woz, Gates+Allen, Brin+Page and no MacMillan+Howe.