Without Compaq, There’d Be No iPhone

The story of how one David took on Goliath to build a small, portable computer.

By Laura RiceSeptember 16, 2016 9:50 am

The Austin-San Antonio area now has the nickname “Silicon Hills,” and North Texas has become its own tech hub. But this is no recent trend. Those in the know will remember that, in some ways, Texas has long been leading in the computer age. One part of Texas’ technology story goes back to Houston in the 1980s.

The documentary “Silicon Cowboys” begins – as all good stories should – in a pie restaurant. A few young Texas Instruments employees quit their jobs, went out for pie, turned over a paper placement and began to draw out a plan for a new computer. They wanted to build a computer to rival the market giant IBM.

Director Jason Cohen saw that this narrative could make a compelling documentary.

“It was immediately obvious that there was this David versus Goliath narrative,” Cohen says. “What I really wanted to do was to tell the anti-Jobs story.”

He’s talking about Steve Jobs. You’ve heard of him, and you’ve also heard of Bill Gates. But does Rod Canion ring a bell?

Rod Canion was the co-founder of Compaq computer, and was Compaq’s president and CEO for the first decade. Before we move forward, Canion wants to set the record straight about something:

“I would take the David versus Goliath story one more step because it wasn’t just one battle and over in a second,” Canion says. “It was over and over again. So it was kind of, to me, like a David versus Goliath meets Indiana Jones. It just goes on and on ’til we finally push them aside.”

It’s this ongoing battle that’s tracked in the documentary.

“For me it was, yes, we’re in Texas and these guys were taking on IBM who was in New York and the main tech industry was all happening in Silicon Valley – even at that time,” Cohen says. “And they did it from outside and they were mavericks.”

The idea that got them off the ground was creating an IBM-compatible portable computer. With your smartphone in your pocket and your 2-pound laptop in your bag, it’s hard to appreciate how big and ambitious this was at the time.

“This was the first one that made an impact where people really realized, ‘You can do this, you can take your work with you,’” Cohen says. “Just the idea that you were seeing somebody walking through the airport with a large case with a handle on it and opening it up to start using it to do their work. People used to gather around, ‘What is that? What are you doing?’”

The idea took off.

At Compaq’s height, Canion estimates the company employed about 15,000 people in Houston alone. He says people liked working at Compaq. It was a cool place to work long before tech companies started replacing conference rooms with bean bag chairs and ping pong tables.

“It’s free Cokes and it’s no reserved parking places but it’s way beyond that,” Canion says. “It’s talking to people about how to treat each other. It’s talking about how important every job is. People loved being there and it was an environment where people were helping you succeed, not trying to undermine you in some way to get the credit.”

It’s a story that perhaps only could have unfolded the way that it did in one state: “Well there is something special about Texas and it’s not a technology desert,” Canion says. “It’s actually very rich in technology.”

And it’s a story that relies on the backdrop of one city: Houston.

“This really is a local story,” Cohen says. “If you really want to understand the impact that Compaq had on this city – we have shots in the film, we went back to the House of Pies, where the original sketch was done on the back of the placemat. And we shot a lot up at the old Compaq campus up at HP, so I think that people here in Houston will get a real kick out it.”

The documentary “Silicon Cowboys” is hitting theaters in select cities this weekend, including special screenings in Houston. It’s also available now everywhere on Video on Demand.