The problem with anticipating a new show is expectations. Potential fans for "Halt and Catch Fire" (premiering this Sunday on AMC) have already been set up for disappointment because reviewers compare it to another AMC drama show aired in the time spot, "Mad Men". Or worse WIRED gave the review the headline Halt and Catch Fire Gets the ’80s PC Revolution Perfectly Right. Here’s How. Perfectly right? Well, now I have to look for the errors.
As many here know, I have written reviews of "Mad Men" after each episode for several years now. It's always been a little weird to watch and write about a show that treats your own life as history. I wanted to say: "Yeah I'm old, but not old enough to have lived in history."
After 7± seasons of "Mad Men" I have gotten over that. One begins to realize that the larger events of the lifetimes of you and your contemporaries were history. And your personal experience of those events shape your outlook.
The characters and settings of "Mad Men" have seemed somewhat removed from my personal experience - New York City is a long way from a Californian who has spent most of his life in Northern and Central California and advertising is about as far removed from my working life as one can get.
In contrast, I had a very personal interest in the story arc of "Halt and Catch Fire" set in the early 1980's.
In 1980 my wife and I started a business providing computer-based business services. We bought our first of three Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II computers with 64K RAM - list price $3,899. But you really couldn't get along with the computer alone. And in fact the Model II 2-Megabyte “Business Management System” totalled $8,766.00 as described:
This could easily be the business system! It’s our most powerful Model II combination, and gives you approximately 2-million bytes of disk storage. Just look at what we’ve teamed with the 64K Model II (26-4002)! A 3-drive external disk system (26-4162) for maximum memory storage. The Line Pnnter III (26-1156) – an excellent business printer. Its bidirectional head prints 9×7 dot-matrix upper and lower case letters at 120 characters per second. And the Printer Stand (26-4302) puts the printer right at your fingertips and frees deskspace. Connection is simple with the Printer Cable (26-4401). Plus there’s plenty of workroom on the System Desk (26-4301). Here’s the system with the versatility, computing power, and speed that you can start with or expand to – whatever your needs. Approximately 1,874,000 Free Bytes Of Disk Storage.
To put that cost in perspective, adjusted for the CPI its $24,783 plus tax - well over the equivalent $25,000 for one powerful computer. By 1983 we had three Model II's, each configured differently, including one 5 MB hard drive.
It put a dent in our finances. But it was all good.
Except in 1981 IBM introduced its first microcomputer (that's what they were - there were mainframes like the IBM 360 which in 1970 I began working with in programming, and there were minicomputers which my wife had been working with in accounting systems).
Like most in management roles who had IBM computer experience prior to 1980, I had a love-hate relationship with IBM. In terms of human rights and social policy, IBM was in the forefront having non-discrimination policies (1953 race, ethnic origin, or gender policy; 1984 sexual orientation was added). And they stood behind their equipment as long you accepted all the rules without deviation.
The one thing most of us in 1980 who had gotten out from under the limitations of IBM systems did not want to see is IBM to controlling the microcomputer environment.
Sometime in 1983-84 Pacific Gas & Electric's IT department bought several hundred IBM PC's, a depressing development. It was clear to me that, if left unchecked, IBM was going to dominate the business side of the microcomputer and with it the microcomputer business. There was really no room for Tandy, Apple, Commodore, etc., in the volume sales of computers to businesses if IBM became the sole source - a fact that would make it economically undesirable to write business software (Apps in today's jargon) for other computers systems.
Or would IBM dominate?
Initially, IBM did make one big mistake. Instead of buying out Paul Allen and Bill Gates - or at least buying all rights to MS-DOS operating system - they bought from Microsoft a license to use the operating system. And Microsoft retained the rights to license to others the operating system that would be used in the IBM PC. There is a whole legend and a true story about this, but I won't go into that.
Which brings us to 1983.
Compaq Computer Corporation was a company founded in 1982, that developed, sold, and supported computers and related products and services. Compaq produced some of the first IBM PC compatible computers, being the first company to legally reverse-engineer the IBM Personal Computer. The company, headquartered in Harris, Texas, was formed by Rod Canion, Jim Harris and Bill Murto—former Texas Instruments senior managers. Their first product, the Compaq Portable, a portable IBM PC compatible personal computer, was released in March 1983 at $2,995. Compaq was able to market a legal IBM clone because IBM mostly used "off the shelf" parts for their PC. The only part which had to be duplicated was the BIOS, which Compaq did legally by using clean room reverse engineering at a cost of $1 million. For more see Wikipedia.
Beginning in the late 1980's, after trying to stay with Tandy, we went with Compaq. It was irritating to be using "IBM clones" but the programming and software environment was open enough to do some creative things when you needed to.
Which leads to "Halt and Catch Fire." From Wikipedia:
Halt and Catch Fire, known by the mnemonic HCF, refers to several computer machine code instructions that cause a computer's CPU to cease meaningful operation. The expression "catch fire" is intended as a joke; the CPU does not literally catch fire, but it does stop functioning. It is also occasionally referred to as "SDI" for "Self Destruct Immediate".
"Halt and Catch Fire" is a series ostensibly about IBM alum Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace who you may recognize from "Pushing Daisies") and Gordon Clark (played by Scoot McNairy who you may or may not recognize), who reverse-engineer an IBM PC in the garage of Clark’s Dallas home during a single weekend in 1983. Their company, Cardiff Electric, is thus set up to develop a portable PC twice as fast and half as expensive as anything then available.
A third character, Cameron Howe (played by Mackenzie Davis who you probably won't recognize either), is an angry college "coed" sort-of-drop-out who gets kicked out of bars for hacking arcade games and was aware of the Internet at the time Al Gore was learning about it while chair of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
I consider "Mad Men" TV's first great American novel. That is different from other great shows, whether scifi like "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or comedy like "All in the Family" or crime like "Breaking Bad." Regarding "Halt" I'm keeping my expectations in check but I'm hoping for something good. I guess it will be another "period piece" about a time lived through.
(Also I'm waiting for the premier on AMC even though it is available on line.)