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The clash of two titans profiled in 'Silicon Valley'

Sunday, June 20, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

They were the nerds who made it hip to be a geek. They were also sharks who would do anything to win.

    TV Review: 'Pirates of Silicon Valley'

When: 8 tonight on TNT.

Starring: Noah Wyle, Anthony Michael Hall.


The aptly titled "Pirates of Silicon Valley" (8 tonight on TNT) chronicles the rise of Apple guru Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Microsoft impresario Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall).

It's a fascinating drama filled with Shakespearean twists and betrayals as viewers come to know the geniuses who transformed not only the way we communicate, but the way we live. You're looking at the proof: This review was written using a program created by Gates' Microsoft, and TV Week is designed using one of Jobs' Macintosh computers.

The "Pirates" story begins with Jobs on the set of the classic Apple commercial that aired only once during the 1984 Super Bowl. Just as the spot launched the company on a stratospheric rise, it also marked the beginning of the company's downfall. While Jobs targeted IBM as the enemy ("big brother" in the commercial), his real enemy was closer to home.

Jobs didn't realize it though, and neither will viewers until the end of this movie. After the intro, "Pirates" ricochets back to 1971 when Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) are self-proclaimed "scruffy crazies" creating gadgets that allow them to get free long distance.

At Harvard in 1974, Gates hordes back issues of Playboy magazine before embarking on the creation of the Microsoft empire that would divide the nation into warring factions of PC users and Mac users.

As a Mac loyalist, I found the sections of "Pirates" devoted to Jobs more interesting, but I think that has to do more with the screenplay by writer/director Martyn Burke than any bias on my part. Jobs is portrayed as a more complex, difficult-to-pin-down guy. On the other hand, Gates is rendered an average dork who knocks over a pack of rollerskating women and then tries to pick one up with the line, "You must have really good bandwidth. What are you doing later?"

Jobs first comes across as an easy-going, peace-loving nice guy. That's no doubt in part to the actor playing him. Wyle is so ingrained in our minds as the good guy doc he plays on "ER," it takes a while before it sinks in what a jerk Jobs is.

Jobs preaches that computers will "create a new consciousness" and encourages his employees to join his crusade against IBM. ("Better to be a pirate than to join the navy," Jobs is fond of saying.)

But he also verbally abuses his employees, pitting two segments against each other when he calls the Macintosh design team "true artists," leaving the Apple II workers to feel like chopped liver. When his girlfriend gets pregnant, he abandons her and refuses to acknowledge he's the child's father even after a paternity test. And yet he names a computer, Lisa, after his child.

The true pirating comes later on when Gates buys DOS from a Seattle programmer for a measly $50,000 and the Xerox folks allow Jobs to pillage their computer system that uses a mouse and on-screen graphics.

The most fascinating aspect of "Pirates of Silicon Valley" is how willingly big business dismissed home computing, leaving it to the long-haired kids. Wozniak has to get permission from employer Hewlett Packard before selling Apple computers with Jobs. HP has no use for the device. IBM happily gives Gates rights to the software he creates for the company, thinking the big bucks are in hardware. Ah, sweet naiveté.

How ironic that in the end Jobs makes the same missteps as those conglomerates. "Pirates" posits that shear arrogance led to the downfall of Apple.

One problem: "Pirates of Silicon Valley" only tells half the story, pretty much skipping the period between Jobs' firing in 1985 and his rehiring in 1996 and the alliance with Microsoft that soon follows.

If ever a story cried out for a longer running time, this is it. In a day when NBC stretches "Noah's Ark" to a mind-numbing four hours, it's amazing TNT didn't give this drama its due. But because the focus was on these two characters, dramatically this abbreviation makes sense.

Still, a sequel focused on Gates wouldn't be a bad idea - even though his far more successful product remains inferior.

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