Halt and Catch Fire, una sèrie sobre els inicis dels PCs

Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

AMC series set in the dawn of the PC age focuses on drama, not desk

Computerworld – By July 11, 201

Tech history is hot. From the origins of Facebook to Steve Jobs biopics, mainstream media is enthusiastically examining the origins of the computers and tech celebrities who revolutionized the world.

AMC is hoping to capitalize on that trend with its series Halt and Catch Fire, now midway through its first season. It’s a period drama in the style of Mad Men, but instead of a New York ad agency in the 1960s, Halt and Catch Fire — named for code that causes a CPU to grind to a halt — is set at a Texas computer company in 1983.

When Cardiff Electric, a mainframe software company, hires former IBM salesman Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace, who’s also the elf Thranduil in the Hobbit movies), it gets more than it bargained for. With a dream to realize and an axe to grind, MacMillian manipulates Cardiff into the hardware business, directly competing with his former employer. Fortunately for MacMillian, his team includes two unlikely geniuses: has-been engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and college drop-out turned programmer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), the rare woman in a nearly all-male industry.

It’s hard not to see the first two personalities as derivative of well-known archetypes of the tech world. Oafish Clark is the show’s Steve Wozniak, having developed a revolutionary computer in his youth — but without a Steve Jobs to help him market it, the computer flopped, sentencing Clark to obscurity. Along comes his Jobs, Joe MacMillan, who manipulates people better than he does pixels. Smarmy, quixotic MacMillian plays to Clark’s ego, taunting him with the fame Clark’s always felt he deserved.

MacMillian, like any snake oil salesman, uses promises instead of substance to sell Cardiff employees on a grandiose dream: “We just might change the way people work, the way people live, and how they interact with each other. We just might put a ding in the universe.” I rolled my eyes at this blatant theft of a Steve Jobs speech… until the next scene when Clark pulls MacMillian aside and says, “You stole that from Steve Jobs.” (…)

Reality check

Those who remember this era will appreciate that AMC has done its homework. Cardiff’s clean-room approach to cloning IBM’s computers, a major plot point in the first few episodes, is a clear nod to how Compaq pulled off the same trick. The ruthlessness of the competing companies is also utterly believable, a precursor to the tactics of today’s patent trolls.

The setting and props also have plenty of details for geeks to appreciate — or, in some cases, criticize. My personal experience with that era’s technology is mostly limited to the Apple II, so to fact-check Halt and Catch Fire‘s finer points, I consulted with David Ross, a Web developer and former president of the South West Regional Association of Programmers, a Chicago-based Commodore 64 user group.

The early ’80s office environment is spot on, says Ross: “From the Zenith Z-100s on employees’ desks to the Commodore 64 on the shelf in Gordon Clark’s garage, I haven’t seen any props that were out of place.” (…)

Halt and Catch Fire has enough charisma and synergy to transcend being a show for geeks. (…) “It’s the same classic ethos/pathos/logos triad that made the original Star Trek so compelling to people who swear they don’t like sci-fi,” says Ross. “They’ve captured the industry at a tense time, when a product’s technical merits didn’t matter as much as how well the company could secure the best shelf space at stores.”

As a born-and-bred geek, I’m naturally a bit defensive anytime some corporate entity tries to capitalize on a stereotype that has historically been stigmatized. I went into Halt and Catch Fire looking for reasons not to like it… but every time I found one, the show surprised me with a reason to keep watching. When the characters are angry or vengeful or deceptive, the show is over-the-top. But when they are thoughtful or clever or vulnerable, it makes us root for these underdogs, believing they might just come out on top.

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És Halt and Catch Fire una còpia de la història de Compaq? Aquí pots llegir les similituds.

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