First-time visitors to Northern California's Silicon Valley always seem to remark about how nondescript the place is. The vibrant, innovative technology capital of the world turns out to be full of anonymous industrial parks, indistinguishable office buildings and bland strip malls, devoid of interesting landmarks for techno-tourists to see.
But what's truly interesting about Silicon Valley is what goes on behind the scenes. Those of us who have lived and worked there know there's an incredible array of dazzling technology inside those boring buildings, and some even better stories behind those technologies -- tales of fortunes won and lost, of great personality clashes, of roller-coaster careers and company histories, of incredible luck and frustrating near-misses.
One of the great sagas of the former orchard valley south of San Francisco belongs to Apple Computer and its founders, "the two Steves," Jobs and Wozniak. Beginning with a home-built computer in 1976, Apple flared briefly in the mid-'80s as the symbol of the great possibilities of Silicon Valley, only to fall flat and narrowly escape extinction before its recent revival with the hot-selling iMac.
It's a story that's been told many times, in countless books and as part of a superb PBS documentary three years ago called "Triumph of the Nerds."
No doubt figuring that the Internet boom and soaring technology stock prices have created an insatiable public appetite for tales from Silicon Valley, TNT is taking another swing at the Apple legend with its workmanlike made-for-TV docudrama "Pirates of Silicon Valley," which airs Sunday at 8 p.m.
For good measure, the producers of "Pirates" have added a little extra plot, in the parallel story of the growth of Microsoft, the software company that turned a Harvard University dropout named Bill Gates into the richest man on Earth. Microsoft isn't technically a Silicon Valley company -- it's based near Seattle -- but that doesn't deter the makers of "Pirates."
Exercising a further bit of dramatic license, "Pirates" focuses on a personal battle between Jobs and Gates for dominance of the personal computer industry. There's some basis for that rivalry, but the producers might have been better off sticking to the facts -- there was plenty of internal drama at Apple to go around, and some great stories behind the development of its flagship Macintosh computer.
"Pirates" touches on some of those anecdotes, most notably Jobs's famous visit to Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Lab, where he saw and liberally borrowed from Xerox's breakthrough work in features such as graphical user interfaces and computer mice, which are now commonplace on personal computers.
But while "Pirates" paints a fairly rich portrait of the mercurial, temperamental Jobs -- played by "ER's" Noah Wyle, who doesn't quite capture Jobs's casual, oily smoothness -- it keeps intruding on the story with a cartoonish portrayal of Gates, the uber-nerd. Anthony Michael Hall does a credible Gates. He's not pasty-faced enough and his bowl-cut hair is a bit too neat, but he nails such trademark Gates traits as rocking back and forth during conversations and constant fiddling with his glasses. But the character has no depth at all. You get no sense of Gates's personality, brilliance or drive. He's just a stereotypical nerd.
That allows the movie's producers to use Gates as the villain of the piece, a constantly plotting execugeek who gets a glimpse of the interface Jobs plans for the Macintosh and steals it lock, stock and desktop for Microsoft's Windows software.
That's a nice Apple-centric version of the development of Windows, but it doesn't quite square with the facts. Microsoft actually was an early and ardent backer of the Mac, and its first successful ripoff of the Mac interface didn't happen until Windows 3.0 was released in 1990 -- six years after the Mac came out and three years after the end of the era the movie portrays.
While Apple did go after Microsoft in court for allegedly stealing the Mac interface, that case was filed in 1987, two years after Jobs left the company (the end of the movie) -- and Apple lost the lawsuit. The notion that Jobs had a sizzling personal vendetta against Gates for swiping the idea for Windows is a little exaggerated. Besides, as the movie does point out, Apple snitched its ideas from Xerox, and so did Microsoft.
But then, Gates is worth roughly $90 billion these days and is a famous public figure, while Apple and Jobs have been reduced to also-ran status in the computer business. The producers of "Pirates of Silicon Valley" must have felt they needed to spice up the story a bit to keep the audience interested.
That's not the only gimmick they employ. "Pirates" is told in pseudo-documentary style, eliciting unfortunate comparisons with the far-superior "Triumph of the Nerds," and is narrated by actors playing Jobs's more technologically gifted partner, Wozniak (who comes off as more interesting than Jobs), and Gates's colleague (now Microsoft president) Steve Ballmer.
The piece also will not be confused or compared with HBO's industrial drama "Barbarians at the Gate." There's a smattering of camera trickery to try to dress up the cliched script, and in one of the oddest moments, Ballmer (John DiMaggio, in a bad bald wig) stops a meeting and steps out of the scene into the viewer's living room to comment on what's happening.
There are a couple of other anomalies, as well. Gates is seen being photographed for a story in the Wall Street Journal -- an odd dramatic choice since the Journal doesn't print photographs -- and the images of Silicon Valley portrayed are generally far more attractive than the real thing. Some early scenes of Microsoft's origins in Albuquerque look much more like Silicon Valley than any of the settings for the Apple scenes.
The man who orchestrated the film, writer-director Martyn Burke, previewed the movie recently in Silicon Valley to generally good response, he said. "The general consensus was, they liked it."
(Steve Wozniak told the San Jose Mercury News he liked it, while raising some small questions of fact.)
Burke conceded that Microsoft is not happy about his project: "They've been firing shots across our bow since before we started this thing." But they haven't accepted his challenge to point out specific problems with facts, he said.
Indeed, John Pinette, a spokesman for Microsoft, called the film "disappointing."
"There are a number of historical and factual inaccuracies," he said. "We'll let the audience decide" what really happened. He said Gates probably would not be part of that audience.
Burke, a former documentary filmmaker, noted the success of "Barbarians at the Gate" and a fresh interest in films about business, especially the computer business.
"A few years ago, you couldn't have gotten this thing rolling," he said. "It's computers and the Internet that people are into now, just like at the end of the '80s it was Wall Street.
"This is not a business story -- this is as much a story about society and culture as it is about business, because the edges have merged and blurred."
With his background in documentaries, Burke approached a film about the living with some reservation. "I've always had a bias against doing films about living people, or people who are very well-known," he said. "That was my trepidation in approaching this topic.
"For me, the challenge was in the casting of Bill Gates." He said he saw 100 actors before giving the role to Hall and sending him off to learn Gates's style and mannerisms. "He had a five-week crash course in how to become Chairman Bill," said Burke.
In the end, the events portrayed in "Pirates of Silicon Valley" should come off as a lot more interesting than the movie makes them seem. "Triumph of the Nerds" proved that the atmosphere in Silicon Valley that has produced world-changing technologies and staggering new wealth also can make for great storytelling. "Pirates" proves that a virtual reality version just isn't as good as the real thing.
Mark Potts is a Washington, D.C.-based technology consultant and writer who owns one of the first Macintosh computers, has spent time with Gates and Jobs and has lived and worked in Silicon Valley.
CAPTION: Bill Gates, before giving a speech at Georgetown University.
CAPTION: Steve Jobs, introducing the Apple II computer.
CAPTION: Noah Wyle and Anthony Michael Hall as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in TNT's "Pirates of Silicon Valley."