Accidental Empires : How the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition, and still can’t get a date (1996) by Robert X Cringely is a fun, opinionated romp through the history of the personal computer. It is, oddly, probably the best history of the personal computer industry.
The book covers the growth of PCs from their inception in the 1970s until the early 1990s when personal computers went from the hobbyist Altair 8800 to the mass market early 1990s Pentium computers running MS Windows. Cringely is an ideal writer for the book, he was a Stanford Grad student who worked at Apple and knows quite a few of the people that he writes about. The book pre-dates the second phase of the computer revolution, the coming of the internet and the rise of mobile phones.
The thesis of the book is that most of the people who made Silicon Valley are those who on the edge of the normal curve in terms of ability. The historical context of Silicon Valley is mentioned, in terms of the engineering firms that were established in the 1940s. The defence contribution to Silicon Valley is not mentioned and little emphasis is placed on having so many world class universities in the area.
The people the book looks at in detail include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe and Gary Kildall, author CP/M the operating system MS-DOS was based on, Mitch Kapor , the designer of Lotus 1-2-3 and others. The portrayals are not kind. In particular Bill Gates and Steve Jobs get particularly harsh treatment and are both described as psychopaths. It’s journalistic in style, which is not a bad thing as the over the top characterisations mean that it is entertaining. However, perhaps due to the success of the book the somewhat ‘Gonzo’ views of the characters have become too much of the view of some of the characters.
The books strengths are that Cringely really knows what he is talking about. He is a very smart guy, not as smart or driven as the people he writes about, but nonetheless very able. His understanding means that he doesn’t construct as many of the silly attempts at metaphor for the technology he is writing about that are often in other books on technology. He knows how important the rapid screen drawing of quickdraw was to the Macintosh and how important the Laser Writer was.
The chapters on the rise of the PC and on IBM are also very good due to Cringely’s understanding. He points out how having an IBM name enabled business to standardize around one platform and how that further computers by allowing more building within a larger system than reconstructing new systems all over the place that predated the rise of the DOS/Windows PC. Cringely also gives credit to Bill Gates for realizing that control of the platform would be the most valuable part.
For anyone interested in the history of technology and the history of PCs this is a brilliant read. It’s not to be taken literally and it is a great pity that no historian has written a more comprehensive and careful overview of the rise of the PC industry. But the book stands as a terrific, entertaining overview of the rise of one of the most important technologies of our time.