Cringely's Computer Chronicles
By: John Shepler
Robert X. Cringely writes what will be tomorrow's history. He's a journalist immersed in the accelerated world of computers and high technology in Silicon Valley. It's a business in a time warp, where garages transform into empires and hobbyists change the world. If there is a battle raging for who will dominate the Internet, the personal computer, and even the information age, then Robert X. Cringely is the premier war correspondent.
I first became familiar with his work when a colleague recommended "Accidental Empires, How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date." It's the inside scoop on Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Scott McNealy, Mitch Kapor, Gary Kildall and a host of others who created the computer industry as we know it today.
Accidental it was. Look at billions of dollars spent on personal computers and software, the way you can walk into a discount store and buy a system ready to go and more powerful than anything the government had a generation ago, and you might think this was all the result of organized research and painstaking implementation. Ha!
Almost nothing that we take for granted, the hardware, the software, the big names, nothing was preordained or even worked out on paper. It pretty much happened along the way. Robert X. Cringely was there to watch it, write about it and perhaps even influence it a bit himself. He was Apple Computer employee number 12 and claims to have helped Steve Jobs clean out the garage where the Apple empire began. He sneaked around the back alleys of Silicon Valley computer companies with budding entrepreneurs, diving through dumpsters to find the parts for their next important project. All the time, he was collecting the scoop on what was developing just out of the limelight.
Robert X. Cringely wrote it all up in 1992. Bill Gates didn't invent MS-DOS. He sold the idea to IBM and then went and bought the software from a Seattle entrepreneur who was converting someone else's 8 bit operating system to run with the new 8086 processor. Steve Wozniak was an undistinguisted Hewlett-Packard engineer without a college degree. He invented the Apple computer to impress his friends in the Homebrew Computer Club. A friend of Wozniak who worked part time in a video game company sold his wheels, a VW Microbus, and helped make copies of the computer board that they could sell from his parents' garage...the one Cringely got involved with cleaning out. Today the iMac computer from Apple is one of the hottest selling products you'll find, and Apple is flying high with none other than founder Steve Jobs back in charge.
Robert X. Cringely made his own name writing an influential weekly column in a top computer trade publication, InfoWorld, from 1987 to 1995. There is some controversy on who made the name, as InfoWorld claims that Mark C. Stephens simply used their moniker on his "Notes From the Field" column. When he left the publication in 1995, they hired another columnist whom they called Robert X. Cringely as well.
But "the one true Cringely", as he calls himself, got the rights to continue using the name and has moved on to PBS to continue his writing and expand into video reporting. His latest production is appropriately titled "Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet." It's a fascinating three hour documentary that shows how college students become billionaires and create the world of cyberspace out of, well, garages. In fact, the group that created the Excite search engine have a new multi-million dollar corporate palace with a conference room that looks just like the garage they started in six years ago. Cringely has video from then and now and, yes, they seem like pretty much the same guys...just in more upscale accommodations these days.
Robert X. Cringely has also produced and starred in "Triumph of the Nerds", which is a similar documentary about the history of the PC industry, "Digital TV: A Cringely Crash Course", all about the coming technology of wide screen digital TV, and something called "Plane Crazy." In "Plane Crazy," he got the idea that airplanes take a ridiculous amount of time to design and manufacture and that he could personally reset the standard from a couple of years down to no more than 30 days. His bungling attempt would be hilarious if it wasn't so pitiful, but in the end the one true Cringely does indeed triumph and takes to the sky in a biplane he helped build...in a month.
You've gotta love this guy, character that he is. He sticks pins in the overinflated egos and overhyped products of the industry giants, and he celebrates the lesser known geeks and nerds who create the real value in the products from their cubicles and dorm rooms. He is a champion of the individual. He's there in print, on the web and on television proving that, even today, each of us has within ourselves the power to change the world.
Books of Interest:
Accidental Empires Revisited: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition and Still Can't Get Date by Robert X. Cringely. An updated version of the classic book on the history and unlikely heros of the personal computer revolution.
Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices.
Also visit these related sites:
T1 Rex's Business Telecom Explainer - High speed voice and network technologies explained in simple terms.
Copyright 1998 - 2017 by John E. Shepler. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: December 6, 1998 as part of A Positive Light