Pirates of Silicon Valley

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Pirates of Silicon Valley

Pirates of Silicon Valley is a 1999 made-for-TV docudrama. Based off of the book Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer by Paul Freiberger, it documents the creation and rise of Apple Computers (later Apple Inc.) and Microsoft through the lives of each company’s co-founder, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The story is told In Medias Res and narrated by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (when focusing on Jobs and Apple) and Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer (when focusing on Gates and Microsoft). Noah Wyle stars as Steve Jobs, Anthony Michael Hall as Bill Gates, and John Dimaggio appears as Steve Ballmer.

The film made its debut on television on June 20, 1999 on TNT and was later released on VHS and DVD.

Pirates of Silicon Valley provides examples of:

  • A Man Is Not a Virgin: Jobs seems to be pulling something like this with a interviewee when he asks him if he was a virgin (he wasn’t), but the movie was misinterpreting an actual event. While Jobs in reality did inquire about a man’s sex life, he was probably also referring to “Code Virgins”, people who had never seen copyrighted IBM code before while working for them. While it is legal to reverse-engineer code, copying code is not, and a fast-talking IBM lawyer could argue that this was the case if a former IBM employee worked for Apple and made a product similar to an IBM one.
    • Played straight in Gates segments, where Ballmer is portrayed as a younger Dirty Old Man and is regularly giving Gates flak for focusing on business over interacting with females.
  • Book Ends: Sort of. The movie begins with the 1984 Macintosh commercial with the Big Brother screen, and ends with Bill Gates on a massive video screen, just like the commercial at a Stevenote. The movie even lampshades it.
  • Documentary: The movie will cut away to have either the actual people the movie was based on, or the actors themselves give exposition on a scene.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: During a pivotal meeting between Bill Gates and IBM, the scene freezes and Steve Ballmer gets up and directly addresses the audiences to deliver an exposition.

 “This is amazing. Not just amazing, it’s historic. It should be taught in all the history books. Hung and framed in the National Gallery or something, because this is the instant of creation of one of the greatest fortunes in the history of the world. I mean, Bill Gates is the richest guy in the world because of what started in this room. And you wanna know what else? It wasn’t exactly smoke and mirrors, but we didn’t have anything! I mean, not a damn thing! Here we were, this two-bit little outfit, telling IBM we had the answer to their problems. The DOS? The Disk Operating System? To make all those zillion IBM computers compute? We didn’t remotely own anything like what Bill was selling them.”

  • Fourth Wall Psych: The movie begins with Steve Jobs talking about changing the world. It seems like he’s talking to the viewer about the film, but then the camera zooms out to reveal he’s talking to Ridley Scott, the director of Apple’s famous “1984” Super Bowl commercial.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Becomes more and more prominent at Apple as Jobs’ jerkass nature comes through more and more.
  • Glorified Sperm Donor: Jobs with his daughter Lisa. He claims to be sterile and unable to get anyone pregnant, denying that he is the father. He seems to regret it after awhile though, with one scene showing him interacting with Lisa, and the speculation that the Apple Lisa was named after her.
  • Granola Girl: Steve Jobs’ girlfriend Arlene.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Jobs. Especially towards the end of the movie.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Gates is definitely portrayed as one, but comes out on top at the end.
  • How We Got Here: After the introductory scene during the creation of Apple’s “1984” ad, the film jumps to the famous 1997 Macworld conference where Steve Jobs announces Microsoft investing in Apple. Steve Wozniak’s narration asks how the two companies went from hating each other to partnering up, and then the film jumps back to the 70s to tell the main story.
  • Insufferable Genius: Both Jobs and Gates. Jobs has it in spades. Gates is more able to control it, but it flies through at the end.
  • It Will Never Catch On: Apple and Microsoft throughout the film go out of their way to blow up these kinds of perceptions from other companies.
    • Gates actually uses this to his advantage. The IBM executives are so convinced that software will never be profitable that they happily give up the licensing rights to DOS instead of demanding exclusivity.
  • Jerkass: Both Jobs and Gates, though Jobs’ jerkassery is shown more prominently in the film (to the point that one Apple employee almost throttles him for his verbal abuse). Gates’ is much more subtle, but just as low-blowing.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Gates. He convinces IBM that he has software that he didn’t even have (yet), and most importantly, when Jobs catches wind that he is designing Windows, he calls Gates out on software piracy, but Gates manages to convince him it’s just a small side project, and towards the end of the scene, Gates praises the Apple Computer company, telling Jobs he would only get an Apple Computer for his mother. The narration in this scene lampshades Gates’ behavior to hell and back.
  • Mushroom Samba: Jobs goes through one when he takes acid in his hippie days.
  • Not So Stoic: Though Bill Gates is shown at times yelling during business matters, Ballmer notes during a flashback of a meeting between Gates and Jobs that Jobs would be the one person Gates never yelled at. This is finally breached toward the end of the movie, when Jobs again confronts Gates about the similarities between Mac OS and Windows:

  Gates: Get real, would ya? You and I are both like guys who had this rich neighbor – Xerox – who left the door open all the time. And you go sneakin’ in to steal a TV set. Only when you get there, you realize that I got there first. I GOT THE LOOT, STEVE! And you’re yellin’? “That’s not fair. I wanted to try to steal it first.” You’re too late.

  • One Steve Limit: Enforced. Though three majors characters would include Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as well as early Microsoft employee Steve Ballmer, only Jobs is ever addressed as Steve in the film – Wozniak goes by his nickname “Woz” while Ballmer goes only by his last name.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Jobs and his company. At the end of the movie, he has his friend walk out on him and his company, is eventually fired (although he eventually comes back between then and the final scene), and has to rely on his main competitor in order to stay afloat. Before this, he owned the hottest company in Silicon Valley, with only the sky as the limit.
  • Proud to Be a Geek
  • Shown Their Work: Despite a research workload that avoided official statements or interviews from either Apple or Microsoft, the film manages to capture most of the events it covers accurately (albeit with occasional goofs). Even the real Steve Wozniak was impressed by the producers’ accuracy and said as much in an interview:

  The personalities and incidents are accurate in the sense that they all occurred but they are often with the wrong parties (Bill Fernandez, Apple employee #4, was with me and the computer that burned up in 1970) and at the wrong dates (when John Sculley joined, he had to redirect attention from the Apple III, not the Mac, to the Apple II) and places (Homebrew Computer Club was at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center) … the personalities were very accurately portrayed.


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Pirates of Silicon Valley


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