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Film / Pirates of Silicon Valley

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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.

Compare Jobs, another film about the early days of Steve Jobs & Apple, and Steve Jobs, a third Jobs "biopic" of sorts.


Pirates of Silicon Valley provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Title Change: The movie's title is shortened from the book's original name Fire in the Valley: The Making of The Personal Computer.
  • Bookends: 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.
  • 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.
      Ballmer: 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.
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    • Steve Wozniak does something similar while touting the innovation of Xerox's Graphical User Interface.
  • 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.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Jobs unveils the Apple Macintosh to his employees, he calls it their baby, raises a glass of champagne to toast the computer, and promptly smashes it on the Mac. A good metaphor for how he treats people who are important to him.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: When called out on running Apple like a cult and setting his employees against each other, Jobs says people need competition and a goal to strive for, citing the The Vietnam War as an example. The Vietnam War was a disaster that caused more problems than it solved and helped nobody.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": A subtle example — Adele Goldberg, the Xerox PARC employee who was ordered by company execs, over her strong objections, to give Jobs and company a demo of the Smalltalk system, is named only "Xerox project manager" in the credits. Why her name wasn't used is unknown, but in real life Goldberg was almost as significant to Smalltalk as its creators, Alan Kay and Dan Ingalls, having written the standard book on Smalltalk-80 and later running a company that marketed Smalltalk when Xerox wouldn't.
  • 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.
  • Freudian Excuse: Created in a made-up scene where Bill Gates and Steve Jobs meet for the first time at a CES. Bill Gates introduces himself, and offers his hand, but Steve Jobs is so pumped up from a presentation he just gave that he ignores him and walks away.
  • 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 Brennan-Jobs. He claims to be sterile and unable to get anyone pregnant, denying that he is the father. He seems to regret distancing himself after awhile though, with one scene showing him interacting with Lisa with a bit of a somber mood, and the speculation that the Apple Lisa was named after her.
  • Granola Girl: Steve Jobs' girlfriend Arlene (who was in reality named Chrisann Brennan.)
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Both Gates and Jobs are presented warts and all. The more socially awkward Gates is single minded about his company and success, often deceptive in reaching his goals. The handsome and charismatic Jobs is vocally idealistic, but this also becomes part of the cult-like atmosphere at Apple.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Jobs. Especially towards the end of the movie.
  • 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.
    • After designing the first Apple computer, Woz is forced to show it to HP, per his contract. The executive in charge of reviewing it however, scoffs at the idea of a computer for ordinary people.
    • 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.
    • Xerox never considering their early version of GUI (Graphical User Interface) to be all that important; the product using it didn't sell well. Adele Goldberg and the rest of PARC did, though, and the film shows a scene of a furious Goldberg trying and failing to convince a (rather Large Ham) Xerox exec to give PARC and Smalltalk more funding and a commercial outlet. Both Jobs and Gates go racing to get their own version of GUIs - Mac and Windows - out as fast as possible, seeing the value in the home-based market for such a user-friendly operating tool. This is what Gates is yelling about at the end when Jobs confronts him about Microsoft getting Windows out ahead of his Mac release.
  • 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.
  • Large Ham: Steve Ballmer, as per real life. John DiMaggio is really full of himself in moments such as when he interrupts the IBM meeting to his narrration.
  • 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 intellectual property theft (no actual software piracy was involved), 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.
    • Jobs is manipulative too, he just does it the standard charismatic borderline cult leader type way.
  • Mushroom Samba: Jobs goes through one when he takes acid in his hippie days.
  • Nerd: Steve Wozniak on the Apple side. Bill Gates and Paul Allen on the Microsoft one.
  • 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, will you? You and I are both like guys that had this rich neighbor - Xerox - that left the door open all the time. And you go sneaking in to steal the TV set. Only when you get there, you realize that I got there first. I GOT THE LOOT, STEVE! And you're yelling? 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 he has to rely on his main competitor to stay afloat. Before this, he owned the hottest company in Silicon Valley, with only the sky as the limit. Future events (between the time of filming and present day) would show Apple to become at least as successful as Microsoft. Microsoft would eventually sell their investment at a decent profit, without having exercised much control in Apple.
  • 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:
    Woz: 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Social Network could be considered one for the new millennium, being about another real life Insufferable Genius who revolutionized computers. Alternately, or perhaps more appropriately, the film Steve Jobs could be seen as a companion film, filling in many of the gaps of this story.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Bill Gates' partner Paul Allen disappears halfway through the movie. The real-life explanation is that he left Microsoft in 1982 after being diagnosed with cancer, although he wouldn't die of it until 36 years later.
  • Younger Than They Look: Given Steve Ballmer being almost completely bald by 1980 in the movie, it's hard to believe that he was only 24 at the time, and he is actually younger than Bill Gates.