Accidental Empires Part 1 -- an accidental story in the making

First in a series. February, 2013 -- We stand today near the beginning of the post-PC era. Tablets and smart phones are replacing desktops and notebooks. Clouds are replacing clusters. We’re more dependent than ever on big computer rooms only this time we not only don’t own them, we don’t even know where they are.  Three years from now we’ll barely recognize the computing landscape that was built on personal computers. So if we’re going to keep an accurate chronicle of that era, we’d better get to work right now, before we forget how it really happened.

Oddly enough, I predicted all of this almost 25 years ago as you’ll see if you choose to share this journey and read on. But it almost didn’t happen. In fact I wish it had never happened at all…

The story of Accidental Empires began in the spring of 1989. I was in New York covering a computer trade show called PC Expo (now long gone) for InfoWorld, my employer at the time. I was at the Marriott Marquis hotel, the phone rang and it was my wife telling me that she had just been fired from her Silicon Valley marketing job. She had never been fired before and was devastated.  I, on the other hand, had been fired from every job I ever held so professional oblivion seemed a part of the package. But she was crushed. Crushed and in denial. They’d given her two months to find another job inside the company.

"They don’t mean it", I said. "That’s two month severance. There is no job. Look outside the company".

But she wouldn’t listen to me. There had to be a mistake. For two months she interviewed for every open position but there were no offers. Of course there weren’t. Two months to the day later she was home for good. And a week after that learned she had breast cancer.

Facing a year or more of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation that would keep my wife from working for at least that long, I had to find a way to make up the income (she made twice what I did at the time). What’s a hack writer to do?

Write a book, of course.

If my wife hadn’t been fired and hadn’t become ill, Accidental Empires would never have happened. As it was, I was the right guy in the right place at the right time and so what I was able to create in the months that followed was something quite new -- an insider view of the personal computer industry written by a guy who was fired from every job he ever held, a guy with no expectation of longevity, no inner censor, nothing to lose and no reason not to tell the truth.

And so it was a sensation, especially in places like Japan where you just don’t write that Bill Gates needed to take more showers (he was pretty ripe most of the time).

Microsoft tried to keep the book from being published at all. They got a copy of the galleys (from the Wall Street Journal, I was told) and threatened the publisher, Addison-Wesley, with being cut off from publishing books about upcoming Microsoft products. This was a huge threat at the time and it was to Addison-Wesley’s credit that they stood by the book.

Bullies tend to be cowards at heart so I told the publisher that Microsoft wouldn’t follow-through and they didn’t. This presaged Redmond’s "we only threatened and never really intended to do it" antitrust defense.

The book was eventually published in 18 languages. "For Pammy, who knows we need the money" read the dedication that for some reason nobody ever questioned. The German edition, which was particularly bad, having been split between two different translators with a decided shift in tone in the middle, read "Für Pammy, weiß, wer ich für Geld zu schreiben".

"For Pammy, who knows I write for money".

Doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

The book only happened because my boss at InfoWorld, the amazing Jonathan Sacks (who later ran AOL), fought for me. It happened because InfoWorld publisher Eric Hippeau signed the contract almost on his way out to door to becoming publisher at arch-rival PC Magazine.

Maybe the book was Hippeau’s joke on his old employer, but it made my career and I haven’t had a vacation since as a result. That’s almost 24 years with no more than three days off, which probably in itself explains much of my behavior.

Accidental Empires is very important to me and I don’t serialize it here lightly. My point is to update it and I trust that my readers of many years will help me do that.

Join me for the next two months as we relive the early history of the personal computer industry. If you remember the events described here, share your memories. If I made a mistake, correct me. If there’s something I missed (Commodore, Atari, etc.) then throw it in and explain its importance. I’ll be be with you every step, commenting and responding in turn, and together we’ll improve the book, making it into something even more special.

And what became of Pammy? She’s gone.

Change is the only constant in this -- or any other -- story.

Reprinted with permission

Photo Credit: urfin/Shutterstock

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