The crazy computer biz exposed: PC Roadkill by Michael Hyman

by Alan Zisman (c) 1997. First published in Toronto Computes, February 1997.

"PC Roadkill" by Michael Hyman, IDG Books, ISDN 1-56884-348-8, $26.99 (CDN)
Computer books have proven quite a lucrative field for publishers... computers, software, and the Internet have all mystified enough people that books purporting to explain enough to get users up and running have enjoyed a wide popularity. Books for self-diagnosed computer 'dummies' and 'idiots' boast, like burger chains, of millions sold.

But there haven't been too many books going beyond the how-to category, and looking at the industry itself. Billionaire Bill Gates has proved a popular topic, with several biographies along with his own musings, 'The Road Ahead'. And a few years ago, mystery InfoWorld columnist Robert X. Cringely gave us "Accidental Empires", an amusing insiders account on how the 'boys from Silicon Valley' created an industry.

Michael Hyman's "PC Roadkill" picks off where "Accidental Empires" left off. It's shorter on the history, but much heavier on the anecdotes, providing, as it claims on the cover, 'Twisted Tales from Silicon Valley'.

Author Hyman was on the scene for many of these tales; he's been on the inside of several of the companies that have led the computer revolution, including arch-rivals Borland and Microsoft-he has the t-shirts to prove it.. "PC Roadkill" gives us the benefit of many years spent listening carefully to the Silicon Valley equivalent of water-cooler gossip (probably talk at the organic juice bar).

The book loosely follows the cycle of a company or product's life-from walking in the door for a hiring interview (complete with a collection of self-portraits on visitors' badges), to job interview stories complete with a set of unconventional questions asked potential programmers. The often stressful task of creating a product is humanized with a collection of tension-relieving pranks and nerd humor. We go to trade show parties, such as Borland's 1984 Comdex Toga Party, crashed by a horde of 2,000 hoping for a glance of Borland's Phillipe Kahn in a bedsheet.

As our product gets closer to completion, we find secret product code names, including a list of the top 10 great code names, a collection of 'stupid code name tricks', and code names that resulted in lawsuits, such as Apple code-naming the then-secret PowerMac project 'Sagan'. When astronomer Carl Sagan sued, Apple changed the code to 'BHA', purportedly for Butt Head Astronomer.

And as the product is late, we get vaporware... strategies for postponing responsibility, and confounding competitors. Finally, the product is released, complete with Easter Eggs-secret key combinations for everything from Word for Windows to Wolfenstein 3D. And of course, bugs... (No, we really meant to do that!) Of course, bugs get us calls to technical support, which get us 'tales from the front line'.

And more and more-marketing stories-where to product names come from, the best and worst of slogans, ads, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and finally, a section for the lawyers-scams, suits and countersuits. Strategies to evade bankruptcy, like the hard drive company that tried to fool investors with a warehouse full of cartons stuffed with bricks.

Not quite a history, but full of the tales from behind the scenes that prove that all is not just business in the computer business.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan