Tag Archives: tech history

Console Wars Book Review

console-wars-book

On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my 8th entry, here is my review of the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris.


I grew up a Sega kid. Not only did I have a Sega Genesis but I also had a Master System, Sega CD, Saturn and well… pretty much everything besides the infamous 32x. Heck, I even won a free vacation for winning a Sonic 3 competition. Most of my friends growing up had Nintendo and Super Nintendo so I got a chance to play the best stuff from both companies. I liked both Sega and Nintendo but when it came down to it I stuck with Sega.

For people who grew up gamers in the 80s and 90s, and especially fans of Sega, then Console Wars (2014, Blake J. Harris) is for you. Console Wars covers the epic battle between Sega of America and Nintendo of America during the 16-bit console era. This book doesn’t cover the details of game development but rather provides an inside look at the American operations of both firms.

Console Wars starts off on the wrong foot with the laziest, stupidest foreword of all time by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The duo is working on a movie adaptation of the book which hopefully involves a bit more effort. Thankfully, following the foreword the rest of the book is fantastic.

tom-kalinske

Tom Kalinske - Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Right away we are introduced to the main protagonist, Tom Kalinske. Kalinske is one of the most interesting figures in American business history, having been responsible for defending Flintstones chewable vitamins in front of Congress, the revival of Barbie and Hot Wheels at Mattel, launching the He-Man series and more recently CEO of children’s educational company Leapfrog. If you are a marketing professional then Kalinske should be on your list of heroes. The book mostly chronicles Kalinske’s perspective as a video game industry outsider asked to come in as CEO of Sega of America from 1990 through 1996.

Back in college I remember reading boring business case studies and I always thought the Sega Genesis marketing strategy should be a required reading. If nothing else, this book goes into amazing detail on every facet of Sega of America’s incredible marketing job spearheaded by Kalinske, Al Nilsen and other Sega executives from 1991-1994. In a few short years, Sega’s American home console market share went from 5% to 50%, even slightly edging out Nintendo for a brief period of time. Considering Sega had about 10% of the marketing budget of Nintendo and little name recognition it was an incredible accomplishment. Many of us remember “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t”, the Sega Scream and “blast processing” but the more in depth details covered in this book are particularly fascinating. For example, I had no idea that Sonic 2uesday (the release date of Sonic 2) was the first global launch of a game in history. I particularly liked the details covering the national Sega Genesis promotional mall tour since I remember playing Sonic for the first time at Raceway Mall tour stop. I ended up getting a Genesis soon after so it worked for me.

Here’s a look at how Sega’s commercials evolved throughout the 16-bit era, featuring ads from 1989, 1991 and 1993:

As you would expect, Nintendo is covered in detail as well. Nintendo is portrayed as the rich, arrogant but wholesome antagonist to the scrappy, crass Sega. One of the more interesting angles that the book dives into is Nintendo’s successful but albeit questionable business practices. It’s been known that Nintendo had underhanded business practices in the NES era (such as the exclusivity contract that prevented third party publishers from also releasing games on rival platforms) but the book really drives home the point of how poorly Nintendo treated all of its business partners and the rest of the industry. From retailers to third parties to gaming magazines to parts suppliers, Nintendo’s business practices opened the door for Sega to come in and gain support from everyone that was tired of Nintendo’s antics. When Sega stumbled in the 32-bit era, Sony came in to take their place as the favored console maker partner.

It took Nintendo a few years but they finally responded to Sega’s aggressive advertising techniques. Here is an example from 1993 promoting the game Donkey Kong Country:

As we now know, Sega’s rise was short lived and they soon fell from grace and eventually out of the home console business entirely. Console Wars covers that in detail as well and displays how quickly jealously and egos can destroy even the most talent rich and successful organizations. Between the fall of their console business and the decline of the arcade industry in general Sega never really had a chance to recover and was acquired by Japanese Pachinko maker Sammy years later. A further reminder of how times have changed happened this week as Sega Sammy announced that they are laying off 300 workers and closing their San Francisco office. Nintendo has faired much better, having had great success with their Wii home console and Nintendo DS portable. More recently though, Nintendo has started to struggle in both their home and portable console markets and seems to be at their own personal crossroads as a business. It will be interesting to see how they respond in the coming years.

Here are some additional tidbits of the book that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Sega turned down both Sony and Silicon Graphics as part of their 32-bit console partner development process. Sega of America attempted to set up both relationships and was turned down both times by Sega of Japan in favor of Japanese chipmaker Hitachi. The Sega Saturn was crippled by a confusing architecture and high price thanks to it’s Hitachi architecture and allowed Sony to come in and take over the industry with their Playstation. I always thought the 32x was the biggest mistake Sega ever made but now I think they could have recovered if either their Sony or Silicon Graphics partnership were allowed to go through.
  • Yuji Naka (lead programmer and later producer of the Sonic series) actually quit Sega after Sonic 1 and was only brought over to the US to work on Sonic 2 after the fact. According to the book he was being paid a paltry $30,000. I could possibly understand if Sonic was his first game but he had already proven himself as an incredible talent having worked on Phantasy Star and several other successful games. Sega executives also complained that it took the Sonic 2 development team fourteen months instead of the usual ten to create the game. It’s amazing how much times have changed as some games now take up to five years to complete!
  • The story of how Donkey Kong Country was funded is truly amazing. I won’t spoil the details so read the book.
  • In general I love the insider stories detailing the hatred between Sega and Nintendo executives. Whether it’s in-person confrontations, confrontational phone calls or nasty letters I get the warm and fuzzies inside just thinking about it. In the end though it was nice to read that Nintendo of America’s Howard Lincoln wrote Tom Kalinske a nice send off letter when Kalinske left Sega.

Console Wars is a great read and I highly recommend it.

Steve Jobs 1985 Playboy Interview

Steve Jobs 1985 Playboy Interview Photo

After taking a two month break, Teach History Sunday is back. On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my seventh entry, here are some excerpts from the 1985 Playboy interview of Steve Jobs.


The year was 1985. Steve Jobs was not yet 30, was reporting to new Apple CEO John Sculley and just came off of launching the Macintosh. The trajectory of both Apple and Jobs would change course soon as Steve Jobs would find himself fired by the company he founded. Because of this critical period of time it is particularly insightful to  read the 1985 Playboy interview of Steve Jobs. My favorite quote is the following:

You know, Dr. Edwin Land was a troublemaker. He dropped out of Harvard and founded Polaroid. Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that. Polaroid did that for some years, but eventually Dr. Land, one of those brilliant troublemakers, was asked to leave his own company—which is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of. So Land, at 75, went off to spend the remainder of his life doing pure science, trying to crack the code of color vision. The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be—not an astronaut, not a football player—but this.

Steve Jobs was very prescient of recognizing the coming Internet revolution even back in 1985 as expressed in this quote:

The most compelling reason for most people to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people—as remarkable as the telephone.

Jobs wasn’t right about everything though. His view that IBM would crush the clone makers had it backwards – it was actually IBM that would get beat:

A lot of people thought we were nuts for not being IBM-compatible, for not living under IBM’s umbrella. There were two key reasons we chose to bet our company on not doing that: The first was that we thought—and I think as history is unfolding, we’re being proved correct—that IBM would fold its umbrella on the companies making compatible computers and absolutely crush them.

The whole interview is worth reading. Read the interview in it’s entirety here.

Gary Kildall

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As my sixth entry, here is brief video about Gary Kildall.


Gary Kildall was a computer scientist, creator of the early PC operating system CP/M and founder of the company Digital Research. The embedded video by YouTuber Lazy Game Reviews has a nice (but sad) history of Kildall. Enjoy.

Accidental Empires

accidental empires

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As our fourth entry, here is my overview of the 1992 / 1996 book Accidental Empires.


Accidental Empires is a 1992 (republished in 1996) book by Robert X. Cringely. This book covers the history of the personal computer industry and is the basis for the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds that I wrote about last week. If you enjoyed that documentary and you want to get more in depth information on the subject then I highly recommend Accidental Empires. Last year Robert Cringely published the book in its entirety on his blog with a new introduction so now there’s no excuse not to give this a good read. Read the book in its entirety via Robert Cringely’s blog here:

2013 Intro
Chapter 1A
Chapter 1B
Chapter 1C
Chapter 1D
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17

Triumph of the Nerds

Every Sunday morning I am blogging about the history of technology. As our third entry, here is my overview of the 1996 documentary Triumph of the Nerds.


Triumph of the Nerds is a 1996 documentary written and hosted by Robert X. Cringely (born Mark Stephens). The basis for the documentary is Cringely’s book Accidental Empires, which covers the history of the personal computer industry. Triumph of the Nerds was produced in a three part series and aired in December of 1996 on PBS in the US (Channel 4 in the UK).

Back in 1996 I was in eighth grade enjoying my Packard Bell PC running Windows 95, a hefty upgrade from my old 1980s Macintosh. I was just learning to program in Pascal and I even had my own AOL homepage, a braggable feat at the time. I remember watching Triumph of the Nerds at the time of release and being quite fascinated. I had grown up with computers but Triumph of the Nerds was my first introduction to the history of the industry. In the end it was one of many things that ended up pushing me into further Computer Science education and eventually a career in technology.

Triumph of the Nerds covers it all: Intel, the Altair, Microsoft, The Homebrew Computer Club, Apple, VisiCalc – and that’s just part one! Like Startup.com, I find myself revisiting Triumph of the Nerds every few years. In some ways it is very dated (Excite@Home anyone?) but overall it is still quite entertaining. Check it out.

Robert X. Cringely still actively covers the technology industry – you can read his blog and follow him on Twitter.

Pirates of Silicon Valley

Every Sunday morning I plan to blog about the history of technology. Up first is 1999′s TNT original movie Pirates of Silicon Valley.


 

Now I know what you’re thinking. Made for TV movie? How good can it be? Answer: it’s my favorite made for TV movie of all time and among my favorite movies in general. Read on to find out why.

Pirates of Silicon Valley focuses mainly on the history of Apple and Microsoft starting in the 1970s through the mid 1980s, with a short wrap-up taking place in 1997. We meet Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer while they are students at Harvard and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak while they are sometimes in and sometimes out of school. Most of the film centers around the growth of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as individuals and covers how their careers and companies rise but then go in opposite directions starting in the mid 80s.

What makes this movie so good is that it sticks very close to the actual history while still remaining quite interesting as well as having terrific performances from its lead actors. Noah Wyle in particular in incredible as Steve Jobs while Anthony Michael Hall (yes that Anthony Michael Hall) as Bill Gates is also fantastic.

Steve Wozniak himself says in the following YouTube clip that the movie is basically step for step in line with the actual history:

Steve Jobs liked his portrayal so much that he invited Noah Wyle to imitate him at 1999′s MacWorld event following the release of the film:

If you happened to watch last year’s movie Jobs just know that Pirates of Silicon Valley is better in almost every way. Better acting (sorry Ashton), better script and more historically accurate. On top of it all, Pirates manages to cover not just the life and career of Steve Jobs (up until the mid 90s anyway) but also Bill Gates as well. Rotten Tomatoes happens to agree with me, giving Pirates an 89% rating while Jobs has a rating of 27%. Not bad for a TNT original.

There is yet another Steve Jobs movie coming out next year, this time based on the official Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. While I did enjoy Isaacson’s book, based on what few details I’ve heard about the movie, I’m not holding out much hope that it turns out well. In an ideal world, the cast and crew of Pirates of Silicon Valley would get back together to make a sequel that would start off where the first move left off and finish probably at the death of Steve Jobs.

Now that I’ve convinced you that Pirates of Silicon Valley is a must watch movie you can dive right in and watch it below:

Watch Pirates Of Silicon Valley in Drama  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com