May 04, 2020 · 2 mins read By Rod Canion


  • There was a time when there was no industry standard for PC. Every software and hardware had to be created in different versions, one for each PC manufacturer (like iOS and android today).
  • IBM was so big that all software and hardware makers were targeting IBM computers first.
  • Backwards compatibility was not usual and it was common for people to have to buy new versions of software and hardware whenever they updated their machine.
  • Compaq’s idea: make a machine that could run the IBM software/hardware. « IBM compatibe » or « clone ».
  • Promised 100% compatibilty. 99% was not reliable enough.
  • Made a machine that was even more backwards compatible than IBM themselves. Keeping backwards compatibility was key.
  • Started with portable computers so that they didn’t eat into IBM or Apple’s market.
  • Then IBM started the war by making a portable. Portable was not a success and Compaq’s product succeeded. Then Compaq fired back by releasing a fully backwards compatible desktop.
  • Compaq then took the innovation lead from IBM by releasing the first 386.
  • IBM fired back by announcing the PS/2, a completely new architecture that they protected against cloning. 0 backwards compatibilty, they were relying on their brand to push it through.
  • Compaq organized the rest of the industry (« gang of 9 ») to push for a non-IBM standard that supported backwards compatibility.
  • Eventually that new standard won and made the industry what it is today.


  • Compaq selected their market very thoughtfully: started with portable computers so that they didn’t directly enter competition with Apple/IBM. Then only moved to desktop/laptops when the time was right: sometimes later than the competition but always guaranteeing 100% compatibility.
  • Compaq had a reputation for quality and reliability, which was very different from the Compaq of the 90s that I grew up with, where it already was the low-end market brand.
  • They changed the industry but that story is nowhere as commonly told as the Apple or Microsoft one.
  • One of the « secret sauces » of Compaq was « the Process », a way to make difficult decisions. In short: a leader is in charge of guiding a team of experts through a consensus. See p. 93.