Partially based on the book "Fire in the Valley: The Making of the Personal Computer" written by Paul Feiberger and Michael Swaine, the director Martyn Burke jump cuts through key moments in time for the two companies in telling the tale of Apple's rise, Steve Jobs' business relationship with Bill Gates, the schism between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, and Apple's fall as Gates out pirates the pirates, and leads Microsoft to dominate the computer industry.
From the very beginning of the movie you are given the core of Steve Jobs' (played by Noah Wyle) personality. The open lines are him speaking to the camera and saying, "I don't want you to think of this as just a film - some process of converting electrons and magnetic impulses into shapes and figures and sounds - no. Listen to me. We're here to make a dent in the universe. Otherwise, why even be here? We're creating a completely new consciousness, like an artist or a poet. We're rewriting the history of human thought with what we're doing. That's how you have to think of this." His best friend, Steve "the Woz" Wozniak (played by Joey Slotnick), follows this with a narration describing how everything Steve Jobs ever did was something "between a religious experience and some sort of crusade."
Both the opening lines and the narration are spoken over the back drop of the filming of Apples 1984 Super Bowl commercial. A commercial that was legendary even before it was aired, and set the standard for all other Super Bowl commercials. Directed by Ridley Scott, newly famous for directing Blade Runner, this commercial introduced Apple's Macintosh computer and, though it has never run again since that Super Bowl spot, few commercials have ever been more influential. It was even named the 1980s' Commercial of the Decade by Advertising Age magazine.
The filming of the commercial fades to the actual ad as it opens on a gray network of futuristic tubes connecting non-descript oppressive buildings. Inside the tubes, we see the greyed-out downtrodden masses marching into an auditorium, where they bow before a Big Brother figure preaching from a giant TV screen. Then, from the back of the auditorium, one lone woman, the only object with any color, races down a hallway chased by storm troopers. She runs up to the screen, hurls a hammer and shatters the TV image. The screen explodes and everything flashes to white.
The movie then transitions to a stage thirteen years later, where Steve Jobs is just announcing "the business deal that will turn Apple around," to a gathered audience, and introduces the other protagonist in the movie, Bill Gates who is currently being projected, via live feed, to a screen looming over the audience, in a very Big Brother manner, a not-so-subtle portent for events in the movie.
The scene cuts to the University of Berkley campus, 1971, amidst a tear gas and students rioting, a young Jobs and Wozniak dash to safety. Once away from the crowd Jobs scornfully says, "Those guys think they're revolutionaries. They're not revolutionaries, we are." Wozniak resumes his narration, relaying that Jobs was never like, "you or me, he always saw things differently, he saw the meaning of the universe."
Jobs and Woz's first entrepreneurial scheme was the development and selling of "Blue Boxes", one of the earliest phone line crackers that allowed anybody to call anywhere for free. After almost getting busted Woz decided to try building something that wouldn't land them in jail, a "computer". They have their first taste of fame as a reporter takes a picture of them when it catches on fire.
Bill Gates' (played by Anthony Michael Hall) beginnings are just as unassuming. His story starts when he is a Harvard student more interested in poker than classes. However, for Bill and his friend Paul Allen (played by Josh Hopkins), there is one thing more important than poker or even Playboys, and that is, of course, computers. In following an ad in a trade magazine with some fast talking by Bill, and their collective genius, Bill and Paul are hired to start writing a program language for the new ALTAIR computer.
At the 1976 Berkley campus, Homebrew Computer Club, Jobs and Woz unveil their latest computer. It is obvious that while it is Wozniak's genius that built the computer, it was Jobs' genius that sells it. During these scenes they reveal Steve Jobs' near obsessive desire to wipe out "the enemy", IBM. However, his dreams of guerrilla warfare victory over IBM, followed by world domination, is all but dashed by Wozniak as he divulges that because of a contract he signed with Hewlett-Packard, anything he invents, they can take. Fortunately the executives at the company do not have the vision of Steve, Woz, or even Bill as they pass on the "home computer" because, "This gadget is for ordinary people, what on earth would ordinary people want with computers?" While that was an initial victory for them, it seemed that bankers and business men had the same opinion and months went by as they were repeatedly turned down for a loan. However, Jobs was undaunted and persevered when venture capitalist Mike Markkula (played by Jeffery Nordling) offered the fledgling Apple Computers a quarter of a million dollars to do something (in Steve Jobs' words) "practically spiritual, about overthrowing a dead culture and dead gods."
In Albuquerque, 1976, Bill and Paul had quit Harvard and Bill's fast talking at the computer company MITS (maker of the ALTAIR) earned them a signing bonus and a double in royalties for their BASIC programming language, with that, Microsoft is born. It is during these years in Albuquerque, fueled by his own manic personality that Bill does everything from having a midnight race with bulldozers, to racking up so many speeding tickets that he is arrested and jailed.
Stepping away from his revolutionary counterculture style, Steve Jobs shocks his friends by changing into a business suit and shaving the last of his facial hair for the 1977 Computer Fair in San Francisco. Even more shocking to all of them was that Apple Computers Inc. was the star of the Fair. Drawn by belief that "there might be something going on in California," Bill Gates and Paul Allen attended the Fair, where Apple and Microsoft first meet, and, anti-climactically, Steve Jobs completely ignores Bill Gates. Jobs is too enamored with his sudden fame, and describes the experience as "insanely great", words that are used to describe him and his life repeatedly.
Following the Computer Fair, sales of the Apple II brought Apple Computers to levels of attention, money, expansion and success that only Jobs could have predicted. However, while Woz seemed overwhelmed by the sudden success, Jobs took to it like a shark to water. Feeling justified in his obsession, there were few lines he wouldn't cross, from verbally abuse enthusiastic employees until they are mute with humiliation, to grilling a potential employee (with his bare feet casually resting on the conference table) about when the potential employee may or may not have lost his virginity, all in service of his grand vision and ego.
Steve Jobs' level of self-obsession was put on display by his abject denial that girlfriend was pregnant by him, despite a positive paternity test, and dismissed her so she could go "play mommy". That callous vitriol made even more striking because he himself was orphaned and spent much of his adult life trying to find his real mother. Later on he tracked down his estranged-girlfriend demanding that she not name "their" daughter some weird name and they settled on Lisa. Not coincidently, he later named a series of computers Lisa, but it wasn't until over a decade later that he actually accepted Lisa has his flesh and blood.
Bill Gates' own logic defying obsessive needs he revealed after he brought Steve Ballmer (played by John DiMaggio), an old Harvard friend, out to California. He lectured them, "You know how you survive? You make people need you. You survive because you make them need what you have. And then they have nowhere else to go." Declaring to (in mafia style) "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer," he takes Microsoft to go into business with IBM. He convinced the IBM executives that they needed what he had, an operating system, furthermore he told the execs that Microsoft would only license IBM the software, allowing Microsoft to retain ownership of it and could license it to other outfits. Astonishingly, Microsoft didn't even have an operating system at that time, and even more amazing, a deal the execs agreed to because "the profits are in the computers themselves, not this software stuff." And while the others marveled at Bill's brazen declaration, Gates said he knew it would work because, "IBM was successful, and success is a menace. It fools smart people into thinking they can't lose." Another omen for the future of Microsoft and Apple.
Steve Jobs heralds in the next series of events by quoting Picasso, "Good artists copy, great artists steal." Xerox research engineers had developed the next evolution in computers, not only had they designed software that could display graphics on the computer screen, they had also invented the mouse. Unfortunately, these innovations were so completely distained by short-sighted Xerox executives that they invited Steve Jobs and his research engineers to the Xerox research center and all but handed Apple the next step in computers. Incorporated in the new Apple Lisa, this earned Apple an estimated $100 billion.
Now it is time for the two to meet again, Bill Gates, repeating Picasso's quote (incorrectly attributing it to Van Gogh), took his team to the Apple Headquarters, and it is here that the rival obsessions clashed. Steve Jobs maintains the superiority of Apple because Microsoft lacked originality and culture, and his people echoing his line, "It is better to be a pirate, than be in the navy" (better to be a rebel than to be a part of the establishment). Bill then tries to convince Steve that Apple is economically vulnerable and that "Apple needed them, because Apple couldn't match Microsoft's diversity." Only for Steve to stay true to his cause saying, "You can't just have employees anymore. They gotta be into a crusade. It's like art, science, religion, all rolled into one." It was only by feeding into Steve's obsessive hatred of IBM that Bill was able to get the "in" he needed. Microsoft walked out with Apple's Macintosh system just as Apple had walked out with Xerox's system.
Further cracks in Steve Jobs' management strategy caused greater rifts. To fuel internal competiveness he manipulated Apple employees into vicious "Mac vs All other Apple platforms, who's was better" rivalry. The strain of 90+ hour work weeks, and days of sleepless programing led to many employees rebelling against Jobs' verbal abuse, even to the point of assaulting him in one scene. By then Woz had had enough. Disturbed by Jobs' manipulations, he left the company he co-founded, and went on to teach computers to school children. Nevertheless, Jobs felt he was righteous and unstoppable, regardless of the pressure he put on everybody, his employees loved him for it, and he rewarded them for their loyalty.
At this point Microsoft is desperately trying to cobble together the Windows operating system from pirated Macintosh software. Word of this eventually reached Jobs more than once, but no matter how angry or accusatory Steve became, Bill could always calmly explain away any such fears, weathering any of Steve's tirades meekly, placating Steve into, once again, believing that Microsoft was no threat, a level of manipulation that Steve Ballmer felt was where Bill Gates' true genius lay. Then again, Ballmer felt that Jobs' genius lay in making computers not a business, but a religion, and nothing scared him more.
During the penultimate scene of the movie, Steve Jobs introduces an Apple T-shirt wearing Bill Gates as a part of the Apple family to an audience of Apple employees before giving them a sneak preview of the Apple 1984 commercial that was being filmed in the open scene. After the sneak preview, Steve was given concrete proof that Microsoft did replicated software from the Macintosh and when he confronted Bill with it, Gates famously replies with, "You and I are both like guys who had this rich neighbor - Xerox - who left the door open all the time. And you go sneakin' in to steal a TV set. Only when you get there, you realize that I got there first. I got the loot, Steve! And you're yellin'? "That's not fair. I wanted to try to steal it first." You're too late."
The end of the movie relates the sad facts that Steve Jobs had disaffected so many of his former best friends that none of them wanted to toast him for his 30th birthday, in fact, three months later Steve Jobs was fired from the company he helped found. He was later re-hired in 1997 and became the architect of the second Apple Microsoft co-endeavor bringing the companies and the movie full circle.