People think computers will keep them from making mistakes. They’re wrong. With computers, you make mistakes faster.
Adam Osborne (1939-2003) was a British author, book, and software publisher, one of the most charming, persuasive, egotistical, and supremely confident people in the computing field, indeed, in all industries. He is most famously known for introducing the Osborne 1, the first commercially successful portable computer.
Osborne was a doctor in chemical engineering who used to work for Shell Oil in California, but he left in the early 1970s to pursue his interest in computers and technical writing. He became a computer hobbyist and began self-publishing on computing, writing a programming manual for Intel’s first microprocessors. In 1972 he founded Osborne and Associates to create a series of easy-to-read computing manuals (long before the For Dummies… series). By 1977, Osborne Books, as the company had become, had published over 40 computing titles. In 1979, Osborne sold his publishing company to McGraw-Hill. During the same time, he began writing columns for the computer magazine Interface Age and later Infoworld. He was becoming increasingly convinced that for computers to be truly useful, they needed to be mobile, as they needed to move with the people who used them and be available whenever and wherever people were. This was a concept he didn’t think the existing companies understood or were prepared to deal with.
The idea of the laptop computer wasn’t a new one. It was visualized by Alan Kay at Xerox PARC in 1968 and talked of in his 1972 paper as the Dynabook. The idea was later developed in another Xerox PARC creation—NoteTaker. The laptop is a small portable computer having its primary components (processor, display, keyboard) built into a single unit capable of battery-powered operation, which typically weighs from 1 to 7 kg, depending upon dimensions, materials, and other variables. As the personal computer became viable in the early 1970s, the thought of a portable personal computer arose.
In March 1980, at the West Coast Computer Faire, Adam Osborne approached the ex-Intel engineer (and a nerd from the Homebrew Computer Club, just like Steve Leininger of TRS-80, and Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) Lee Felsenstein with the idea of starting a computer company that would not only produce an affordable, portable computer but would offer bundled software with the machine. Osborne asked Felsenstein to develop the hardware of the portable computer. Using the money from his publishing business along with venture capital Osborne found Osborne Computer Corp. in January 1981.
Following Osborne’s specifications, Felsenstein designed a portable computer that had a case with a carrying handle, could survive being accidentally dropped, and would fit under an airplane seat (see the nearby photo). The machine weighed only 11 kg, had a 52-column display that would fit on a five-inch screen, contained a cushioning tube, and had two floppy disk drives. The computer even has an optional battery pack, so it doesn’t have to be plugged into the power outlet. To meet the small screen requirements, Felsenstein stored a full screen’s worth of information in memory and gave the users keys that allowed them to scroll the memory screen across the display. In April 1981, at the same West Coast Computer Faire, Adam Osborne introduced the Osborne 1 Personal Business Computer for an initial price of $1795.
The Osborne 1 (see the lower image) featured a 5-inch 52-column display, two floppy-disk drives (capacity 92K), a Z80 microprocessor (working at 4.0 MHz), 64k of RAM, a parallel port (IEEE-488), and a modem/serial port (see the Technical Manual of Osborne 1). It included a bundled software package that included the CP/M operating system, the Microsoft MBASIC programming language, the WordStar word processing package, the SuperCalc spreadsheet program, and Digital Research CBASIC programming language (2000 worth of retail software alone).
Osborne 1 appears to be a huge market hit—in September 1981, Osborne Computer Company has its first US$1 million sales month. In the first 8 months since its introduction, 11000 Osborne 1 computers shipped. The peak sales per month for Osborne 1 personal computers over the course of the product lifetime was 10000 units, despite the initial business plan for the computer predicting a total of only 10000 units sold over the entire product lifecycle.
Despite early success, Osborne struggled under heavy competition. Kaypro Computer offered portables that, like the Osborne 1, ran CP/M and included a software bundle, but Kaypro offered a larger 9-inch display. Apple Computer’s offerings had a large software library of their own and with aftermarket cards, could run CP/M as well. IBM’s 16-bit IBM PC was faster, more advanced, and offered a rapidly growing software library, and Compaq offered a portable computer that was almost 100% compatible with IBM’s offering. Osborne’s efforts to raise $20 million in capital to rush an IBM-compatible computer to market were unsuccessful.
Besides the severe competition, Osborne made several heavy management and business errors—difficulty meeting demand, poor quality of production, overstocking, etc. The final blow occurred in 1983 when Adam Osborne boasted about an upcoming product months before it could be released, killing demand for the company’s existing products. It is unclear whether this boast was about the Osborne Executive, which was released in May 1983 for $2495 and featured a 7-inch display and did not sell as well as its predecessor, or, more likely, the Osborne Vixen, a smaller portable that promised to offer compatibility not only with earlier Osborne models but also with MS-DOS, allowing it to run software designed for IBM and Compaq computers. Dealers rapidly started canceling orders for the Osborne 1.
Unsold inventory piled up and in spite of dramatic price cuts—the Osborne 1 was selling for $1295 in July 1983 and $995 by August, the sales did not recover. Losses, already higher than expected, continued to mount, and Osborne declared bankruptcy in September 1983. This marketing blunder came to be known as Osborneing and the phrase circulated in Silicon Valley for the next decade.
Osborne emerged from bankruptcy in the mid-1980s and finally released the Osborne Vixen, a compact portable running CP/M, in 1984. However, the company never regained its early prominence.
Biography of Adam Osborne
Adam Osborne was born in Bangkok, Thailand, on 6 March 1939. His father was Arthur Osborne (1906-1970), a British teacher of Eastern religion and philosophy and a lecturer in English at Chulalongkorn University. His mother was Lucia Osborne (1904-1987), a Polish Jew (born Ludka Lipsziczudna in the Polish part of Silesia), and a homemaker. Arthur and Ludka met in Katowice, where he was teaching English in the early 1930s, and married in 1932. In February 1936, in Gdynia was born their first child, Catherine (she became an actress, known as Katya Douglas), and they left for England two years later.
Unhappy with the political climate in England at the time, Arthur applied for a job as a lecturer at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, then known as Siam. Adam (b. 1939) and his sister Frania (b. 1940) were both born there. Adam spent World War II in Tamil Nadu, India, with his mother (his father remained in Siam, and was interned by the Japanese). He attended Presentation Convent School in Kodaikanal until Class 6. At age 11, Adam was sent to live with relatives in England in order to get a proper British education. There he was educated at a Catholic boarding school in Warwickshire, and from 1954 to 1957 was a pupil at the grammar school Leamington College for Boys.
Adam graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Birmingham in 1961. That same year he immigrated to the United States for graduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, from which he received an MChE in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1967. During his studies, in the mid-1960s Osborne married Cynthia Geddes, with whom he had three children—Marc, Paul, and Alexandra; the marriage later ended in divorce. He subsequently married Barbara Burdick (Zelnick), although the couple would ultimately divorce as well. Osborne became a naturalized American citizen in 1967.
After graduation, Osborne joined Shell Oil in California but was saved from a dull career in chemical engineering when he was fired. He started his own company, Osborne and Associates, and General Automation commissioned him to write manuals for its minicomputers. He is also reputed to have written the documentation for the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004, in 1971. It was the start of a successful publishing company, that produced 40 personal-computing titles (of which he wrote 12 himself), and which was taken over by McGraw-Hill in 1979, making Osborne a rich man.
After the rapid rise and even more rapid fall of Osborne Computer Co. in 1981-1983, in 1984 Osborne returned to the computer field. Noticing the high price of popular software, Osborne began Paperback Software International (PSI), which sold software at lower prices through bookstores. Unfortunately for Osborne, the Lotus Development Corporation concluded that one of its products—the PSI spreadsheet program, VP Planner, was too similar to Lotus 1-2-3. In 1987 Lotus sued PSI for infringing Lotus’s copyright on its menu interface. In 1990 a court ruled in Lotus’s favor, and Osborne resigned from PSI.
In 1992 Osborne founded another company, Noetics Software, to explore artificial intelligence approaches such as neural networks and fuzzy logic, but a mysterious brain ailment caused him to have a number of strokes, so he had to retire. Osborne moved back to his childhood home, in India, to live with his sister Katya Douglas. He died of accumulated brain damage in his sleep on 18 March 2003 in Kodaikanal.