The Osborne 1: A pioneer in more ways than one

Osborne produced the world's first practical, portable, personal computer. What is often overlooked is his other achievements notable achievements.
Written by Colin Barker, Contributor

Adam Osborne is remembered as the inventor of the Osborne 1, the world's first portable computer. What people tend to forget is that Osborne himself never considered the Osborne 1 to be his most influential innovation.

For Osborne the breakthrough was not the computer - he felt that at that time, 1981, the development of the personal computer was inevitable - but the idea of bundling with the computer all of of the software that you would ever need to run your business.

The Osborne 1: The world's first portable computer and a runaway success but only for a very short time

 The Osborne 1 cost $1,795. It was a lot of money in 1981, but along with a very chunky computer - all 14-odd pounds of it - you also got a plethora of floppy disks packed with software. The base system ran the CP/M operating system along with a CBASIC compiler and Microsoft BASIC, and you got a good database system, Ashton Tate's dBase II, a complete set of accounting software from PeachTree plus Sorcim's SuperCalc spreadsheet and the Wordstar word processor. Osborne even threw in a couple of games and of course a user manual, all 777 pages of it.

At the time, it was seen as a stroke of genius.

Many people had bought personal computers. such as the RadioShack TRS-80 or the Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Transactor) which were aimed at the hobbyist market. Those with more money had gone in for Apple computers, which were a little more powerful and looked flasher while offering much the same in memory and capabilities as RadioShack or Commodore.

The IBM PC - the machine that would create the personal computer industry - was still around the corner so in its absence, the Osborne 1 was the first 'proper' computer that could run your business. But its success was to prove fleeting.

Adam Osborne - the unlikely entrepreneur

Osborne was born in Thailand, but as a teenager was shipped back to England where he studied chemical engineering at Birmingham University - one of the leading schools for that discipline - and would later do his doctorate at the University of Delaware before joining Shell Oil in California. However, if a career in the oil industry was beckoning, Osborne had other thoughts - he had been bitten by the computer bug.

Like others before and after him Osborne was enthralled by the concept of computers but appalled by the lack of documentation to go with them. Thinking he could do better himself, Osborne founded a company, Osborne and Associates, that specialised in computer documentation. His first book, An Introduction to Microcomputers, was published in 1972 and would take-off, expanding into two volumes and growing from there.

Written in an approachable style which included useful features, including being printed in "boldface and lightface type in order to let you bypass information you already know and dwell on information you do not yet understand". To set himself up as the arbiter of what the reader may, or may not, understand was, as it turned out, an all-too typical Osborne touch - he never lacked chutzpah, bordering on arrogant.

By 1977 the Osborne imprint had expanded to 40 titles when the US publisher, McGraw-Hill, came calling and bought the list which became Osborne/McGraw-Hill, an imprint that still exists but as McGraw-Hill Osborne.

 The Osborne 1

The Osborne 1 was launched in April 1981 and from the day of its launch, it made headlines and nearly all of them were good. Jerry Pournelle, science fiction writer and contributor to the IT industry's bible, Byte, neatly summarised what the IT world was saying when he wrote, "the Osborne 1 is quiet and efficient and not at all distracting ... You can't beat it for the price, under $2,000 bucks with over $1,000 worth of software".  An Osborne and an Epson printer, he pointed out,  "will put you in the computing/word-processing business cheaper than anything I can think of".

Sales of the Osborne 1 began slowly but by the end of 1981, the company was shipping 2,000 units a month - an astonishing figure at that time - and seemed set for success, but the holes in the Osborne business plan started to show up very quickly.

Despite early successes, Osborne struggled with quality control and faced increasing competition in particular from the IBM.

Adam Osborne: from first handbooks of IT to the first portable computer, he was an innovator

People criticised the Osborne 1 for being slow and for having an inadequate 5-inch screen but Osborne would shrug it off by saying that, at the price and with such a lot of software, the Osborne 1 represented good value for money and there were few who would disagree with him. Throughout his life, Osborne was nothing if not forthright in his opinions.

For example, in his book, Hypergrowth (published in 1984 and co-written with journalist, John C. Dvorak), Osborne wrote about Apple: "Technology has nothing to do with Apple's success, nor was the company an aggressive price leader. Rather, the company was the first to offer real company support and to behave like a genuine business back in 1976 when other manufacturers were amateur, shoe-string operations."

Another tenet of Osborne's was borrowing from IBM: "To be number one, you don't have to be the best, you don't even have to be good. All that is necessary is that your product is adequate, properly supported and readily available."

These are principles that over the years, both Apple and IBM acted upon with great success. For a time it seemed that Osborne would likewise prosper. So what if he only used single-sided floppy disk drives when the world wanted double-sided for their higher capacity, the double-sided drives were not reliable enough and too easily damaged if you dropped the portable, said Osborne.

The Osborne effect

But it is the "Osborne effect" a term that was coined in the 1980s and is still in use today that is one sad legacy of the life of Osborne Computer. The Osborne effect is what happens when somebody selling a product announces its replacement long before that new product is ready for sale. The Osborne effect happens when companies and individuals understandably stop buying the existing product while they wait for the new one to come out.

Adam Osborne unwittingly gave his name to this phenomenon because, it was said, he announced a successor for the Osborne 1 before any Osborne 2 was ready. This was a nice story, but it wasn't true as the Robert X Cringley column in InfoWorld pointed out.

As Cringley showed, the failure of the Osborne 2 had more to do with the fact that it still had a tiny screen and the Kaypro portable with support for DOS was being launched than it had to do with the Osborne effect. Still, the myth stuck and the concept would remain as one that still haunts IT executives who remain very wary of talking about anything that is not yet ready for sale.

The Aftermath

Not to be put off by set-backs like the failure of Osborne Computer, Osborne went into software publishing. He always believed that as with hardware, software was wildly over-priced so he came up with Paperback Software, a low-cost software publishing operation. He retired and went back to India to live before he died, after a short illness, in 2003 at the age of 64.

But before we leave him, let's have one more quote. "The future lies in designing and selling computers that people don't realize are computers at all." How true that was. If nothing else, Osborne had a clear view of the future of computing, it as a pity he did not get the chance to make the most of it.

(For some more about the rise and fall of Osborne, see Robert Slater's excellent, Portraits in Silicon.)

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