Notebooks. Netbooks. Smartphones. Tablets. In 2011, the default state of personal computing is mobile–traditional desktop PCs are still with us, but they’ve become the outliers.
It wasn’t always so. In their earliest days, in fact, PCs weren’t primarily deskbound; they were entirely deskbound. The notion that you might be able to carry one wherever your work took you was a radical thought.
That changed on April 3rd, 1981 when a startup called Osborne Computer Corporation announced the Osborne 1 at the West Coast Computer Faire at San Francisco’s Brooks Hall. It was the first true mass-produced portable PC and one of the most popular computers of its time. That makes this Sunday, April 3rd, 2011, as good a day to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of portable computing as any–and to remember Adam Osborne, the company’s founder.
Today, Osborne is most famous for having failed. The conventional wisdom is that his company nosedived into bankruptcy after he announced new computers before they were ready, leading customers to stop buying the Osborne 1–a blunder that’s known as “the Osborne Effect” and which comes up to this day when tech companies announce upcoming products prematurely (or, like Apple, refuse to do so).
The conventional wisdom about Osborne Computer’s demise is wrong–more about that later on–but it is true that the company went from being described as possibly having “the steepest sales slope of any company” by analyst (and eventual Compaq chairman) Ben Rosen to bankruptcy in slightly over a year and a half. It remains one of the most sobering case studies in Silicon Valley history.
“There were three major people in the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Adam Osborne, and not necessarily in that order.”
But while failure is part of the Osborne story, it’s not the whole story. It’s not even the most significant part of it. For one thing, the details on Osborne Computer Company’s rise are at least as interesting as its fall. For another, Adam Osborne did a lot of stuff besides name a popular computer after himself. He founded the first significant company devoted to publishing books about microcomputers. He was a hugely influential tech pundit. And after Osborne Computer fell apart, he founded another company that also collapsed–but not before helping to pioneer the idea of really cheap software.
The fact that a leading computer journalist started making computers sounds weird today–and Osborne’s gambit has no other parallels in tech history except for the more recent misadventure known as the CrunchPad. But with Adam Osborne, the leap from telling the industry what to do to actually doing it wasn’t that huge. It was the sort of thing you’d expect him to do.
“He was a God,” says David Bunnell, who served as managing editor of Osborne’s publishing company after having worked on the first personal computer at MITS alongside Bill Gates and Paul Allen and before founding PC Magazine, PC World, Macworld, and other publications. “I tell people that in those days there were three major people in the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Adam Osborne, and not necessarily in that order. He had a huge following.”
Unlike Silicon Valley natives such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Adam Osborne had to travel 8,000 from his birthplace to land in the heart of the early PC business. Born in 1939 in Bangkok, Thailand, to a Polish mother and a British father, he spent World War II in Tiruvannamalai, a small village in India outside of Madras. (His parents were followers of a local maharishi.) He relocated to England at the age of eleven, where he entered the English school system and graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in chemical engineering.
Osborne followed the girlfriend he’d later marry to the United States, then spent the 1960s stumbling from unhappy engineering job to unhappy engineering job. He ended up in the Bay Area at Shell Oil (which, he told the authors of a book called The Computer Entrepreneurs was “Absolute hell!”) and used computers to do mathematical modeling.
“I’m very self-confident. Insufferably so, people tell me.”
–Adam Osborne, quoted in The New York Times, 1982
Frustrated chemical engineer Adam Osborne left Shell in 1971 and quickly reinvented himself as successful technical writer Adam Osborne. He founded Osborne & Associates, a company which started out doing documentation and began publishing books about microcomputers in an era when hardly anyone had even heard of microcomputers; his best-known tome was 1975′s An Introduction to Microcomputers, which was actually a guide to microprocessors. It sold 300,000 copies, he later said, and went through multiple editions into the 1980s. The business’s success led to a buyout by technical publishing behemoth McGraw-Hill in May 1979. (One month before, it had also purchased BYTE magazine.)
By then, Osborne was both a publisher and a pundit. In 1976, he had begun writing “From the Fountainhead,” a column for Interface Age, an early computer magazine; he decamped to InfoWorld in 1980 and brought the column with him. The fountainhead in question was supposedly Silicon Valley rather than Osborne himself, but the title captured the feel of the column, which was largely devoted to Osborne’s proclamations on matters related to the nascent personal-computer industry. He criticized major computer companies. He sniped at competitors such as Carl Helmers, editor of BYTE. He even blasted InfoWorld itself. He was, in short, the original cranky computer columnist.
Osborne’s self-confidence exuded off the page. In person, the effect was magnified. “He had a certain commanding presence, a regalness,” remembers David Bunnell. John C. Dvorak, Osborne’s friend and collaborator–who became the best-known, longest-serving practitioner of the type of technology column Osborne pioneered–says “he was a slightly bigger-than-life persona and played off the fact the was tall and could lord it over people.”
The exotic voice helped, too. “I don’t even know what a colonialist accent is,” Dvorak says, “but he had it in spades.”
Here’s rare audio (courtesy of Dan Bricklin) of Osborne at the 1980 West Coast Computer Faire, a year before the Osborne 1 launch, where he gave out his Chip of the Year award (to the Z-8000) and White Elephant award (to Bricklin and Bob Frankston for creating Visicalc):
After he sold his publishing business to McGraw-Hill, Osborne stayed on for a time as general manager. But he also formed a company on the side, which he named Brandywine Holdings–the beginning of the business that became Osborne Computer Corporation.
The Osborne 1 may have been the first full-fledged portable PC to hit the market, but it wasn’t unprecedented. In fact, the idea of a computer in a sewing machine-like case with a keyboard built into the lid had been kicking around the industry for years. In 1976, Xerox’s fabled PARC had built a prototype called the NoteTaker that used the design. (It never went on sale, and at 48 pounds weighed nearly twice as much as the Osborne 1 would.) James Murez filed for a patent on an extremely Osbornesque case design in 1979, which the Patent Office approved in 1982.
Lee Felsenstein, who designed the Osborne 1, has theorized that Adam Osborne may have borrowed the basic concept from a proposal that Apple employees Trip Hawkins (later to found Electronic Arts) and Blair Newman failed to sell to Steve Jobs. And a handful of “portable computers” such as Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Pocket Computer of 1980 were already on the market, although they were really more akin to souped-up calculators than full-fledged PCs.
Osborne began putting together Osborne Computer Corporation while he was still running his publishing firm for its new owner, McGraw-Hill. “He was working there in the morning and then going off in the afternoon to his computer company,” remembers Bunnell. He bankrolled the startup with $100,000 of his profits from the Osborne & Associates sale and a $40,000 investment by venture capitalist Jack Melchor; found office space in Hayward, California; and signed up Felsenstein–an instigator of Silicon Valley’s fabled Homebrew Computer Club and the designer of a well-regarded early PC called the SOL-20–to design the machine.
The first designs that Osborne and Felsenstein fiddled with were for conventional desktop computers, but Osborne eventually decided that the company’s product would be a portable PC. The Osborne 1 had a Z-80 processor (like Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and many other early systems) and a generous-for-the-time 64KB of RAM. It had two single-density floppy-disk drives, each of which stored a relatively skimpy 102KB of data, plus a handy pocket for extra disks. And it ran Digital Research’s CP/M, the popular operating system that was very much like Microsoft’s later MS-DOS.
Even by 1981 standards, the Osborne 1′s 5″ monochrome CRT was puny; today, there are smartphones with displays as big. It could display only 52 columns of text at a time–less than the eighty you really wanted for word processing, but more than the Apple II’s forty. The screen size was chosen in part because 5″ displays were readily available, having been engineered for a 55-pound behemoth that IBM had optimistically marketed in 1975 as the IBM 5100 Portable Computer.
Before the machine went on the market, Bunnell recalls, Osborne “brought in an Osborne 1 and plunked it down on my desk and said ‘We’re going to be using these.’ It was absolutely terrible at first. It had a small screen but the word processor was eighty columns, so the screen would shift back and forth. But he wanted us all to use his computer.”
The sewing machine-sized Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds (slightly more than ten modern-day 11″ MacBook Airs) and sported a handle; it created a class of PC that would forever be known as “luggables.” It was famously touted as fitting under an airplane seat, but you couldn’t actually use it on an airplane–not only because you would have busted your tray table, but also because it had no battery. Just getting it from place to place involved effort. Felsenstein has written that “carrying two of them from my car four blocks to the [West Coast Computer Faire] had nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets.”
Some vintage computing devices look clunky in retrospect. The Osborne 1 was widely mocked as ungainly from the moment it was announced. TIME, in a June 1983 story on the machine and its growing army of imitators, called its “graceless” design “a cross between a World War II field radio and a shrunken instrument panel of a DC-3.”
Among the Osborne 1′s bluntest critics was…Adam Osborne. “We’re producing a machine whose performance is merely adequate when compared to the competition,” he told InfoWorld, sounding like an anti-Steve Jobs content to leave reality undistorted. “It is not the fastest microcomputer, it doesn’t have huge amounts of disk space, and it is not especially expandable.”
Designer Felsenstein, not surprisingly, bristled at Osborne’s emphasis on adequacy. “Adam would use flattery on me (what a su-perb designer I was), then when talking to other audiences use the ‘adequacy is sufficient, everything else is irrelevant’ bon mot,” he says. “I would smile inwardly and think that he had no idea what it took to bring this ‘adequacy’ about…After the fall, Adam wrote that any of 500 designers could have designed the Osborne 1. It would have been lumpier, slower, more expensive –and it would have met the same fate.”