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.