A computer in every hand

Adam Osborne paved the way with the Osborne 1 -- the first portable PC.

By David Pescovitz

Published July 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it," computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, but he was not the only technology trailblazer heeding that call at the dawn of the digital revolution.

"The future lies in designing and selling computers that people don't realize are computers at all," Adam Osborne told Time magazine at the beginning of 1983. That year the computer had knocked out all human contenders and was named "Machine of the Year." PCs, analysts predicted, would soon be in every home. But Osborne wanted them to be in every hand. And with his Osborne 1, the first portable computer, having done $70 million in sales the previous year, he seemed to be on the right path.

Portability is subjective. A Walkman is portable because it fits in your pocket. A massive boom box is portable too, sometimes just because it has a handle. The Osborne 1, at 24 pounds, wasn't compact, but its sewing machine-size case and, yes, handle, made it portable. It was to be an indispensable accessory for the first-generation high-tech road warrior. Rugged as a Samsonite suitcase, with a removable top that contained the keyboard, the Osborne could be stowed (theoretically) under an airline seat. Its 8-bit microprocessor crunched numbers in SuperCalc and processed words with WordStar. And at $1,795, half the price of a comparable Apple II, it sold itself with the pitch that you were paying for the software and getting the computer for free. The Osborne 1 was big and bulky, but broke the chains tying computer users to their desks. When the computer first went on sale in April 1981, mobile professionals were first in line, along with attorneys whose "briefs can be recalled on the (battery-powered) screen for a quick read" in the courtroom, Time reported.

"I liken myself to Henry Ford and the auto industry," Osborne told the New York Times, and anyone else who would listen. "I give you 90 percent of what most people need."

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Adam Osborne wasn't bred a businessman. Born in 1939 in Thailand to British parents -- his father taught Eastern religion and philosophy -- Osborne moved to the U.K. as an adolescent and eventually got a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from Birmingham University. After relocating to the United States, he completed a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware and quickly landed a job with California-based Shell Oil. Like many creative minds, Osborne didn't settle well into life as a small cog in a vast corporate culture. His strong-mindedness -- what Osborne himself has described as brashness -- simply didn't sit well at Shell.

So he took the computer skills he developed while mathematically modeling chemical reactions for Shell and became a full-fledged programmer. For six months, Osborne searched for work while the industry-wide recession was literally driving jobless programmers to suicide. Yearning to be in the computer business, and having observed firsthand the sub-par quality of most technical manuals, Osborne established himself as a technical writer while continuing to program on the side. Encouraged by the lack of competition at the time, Osborne also penned "An Introduction to Microcomputers," which he published himself, hawking it at user-group meetings. In 1975, IMSAI, an established computer company, happened upon the text and started to throw in a copy with every computer sold. Osborne Books was born, and its founder began writing the critically acclaimed industry-analyst column "From the Fountainhead" for Interface Age and later for InfoWorld. In 1979, McGraw-Hill bought the successful book company, and with $250,000 in his pocket, Osborne decided to try his hand at solving some of the usability and affordability hurdles he'd been slinging ink about.

As the legend goes, the idea for the Osborne 1 was actually hatched at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, iconic birthplace of the laser printer and other milestones in computer evolution. According to the story, Osborne visited Xerox PARC in 1980 and was dazzled by the Notetaker, a computer with a small screen and a modem port that was designed to be toted between home and work. Around that time, Apple founder Steve Jobs also visited the center and left with what would become the Macintosh's groundbreaking graphical user interface (and Bill Gates' Windows).

"Everyone was very open at PARC, and he [Osborne] saw all the drawings and asked a few questions and left not saying anything," Gwen Bell, curator of the Computer Museum History Center, has said. "And the result was, a year or so later, you saw the plans for the Osborne 1, and it was very much like [the Notetaker]."

Osborne brought his Osborne 1 to the drawing board in the spring of 1980. At the West Coast Computer Fair, he met with Lee Felsenstein, an engineer who had occasionally consulted for Osborne Books. Osborne presented Felsenstein with his idea for a hardware company that would bundle software with its computers. The plan was to lure shoppers with a one-stop solution for all their computing needs. Under Osborne's direction, Felsenstein went to work on a portable computer. Faced with numerous limitations because of the size requirements, Felsenstein made ingenious innovations in computer design -- for example, since the screen was so small, a full page of text was kept in memory and the user scrolled across the display using arrow keys.

Introduced one year later at the same computer fair, the Osborne was met with critical acclaim and more than a few jokes. At the time, Tandy and Apple were the top dogs of the nascent PC market, with IBM and Xerox set to throw their hats into the ring a few months later. Even with the Osborne's "first-ever" portable form factor, Silicon Valley cynics sourly dubbed it a "luggable" rather than a "portable" and commented that owning one also developed the user's biceps, at least on one arm. Still, "it (was) quite a little box," International Data Corporation analyst Aaron Goldberg told the New York Times. "A lot of people are attracted by the price." The Osborne 1 was the Volkswagen Beetle of computers -- the company was shipping 120 machines a day six months after its launch. Osborne called this runaway success "hypergrowth," a business state that ironically contributed to the company's demise.

Osborne built the portable market, and competitors followed. At the mammoth National Computer Conference in Houston in the summer of 1982, more than a dozen hardware companies, from Kaypro to Otrona, were pushing portable computers. The Kaypro II was almost identical to the Osborne, while the Otrona Attachi was a step forward in sleek design, but at double the price of its competitors. Meanwhile, the IBM PC had claimed its title as the benchmark in PC design, and the Osborne was not compatible with Big Blue's box.

But the real crash came when word of the much-improved second-generation Osborne computer, the Executive, hit the streets long before the product was ready to ship. In anticipation of a new machine, computer dealers simply stopped ordering the Osborne 1. No sales meant no capital, and in September 1983, Osborne Computer Corp. filed for bankruptcy.

In 1984, Osborne went back to his publishing roots. The plan for his new venture, Paperback Software International Ltd., was to sell inexpensive software bound in paperback books to the new mass market of computer users. Paperback Software was a success for several years, both in the United States and the U.K., but was mortally wounded in a legal battle with the Lotus Development Corporation that began in 1987. Lotus charged that Paperback's VP Planner spreadsheet program infringed on its Lotus 1-2-3 copyright. Customers feared that Paperback had no chance against the mighty Lotus, and quarterly sales dropped from $1.5 million in 1986 to $300,000 in 1989. In March 1990, a month after the case went to court, Osborne resigned from Paperback Software. VP Planner was eventually pulled from shelves.

The following year, Osborne headed back into the computer industry ring for what might have been his final public swing. Allied with an India-based computer company, he founded Noetics Software in 1992 to commercialize advances in fuzzy logic and neural network systems. Apparently, the plan never came to fruition and Osborne, whose legacy, ultimately, is the laptop computer, vanished from the media's radar, a lost blip in the computer revolution.

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One year after Adam Osborne helped introduce the world to the idea of ubiquitous computing with the Osborne 1, and a decade before the living legend vanished from the industry he helped create, he was asked why he believed people will come to embrace computer technology when so many resist it. His answer? "It's going to be a combination of evolution and necessity. On the one hand, we will make these devices easier to use; on the other, the economic imperative of using one will help us. After a while, executives will discover they can't avoid using these devices -- they'll just have to do it."

Adam Osborne, or someone who looks like him, was last seen on the streets of Bangladesh muttering to himself while wirelessly surfing the Web on a Palm VII.

David Pescovitz

David Pescovitz is an affiliate researcher at the Institute For The Future and the co-editor of BoingBoing.net. He is also the special projects editor for MAKE and the writer-in-residence for UC Berkeley's College of Engineering and the Berkeley Sciences.

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