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A tribute to Adam Osborne

One of my Wikipedia entries has been doing some time on the front page. Computer pioneer Adam Osborne (the “Osborne” in Osborne/McGraw-Hill and in the Osborne 1 portable computer) died last week after an 11-year illness.

Adam Osborne's portable computer

This Osborne Computer ad touted the Osborne 1’s portability and included software.

I found out about it Sunday. I started writing an entry, but had innumerable distractions on Sunday and Monday. When Tuesday came and he still didn’t have an entry, I finished it up and posted it over lunch. Soon, it was doing time on the front page–the first time one of my entries has had the honor.

For someone who was such a huge name in computing just 20 years ago, it’s truly frightening how obscure he became. Osborne was a chemical engineer who had an interest in computing, and he realized at some point that he liked writing and computers more than he liked chemistry. So he caught a break writing a manual for Intel, and soon he was hanging out with computer hobbyists and self-publishing books. By 1977, his publishing company had 40 books in its catalog. He sold out in 1979 and decided the biggest problem with computers was that they sat on desks. Since it was possible to stuff the components of a computer into a briefcase, why hadn’t anyone done it? So he got a former Intel engineer to design it, and in 1981, the Osborne 1 was ready to be released. It was the first portable computer. It weighed 23-26 pounds, depending on its configuration, but you could fold it up and carry it. It was like a Compaq Portable, but Osborne did it first.

The Osborne 1 was innovative in two other ways as well. Osborne thought computers should come with software so you could do something with them after you bought them. So he bundled $2,000 worth of popular applications with the Osborne 1. He also thought computers were too expensive, so he priced the Osborne 1 at $1795. An Apple II system with comparable equipment cost about twice that.

So if you like cheap computers that include software, you have Osborne to thank.

Then Osborne lent his name to an enduring Silicon Valley cliche: “osborning.” In 1983, Osborne got a little too excited about an upcoming computer (I don’t know if it was the Osborne Executive or the Osborne Vixen, which was to be natively 100% compatible with both MS-DOS and CP/M, akin to a computer being able to run Windows and Macintosh software at full speed today). Whichever machine it was, it was a dramatic improvement over its predecessor, but the problem was, it was months away from the market. Osborne made it an even bigger problem by talking openly about it anyway. Sales of existing computers nosedived–why pay $2,000 today when you knew something dramatically better would be available for around the same price in a few months?–and Osborne was left with warehouses full of suddenly sale-proof computers. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 1983.

For years after that, to “osborne” a product meant to talk about its successor too soon before it would become available.

Osborne then went on to form a new company called Paperback Software. I still remember Paperback’s ads. They featured Osborne, saying, “I’m Adam Osborne. I want you to know you don’t have to pay ridiculous prices for software.” He went on to explain that business software was expensive because it saved people lots of money. But he said by that logic, a telephone should cost $600, because it saves thousands in travel costs. I read an interview with him in Personal Computing magazine in 1985 or 1986, and he predicted that the clone phenomenon, which was then sweeping the computer business, would soon jump into software as well. I remember him predicting the appearance of Lotus 1-2-3 clones within a year or two, selling for $99 or less.

It happened. Osborne’s company was one of the companies to do it, and it landed Paperback Software in court. Lotus sued in 1987 for copyright violation, and in 1990, a court ruled in Lotus’ favor. Disgusted with the American legal system, Osborne left his third company and moved to India, where he lived the rest of his life mostly forgotten.

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