Compiled by E. Sue Terhune
Created by Adam Osborne in 1980, Osborne Computer Corporation produced the first commercially successful portable personal computer, the Osborne 1. This self-contained unit was about the size of a suitcase and included 64K of memory, a monochrome monitor, a keyboard, and a disk drive. The Osborne 1 was also the first computer to be sold with bundled software packages.
Adam Osborne was born in 1939 in Thailand and spent much of his childhood in Tamil Nadu in South India, in the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, with his British parents -- his father taught Eastern religion and philosophy -- Osborne moved to the U.K. at the age of 11 and in 1961 graduated with 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. He found that he did enjoy technical writing, particularly about the newly developing computer industry and in the early 1970s, Osborne was given the job of writing instructions for Intel's new microprocessor.
Osborne continued freelance technical writing, and in 1972 formed Osborne and Associates to write simple, easy-to-read manuals for computers. He also wrote a book entitled The Value of Power, which was later titled An Introduction to Microcomputers. When the book was rejected by established publishers, he decided to publish it himself. At a computer user club meeting, he showed the book to Bruce Van Natta from IMSAI, an established computer company. After reading the book, Van Natta decided to include a copy with every IMSAI computer that was sold. With this auspicious beginning and his belief that the public was hungry for good, understandable books about computers, Osborne created his own publishing company.
Over the next five years, Osborne Books published over 40 books on computers. In 1979, Osborne sold his publishing company to McGraw-Hill. During this same time, Osborne began writing columns for computer magazines Interface Age and later Infoworld. He was becoming increasingly convinced that for computers to be truly useful, they needed to be mobile; they needed to move with the people who used them and be available whenever and wherever people were. This was a concept he didn't think the existing companies understood or were prepared to deal with. Having sold his publishing company, Osborne turned his energies to designing a computer that would be portable, rugged, easy to use, and affordable.
In March 1980, at the West Coast Computer Faire, Osborne approached Lee Felsenstein, who had previously been designing circuit boards for Processor Technology, about starting a hardware company that would not only produce an affordable, portable computer but would offer bundled software with the machine. Following Osborne's specifications, Felsenstein designed a portable computer that would fit under an airplane seat, weighed only 24 pounds, had a 52-column display that would fit on a five-inch screen, contained a cushioning tube, and had two disk drives. To meet the small screen requirements, Felsenstein stored a full screen's worth of information in memory and gave the users keys that allowed them to scroll the memory screen across the display. Once the hardware was developed, Osborne contacted several software providers and made deals to provide BASIC and CBASIC language, WordStar word processing, and SuperCalc spreadsheet programs with every computer. The market value of the software amounted to about $2000, a cost Osborne intended to roll over into the actual cost of each unit sold. Osborne introduced his new computer, aptly named the Osborne 1, at the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981. The first portable computer with all the software an average buyer needed for only $1795 was an immediate hit and promised to be a commercial success. By September 1981, Osborne Computer Corporation (OCC) had its first million-dollar sales month. Even with all of the competition that began, the Osborne 1 became one of the top-selling personal computers, quickly reaching a peak of 10,000 units per month. Second-year sales reached $70 million.
Soon competition, especially IBM and Apple, was too much for Osborne and on September 13, 1983, Osborne Computer Corporation declared bankruptcy. In less than two years, the company had grown from nothing to a million dollar enterprise. Nobody in the company was prepared to handle it. In the Spring of 1984, Adam Osborne returned to the publishing business. His new firm, Paperback Software International Ltd., was dedicated to publishing inexpensive software packages that would compete with the high-priced software that was being marketed. At first, the novelty of his concept met with success and he was able to take the company public in the United Kingdom. Osborne's most successful product was a spreadsheet program called VP Planner. Unfortunately for Osborne, Lotus Development Corporation felt the program was a copyright infringement of their program, Lotus 1-2-3. In 1987, Lotus sued Paperback Software, charging that Paperback violated Lotus' intellectual property rights. After much deliberation, the court ruled that Paperback Software's duplication of the menu interface of Lotus' 1-2-3 was a violation of copyright.
Little is known about the whereabouts of Adam Osborne today. In the 1990s he returned to India, the land of his youth, and started up another company dealing with computer software. He will forever be remembered, however, asthe man who invented the PC and followed his dream of a computer in every home much as Henry Ford dreamed of a car in every garage.
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