The Rise And Fall Of The Man Who Invented The Portable Computer

Osborne 1 computer

Photo: Wikipedia

Apple didn’t invent the portable computer. Neither did Toshiba. Or IBM.The first portable computer was created in April 1981 by a company called Osborne, led by a journalist turned entrepreneur named Adam Osborne.

To celebrate the long-gone company’s 30th anniversary, Harry McCracken at Technologizer has an excellent feature on Osborne today.

He was once seen as a contemporary to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and Osborne Computer was once the fastest-growing company in Silicon Valley history. But  the company collapsed in less than 30 months after being out-innovated, making some bad technical bets, and announcing a product too far ahead of delivery — a classic mistake now called the “Osborne effect.”

The Osborne 1 itself was 24 pounds and didn’t have a battery — it was really more “luggable” than portable — but the fact that you could put it in a carrying case and move with it at all was revolutionary back when the personal computer was still a deskbound beast. It was also one of the first computers to come with useful software and was dirt cheap at the time: only $1795.

Here are some interesting highlights about Adam Osborne from the article:

  • He was born in Thailand to British and Polish parents and spent most of his childhood in India, where his parents followed a local maharishi.
  • He was the prototypical cranky computer columnist, criticising computer makers, competing magazines, and even his own publisher in his column, “From the Fountainhead.” 
  • Like a sort of anti-Steve Jobs, Osborne was brutally honest about his product’s shortcomings, telling his former employers InfoWorld that it was “merely adequate” and was slower and less expandable than the competition.
  • More misplaced honesty: after the company declared bankruptcy in 1983, Osborne ran an ad for its next computer with the headline: “This Is The Computer We Were Going To Introduce Before The You-Know-What Happened.”
  • After Osborne Computing finally shut down in 1986, he started a software company called Paperback that distributed inexpensive software through bookstores. It did OK, but shut down after losing a lawsuit against Lotus, which accused Paperback of ripping off the “look and feel” of its spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3.

The whole article is well worth a read for anybody interested in the early days of computing.

 

 

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