Adam Osborne, pioneer of PCs for people: dead at 64
March 27, 2003 Adam Osborne, American entrepreneur, born to British parents in Thailand, died on Tuesday March 25 in Kodiakanal, southern India, after a lingering brain disease.
Trained as a chemical engineer, he made a successful move in the 1970's into publishing computer books. Then, in 1981, at the West Coast Computer Fair, the year that IBM launched the PC, he introduced the Osborne 1, a 12Kg "luggable" computer, the worlds first portable computer, now displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.
Selling $6 million in 1981 and $68 million the following year, Osborne were shipping 10,000 units per month at their peak and were said to have 3 million units on backorder.
Designed by Lee Felsenstein (inventor of the Penny Whistle modem kit and the Berkely CA based Home Brew Computer Club, guru to Steve Wozniak and Jobs of Apple) and Al Alcorn, co-founder of Atari, this groundbreaking machine featured a full keyboard and a tiny, 5"-diagonal, monochrome, black/green built-in monitor.
Priced at $1795, (1981 remember) the right price for a credit card sale, it came complete, ready to Plug'n'Play, with CP/M operating system (forerunner of DOS), WordStar word processing, SuperCalc spreadsheet and MBASIC and CBASIC. The 64K RAM Zilog Z80 Processor ran at a full 4Mhz and there were two 5.25" 102K floppy drives. Interestingly, it was sized to fit under a standard aircraft seat -- you wouldn't put it in the hold, and if it had fallen out of a locker it would have killed you.
The screen acted as a "window" displaying 24 lines of text, each of 52 characters of a full 80 character line. A 24 pin DIN serial port allowed the use of a high speed line printer, although all text was limited to 8 characters per inch, 6 lines per inch.
Osborne announced his "Executive" machine with superior features at a Personal Computer World Show in London in 1982. This killed sales of the original machine, but the much-hyped new model failed to appear in any quantity before the company went belly-up in September 1983. Compaq inherited the design and produced their first portable machine in 1983.
Adam Osborne made his mark in the tech world during those heady, happy, and for some, hippy, early days when many in computing were fired by the sense of community that still inspires the Linux generation. There is a happy symmetry in his death at 64, although if his bank switching had worked, maybe he'd have made 128.
Lee Felsenstein e-mails me today: "I wouldn't call Adam happy, nor in any way associate him with hippies. He was a lonely man who couldn't relate to other people except as a caricature Gilbert-and-Sullivan character. He could get lots of people to follow him, but nobody knew the man, certainly not me. He did move the personal computer industry into a consumer marketplace with his innovation of all-in-one hardware-and-software packaging."