Osborne, Adam

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Osborne, Adam

(b. 6 March 1939 in Bangkok, Thailand; d. 18 March 2003 in Kodaikanal, India), executive who introduced the portable computer.

Osborne was born in Thailand to British parents, Arthur Osborne, a university professor, and Lucia (Lipsziczudna) Osborne, a homemaker. Arthur Osborne, a student and popularizer of Eastern religion, moved the family to the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi, in Tamil Nadu, India, soon after Osborne’s birth. Osborne was sent to boarding school in England at age eleven and remained in the United Kingdom to attend the University of Birmingham, where he received a BSc in chemical engineering in 1961. That same year he immigrated to the United States for graduate studies in chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, from which he received an MChE in 1966 and a PhD in 1967. During his studies Osborne married Cynthia Geddes, with whom he had three children; the marriage later ended in divorce. He subsequently married Barbara Burdick, although the couple would ultimately divorce as well. Osborne became a naturalized American citizen in 1967.

In the 1960s Osborne worked as a chemical engineer at Shell Oil, but he had become fascinated by the computers he had used in his graduate studies. In 1972 Osborne left Shell to start Adam Osborne and Associates (later Osborne Books), which was devoted to books about computers, some of which were written by Osborne himself. The company’s books varied from the general Introduction to Programming (three volumes, 1975–1978) to technical programming guides for the 8080, 6800, and Z80 computer chips. By 1977 Osborne Books had forty titles in its catalog.

In the mid-1970s Osborne frequented meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist group in what would become Silicon Valley, California. Many microcomputer innovations were germinated at the meetings, and Osborne began writing for computer publications such as Interface Age. In the course of his work in this new area Osborne became convinced that computer users needed the machines to be mobile.

In 1979 Osborne sold his publishing company to McGraw-Hill and set out to produce a computer that would be a self-contained unit small enough to be carried and sold as a package with its software. In 1980 he hired Lee Felsenstein to design the machine and founded Osborne Computer Corporation. At the West Coast Computer Faire in April 1981 Osborne introduced the Osborne 1, a computer that would fit under an airline seat. The Osborne 1 cost $1,795, less than the individual cost of the software bundled with it, which included the CP/M operating system, WordStar for word processing, the SuperCalc spreadsheet, and the Microsoft Basic programming language. There were drawbacks, however. The Osborne 1 weighed twenty-four pounds. Although the manufacturer called the machine portable, computer publications referred to it as “luggable.” In addition, the screen width was only five inches and the display width only fifty-two characters. Osborne himself described the machine as “adequate,” likening himself to Henry Ford in providing 90 percent of what most people need.

The Osborne 1 was a hit with 8,000 orders in 1981 and 110,000 in 1982. Orders came in so fast that the shipping department was having trouble meeting them. The industry as a whole was growing rapidly, however. In 1982 International Business Machines (IBM) moved into the microcomputer field with its MS-DOS machines, and a new computer, the Kaypro, resembled the Osborne and used the same operating system but sported a full eighty-character screen. Osborne Computer attempted to match these advances but ran into problems, including the bankruptcy of one of its suppliers. The Osborne Executive, which had a larger screen, was introduced in March 1983 at a slightly higher price than the Osborne 1, but there were difficulties supplying the new machines. On 13 September 1983 the company filed for bankruptcy.

In 1984 Osborne returned to the computer field. Noticing the high price of popular software, Osborne began Paperback Software International (PSI), which sold software at lower prices through bookstores. Unfortunately for Osborne, the Lotus Development Corporation concluded that the PSI spreadsheet program, VP Planner, was too similar to Lotus 1-2-3. In 1987 Lotus sued PSI for infringing Lotus’s copyright on its menu interface. In 1990 a court ruled in Lotus’s favor, and Osborne resigned from PSI.

In 1992 Osborne founded another company, Noetics Software, but a mysterious brain ailment caused him to have a number of strokes, so he had to retire. Osborne moved back to his childhood home, India, to live with his sister Katya Douglas. He died of accumulated brain damage on 18 March 2003 in Kodaikanal and is buried in a cemetery near his sister’s home.

The Osborne 1 was a significant element in the microcomputer revolution, introducing the idea of the computer and its software as a single entity in a physical package that could be carried. Both the laptop computer and multifunction programs such as Microsoft Office are descended from it. The cause of the failure of Osborne Computer Corporation remains controversial. It is commonly believed that Osborne brought disaster on himself by announcing new models before he was ready to ship them, thus killing sales of the product he could supply. This problem has been called the Osborne effect. There is also a revisionist theory. According to Charles Eicher, who repaired Osborne computers from the company’s founding onward, the company was surviving the announcement of the new machines, but a vice president found some motherboards from the old ones and suggested that those be made into Osborne 1 machines. This executive did not realize that the company that made the cases for the computers had destroyed the molds for them. Starting reproduction of the old models was so costly that it brought on bankruptcy.

Adam Osborne and John Dvorak, Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of Osborne Computer Corporation (1984), tells Osborne’s side of the story. A contemporary account of the computer business in the early 1980s appears in Jerry Pournelle, The User’s Guide to Small Computers (1984). Andrew Orlowski, “Taking Osborne Out of the Osborne Effect,” Register (20 June 2005), presents Charles Eicher’s version of events. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (25 Mar. 2003) and New York Times (26 Mar. 2003).

Arthur D. Hlavaty

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