Adam Osborne

Pioneer of the portable computer

Saturday 05 April 2003 00:00 BST

Adam Osborne, writer, publisher and computer manufacturer: born Bangkok 6 March 1939; married first Cynthia Geddes (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Barbara Burdick (marriage dissolved); died Kodiakanal, India 18 March 2003

Adam Osborne introduced the world's first portable computer, the Osborne I, at the West Coast Computer Faire in California in spring 1981. It was an overnight sensation and by the following year the Osborne Computer Corporation had hundreds of employees and was shipping over 10,000 machines a month. However, competition from other portable computers, compounded by business mistakes, forced the company into bankruptcy in September 1983. The rise and fall of Osborne Computer came to symbolise the volatile economy of Silicon Valley.

The son of an English father and a Polish mother, Adam Osborne was born in Bangkok in 1939, where his father, Arthur Osborne, a historian and theologian, taught at the university. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Adam and his mother moved to southern India.

At the age of 11, Adam Osborne was sent to be educated in England, where he was taught in state schools followed by Birmingham University, from which he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering in 1961. He then married and moved to the United States, eventually becoming a naturalised citizen.

After some unhappy experiences working for large engineering corporations, Osborne enrolled at the University of Delaware, from which he received a doctorate in chemical engineering in 1968. His doctoral studies had given him experience in computer techniques, and he then took a job involving computers with Shell Oil in Emeryville, California. Unable to adapt to the culture of a big corporation, Osborne moved into technical writing, for which he proved to have a great flair.

In 1975, Osborne wrote An Introduction to Microcomputers. The book was self-published and hit the market just as the personal computer revolution was taking off. It eventually sold over 300,000 copies. He turned his success into a major publishing operation, which produced 40 personal-computing titles – of which he wrote 12 himself. During this period Osborne also became a columnist in the top-selling InfoWorld computer magazine and was a sought-after computer pundit, celebrated for his iconoclasm. In 1979 his publishing company was bought by McGraw-Hill, where it still thrives as McGraw-Hill/Osborne Media.

Osborne formed the Osborne Computer Corporation in 1981. The first product was the Osborne I portable computer. Weighing 23 pounds and the size of a small suitcase, the machine was often described as "luggable" rather than portable. A unique selling point of the computer was that it came with a software bundle consisting of a word-processor program, a spreadsheet and other popular application programs; in this way users could have the computer up and running without the need to buy additional software. It was said that the retail value of the software was more than the computer's $1,795 selling price.

More than 100,000 Osborne I computers were eventually sold across the United States and in Europe. However, competition soon arrived in the form of portable computers from Compaq and Kaypro. In addition, the IBM-compatible computer was becoming the industry standard, making other designs obsolete. This competition, made worse by some strategic marketing errors, led to a huge inventory of unsold machines resulting in bankruptcy in September 1983. The extraordinary story of the Osborne Computer Corporation – boom to bust in three years – was told at length in Osborne's book Hypergrowth, published in 1984.

Undaunted by the failure of his company, Osborne began a new venture, Paperback Software International, in 1984. His idea was to sell software at low prices, through ordinary bookshops instead of software retailers. His most successful product was a $99 spreadsheet VP-Planner, a clone of the popular Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet that sold for $495. Unfortunately for Osborne, the Lotus Development Corporation filed suit for infringement in 1987. While the case was pending, sales plummeted and Osborne left the company in 1990. In a landmark ruling that June, it was held that VP-Planner had copied the "look and feel" of 1-2-3 and the product had to be withdrawn from the market.

In 1992 Osborne contracted a brain disorder, which led to a series of mini-strokes. He decided to return to India to spend the remainder of his days with his sister Katya Douglas.

Martin Campbell-Kelly

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