Adam Osborne
Sunday, 04 October 2009
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Adam Osborne
Portable computers

 

The Osborne 1

The prototype took four months and cost $28000. The machine was remarkable. A single PC board contained a Z80 processor, memory, a video display and a disk controller. The PC board was designed to slide into a moulded plastic case about the size of an small suitcase. A five inch CRT was fitted in the centre of the case providing a 52 character per line display. Needless to say that it was black and white! A pair of full height 5.25 inch drives sat each one each side of the monitor. You needed two because one had to hold the program disk while the other held the data disk - remember each one only had a 360KByte capacity.

 

Osborne1

The Osborne I


A less essential feature was the strange well under each drive moulded into the case. Users were intended to store their diskettes in these pockets - but many were very worried about storing magnetic disks right under the influence of the disk drive motors. It also had to be a mains powered unit and the mains lead coiled up in the base of the case. It weighed over twenty pounds and a new term had to be introduced to describe it - lugable as opposed to portable. It was designed to fit under an aeroplane seat but only if you had the strength to get it up the steps!

os1

The Osborne I was a remarkable machine and it sold well. It was the only option if you wanted a portable of any sort - and it was priced so that you couldn't ignore it even if portability wasn't of any interest. At $1700 it was cheaper than any equivalent desktop. The final killer blow was an idea that Osborne had to bundle software with the machine. It came complete with Wordstar, SuperCalc, Microsoft Basic and CBasic. The software alone cost $2000 and the joke at the time was that Osborne was selling the software and giving the machine away!

Osborne Computer Corporation (OCC) achieved $1 million per month one year after the launch. Clearly OCC was to become a force in personal computing - but things weren't all perfect. Perhaps the biggest problem was that the IBM PC had just made its debut and the world was about to change. The Osborne I was an 8-bit CP/M machine and everyone was very clear that this was not the standard for even the near future. With 500 employees and a turnover of $10 million a month Adam Osborne decided that what was needed was professional management. He chose Robert Jaunich from Consolidated foods to take over - a decision he would always regret.

To do battle with the IBM PC, OCC had two new machines waiting in the wings. The Executive had a 7-inch screen and sold for little more than the Osborne I and the Vixen a smaller even cheaper machine. Unfortunately OCC committed the most naive of blunders - it announced the new machines while the distribution channel still had large stocks of Osborne Is and while there was no chance of supplying the new machines. Sales fell through the floor - from 10,000 per month before the announcement to 100 per month after! There were 20,000 unsold Osborne I's in stock with no chance of being cleared. Adam Osborne himself claims that he recommended that the new machines should not be announced but the new management and he did not see eye-to-eye.

 

vixen

The Vixen

In the summer of 1983 price cuts on the OsborneI were introduced but they did little to help the company's situation. OCC went bankrupt at the end of the summer with liabilities of $45 million and over 600 creditors. It was the first major failure in the new and vigorous PC industry and it signalled a change in climate. Lots of new PC companies had failed to manage their explosive growth but OCC was the first to suffer for it.

Paperback software

As you would expect, the loss of OCC wasn't really a setback to Adam Osborne. He still had ideas and one of the best was the bundling of software with the OsborneI. In 1984 he decided to start another new company - this time without Osborne name in the title - PaperBack Software. This wasn't such a huge step as back in the early days many of Osborne's books were just printed program listings, i.e. published software but without the disks.

You can imagine that getting the money to start a low cost software marketing venture was not easy for a man whose hardware company had just failed. He did get some cash though and put in $100,000 of his own. Finally in desperation he issued six million ten cent shares on the penny stock market. The offer sold out, raising half a million dollars.

The dream he was selling was cheap software. Spreadsheet programs for $100 and not the $500 that the big companies demanded. Some of these programs he would develop, others would be obtained by marketing agreements with smaller companies. He also decided to adopt a smaller cheaper format for publishing software. Each manual would be in the form of a paperback book with the software bound into the cover. At the time most software was sold in huge library cases to try to give the impression that you were getting more for your money than just bits...

PaperBack soon had a good collection of products - VP-Planner, VP-Info and NewWord to name only the most important. These were all good programs sold at a reasonable price but there was one fly in the ointment - they were compatible with the then market leaders. VP-Planner was a Lotus 1-2-3 compatible spreadsheet, VP-Info was compatible with dBase and NewWord with Wordstar. Not that they were slavish copies, each went beyond the originals in some way. VP-Planner for example, was one of the first spreadsheets to introduce multi-dimensional worksheets. However Lotus decided to sue PaperBack software over the copying of the "look-and-feel" of its product. The case dragged on for some time but eventually Lotus won and PaperBack Software US went bankrupt.

After PaperBack Software Adam Osborne seems to have given up the idea of running large companies. He moved to India in 1992 in ill health and died in 2003.


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