Adam Osborne
Sunday, 04 October 2009
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Adam Osborne
Portable computers

Entrepreneurs play a very special role in the development of computing. If you understand the technology well enough then it is difficult not to see opportunities for making a profit. What seems to be difficult is to actually manage the business side of things to realise the profit locked up in the new technology. In other areas a single attempt is all that would be possible - but computing seems to be so fertile that some people can manage not one, not just two but three or more start-up companies that just keep on hitting the headlines.

You may not remember the name of Adam Osborne as easily as Steve Jobs say, but there was a time when he was as, if not more, famous. If you read computer books, use a portable or just use low cost software then you should know a little more about Adam Osborne.

OSBORNE

Adam Osborne 1939-2003


Osborne was born in Bangkok. His father taught history at the local university. During World War II he was evacuated to southern India where he lived until he was 11. He was educated in a Catholic school where he quickly learned that a quieter life was had by Catholic pupils - so he converted.

When he was 11 he moved to the UK and went to school near Birmingham and then on to Birmingham University to study chemical engineering. After graduating he went to the US. Not for money but for love - his girlfriend moved there first and he followed. After working as a chemical engineer he decided that it was not for him and so he enrolled as a doctoral student. He studied chemical engineering but chose computers as the subject of his thesis which was completed in 1968.

Chemical engineering and computers made his next move to Shell Oil to work on mathematical modelling seem natural, but within three years he was fired. Osborne claims that he was an aggressive over-achiever and often disagreed with his bosses.

The obvious next step was to start a company of his own and Osborne and Associates was founded. Almost immediately they got their first job - writing technical manuals for General Automation. In two years Osborne had fifteen people working for him and then General Automation changed their management and started to write their own manuals.

The first micro book

During this time Osborne had written a book - oddly titled The Value of Power about microprocessors. He expanded it and renamed it An Introduction to Microprocessors but no one wanted to publish it. This may seem strange in these days of the huge PC book industry but back then it wasn't at all clear that any one would be interested in a book on "microprocessors". After all a microprocessor was just a single chip and you needed to put a lot of electronics with it to make anything at all - and the result could only be called a computer if you stretched the point.

Osborne thought that there would be a lot of interest in a book on microprocessors and so he published it himself. It was successful - very successful. It sold 300,000 copies and Osborne and Associates became a publisher. They produced forty books on computers in five years. Adam Osborne himself wrote twelve or so of them.

You could credit him with starting the computing book publishing industry as we know it but in a sense he also helped start the personal computer revolution. The reason is that Osborne books help educate and inform the people who built the early machines. Osborne made the information available to enthusiasts as well as professionals.

 

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The publishing phase of Osborne's progress came to an abrupt end when he sold out to McGraw Hill in 1979. Osborne Books continues to this day as an imprint of McGraw Hill. The purchase price has never been revealed but it is rumoured to have been in the $3 to $10 million range! His final legacy to them was a book called Running Wild - The Next Industrial Revolution which speculated on the future of the micro and personal computer.

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From books to computers

In 1980 he decided that his next challenge would be to make computers portable. This may not seem much of a challenge now that we have laptops and netbooks - but then it seemed ridiculous. Personal computers of the era were mostly based on the current-guzzling Z80 processor and they were hot and huge. Even the standard disk drives of the day were 5.25 inch full height devices and there were no LCD screens. Put in this context you can see that Osborne's scheme seemed an idea that would be easier to leave for a few years.

He found the man to do build his machine at the West Coast computer fair. Lee Felsenstein was already a veteran designer. He had founded the Homebrew Computer Club and helped and inspired many others build their own machine - including Jobs and Wozniak. Osborne described the specification of his machine to Felsenstein - it had to be strong, small, cheap and easy to build.

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