30th Anniversary of the First Portable Computer
Sunday, 03 April 2011

On April 3rd, 1981 the Osborne 1 was announced at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco. The brainchild of Adam Osborne, it was the first true mass-produced portable PC and one of the most popular computers of its time.

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. 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 and each one only had a 360KByte capacity!

 

Osborne1

 

Although described as the first portable it wasn't portable in any modern sense. It had to be mains powered and weighed 24 pounds. True it was designed to fit under an aeroplane seat - but only if you had the strength to get it up the steps! The new term introduced to describe it was "luggable".

The Osborne 1 was popular and sold well. Not only was it the only option if you wanted a portable of any sort, it was priced so that you couldn't ignore it even if portability wasn't of any interest. At $1795 it was cheaper than any equivalent desktop and this price included bundled software. 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!

However, despite its initial success. as an 8-bit CP/M machine it soon was overtaken in technical terms by the IBM PC and only two and a half years later the Osborne Computer Company (OCC) went bankrupt due not to its design capabilities but to its business acumen. 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 no 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!

To discover more about the man who founded this company and gave it, and the first poartable computer, his name see the article on Adam Osborne in our History section.

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