Portable computer pioneer Adam Osborne dies

A star before Gates or Compaq


Adam Osborne, the real inventor of the portable computer and - possibly - corporate immolation via preannouncement, has died aged 64, after a long illness. Osborne's star blazed briefly bright with his 1981 introduction of the Osborne 1; by today's standards it looks somewhat counter-intuitive, but it caught the mood.

Huge, heavy, 5in green screen and industrial-style clacky keyboard, but you could always kid yourself you were something important in secret intelligence, especially if you had the Land Rover to lug it in. The Register had some slight acquaintance with one of the beasts at the time, and does not frankly remember it as something you'd casually stow under an aircraft seat, as the link above suggests.

The machine was a big success, and the follow-ups looked pretty promising. However in 1983 Adam Osborne goofed, preannouncing the next generation before it was built, cutting the feet out from under the existing machines and triggering the collapse of the company a few months later. This 'Osborne effect' subsequently became a textbook example of how not to do it - you'll note however that people do still do this these days, possibly through total ignorance of Adam's existence.

Osborne then came up with a second good idea - Paperback Software. He took the view that software prices were way, way too high, resulting in sales levels that were way, way too low. So he launched a new company which packaged the software in paperback book format and charged lower prices. This initiative could have had a lot to say about issues that are still live today - piracy, pricing and software distribution models, but it wasn't to be. Paperback Software was (how much pioneering can one man do?) sued by Lotus fairly early on in the latter company's bid for the title of the software industry's biggest bully.

I didn't meet Osborne in his hardware phase, but talked to him when he was launching Paperback. He was a good talker, with a certain Errol Flynn-like suaveness about him. He was a charismatic mover and shaker early on, when the ones we know today were barely over their acne, but partially through his own failings and partially through bad luck, he became a largely forgotten hero. And his illness finally took him out of the picture too soon.

Reuters provides some more details of Osborne's life here, and we're sure some of the people who knew him well (John C Dvorak and Guy Kewney spring to mind) will be paying their respects shortly. ®


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