The inventor of the mobile computer dies ...

by Guy Kewney | posted on 25 March 2003

News - The inventor of the mobile computer dies ...
By Guy Kewney Posted on 25/03/2003 at 09:35
Adam Osborne definitely invented the portable PC. Of course, in those days - before Compaq or Corona existed, it wasn't called a PC, but a "microcomputer" - and so it was, if you had shoulders like an ox. And now, at 64, Adam has ended his long illness and departed.

Guy Kewney

I met Adam when he was just another journalist like myself. He was writing tech manuals for Silicon Valley startups like Zilog, MOS Technology, and National Semiconductor - and with a column in one of the first microcomputer magazines. It was very much because of my contact with Adam, that I was able to put together the "Newsprint" column I wrote for so many years in Personal Computer World; he introduced me to people there on the West Coast of America - people I'd never have met during day to day encounters, as he did.

Long before he started Osborne Computer, he was famous. The Osborne 1 may have put Adam on the front cover of Time magazine, but he couldn't have built that machine without his contacts, which were prime.

When he announced the Osborne 1, at the West Coast Computer Faire, it aroused derision. The beast weighed over 20 pounds, and was the size of a portable sewing machine; but the derision wasn't because of its bulk; quite the opposite. "Nobody can build a complete computer into a box that small!" said the experts.

I still have my Osborne 1 - and yes, it went around the world with me. Two floppy diskettes, each of 100Kbytes capacity, a Z80 processor (was it 3 MHz? or 4 MHz?) and - the bit that broke the mold - free software! Because of his contacts, Adam was able to lean on Seymour Rubenstein, Bill Gates, and other software pioneers, and was able to include their - commercially valuable - applications in the price of the machine.

Wordstar - a program most of us never thought we'd be able to afford to buy - came free as the word processor. Visicalc was the market leading spreadsheet, but Supercalc was just as good, and it was free with the Osborne. And both Microsoft Basic and Cbasic (compiled) were included, too. In those days, you wrote your own applications ...

What I remember about him, apart from his massive, shambling height and ebullient, half-English voice, was his chutzpa. He was the original "go-for-it" boy. Osborne was, strangely enough, the first person to take me sailing - though I can't credit him with giving me the bug. He'd just sold his publishing company, Osborne Associates, to McGraw-Hill, with a deal keeping him on in a senior role, and he was flush with cash - so he upgraded his racing sailboat, replacing Mean Streak with something more costly. We took a picnic lunch and turned the engine on, to cross the San Francisco Bay to a different marina where the boat would be measured to assess its racing handicap - and half way across, the propeller drive shaft came adrift. We had to get the sails up and turn back for home. The air turned bluer than blue as he got on the radio (no cellphones in those days!) and called up every supplier whose fault it could be.

I do remember that he was more than just a competent sailor. He managed to bring that big boat into its berth single-handed (I hadn't a clue which end of which rope to hold) with just the mainsail and no engine, and much chutzpa. And it was that chutzpa which allowed him to launch the fastest-growing corporation, ever, and one which went broke even faster.

The only people who came out of Osborne Computer with any of the vast wealth that it processed, were Adam himself, and Lee Felsenstein - the super-nerd who actually designed the machine. Oh, and possibly, Seymour Rubenstein, too. Nobody else sold any of their stock, so convinced were they all that its future was all up, up, and away! - but Adam had just got remarried, and was buying a new house in the Oakland hills, and needed cash; and Lee was - as always - involved in "public access networking" and needed money to pump into his community network for Berkeley.

When the company crashed, Adam was convinced it was conspiracy; his book "Hypergrowth" (co-authored with John Dvorak) blamed the professional management team he'd hired for deliberately talking the shares down so that they could buy them at low prices. But whether this played a part, or not, the real cause was book-keeping - nobody inside Osborne Computer had any idea of what the cash-flow situation was. It changed faster than their accounting could track.

And when the company - inexplicably, even today - failed to follow IBM into 16-bit computing, Osborne-imitators like Corona and Compaq filled the void.

Adam never really recovered from that. His next venture, Paperback Software, was born out of a piece of code he was shown which did everything Lotus 1-2-3 could do, plus some more. That was crushed by the famous "look and feel" lawsuit, the legality of which has always been dubious; but Lotus could afford better lawyers than Adam.

Not only the company was crushed; Adam himself was beaten. Last time I saw him, nearly a decade ago, he said he was doing "software training," and didn't go into details. Friends told me that he was drawing on his contacts in India - where he was born and raised - and selling programming diplomas. He would, said one ex-colleague, hire Indian programmers, offer them "on-the-job" training in California, and use them as contract labour for as long as their education visa lasted. Then, when their training was over, they tended to find that they were told they'd failed the course, and in compensation, would get a secondary Diploma Of Completion which carried the Osborne name, and would suffice to make them highly employable back in India. It was, his friends, assured me, a scam to hire good programmers at a fraction of the wage he would otherwise have to pay them, and without the need to employ them full time afterwards.

Shortly after that, his wife left him and apparently heart-broken, Adam suffered the first of a series of micro-strokes which reduced him to the invalid he was for the last ten years of his life.

What he wanted, and what he didn't get, was recognition from Britain.

The front cover of Time might be recognition enough for many, but not for him. One episode in particular stands out. I remember Adam at his wedding to his second wife, Barbara, in Berkeley. It was around the time that his fame was growing and a time when, in the UK, Clive Sinclair's Spectrum was being equally spectacularly successful. Clive was given his knighthood just before Adam got married.

I can remember the look of longing on his face at the wedding, when the "telegrams from absent friends" were read out. Included in them was a spoof one from the Queen, apologising for failing to give him a knighthood, and asking "how does Lord Osborne sound?" and he truly wanted something like that. He was often in London pouring money into the Globe theatre project, and other high-profile benefit charities like that.

But of course, the way to get ennobled, is to pour money into a political party; and despite being British by ancestry, he wasn't involved in UK politics enough to realise this.

His final eclipse was almost total. In fact, I thought he had died last year, and discovering that he died only this weekend came as a surprise. I don't think anybody else knew he was still alive, until the Reuters obituary appeared on Sunday, to say he wasn't.

His obscurity in his later years shouldn't be allowed to hide the massive contributions he made to the PC industry, however. The idea of "bundling" software with hardware was his; the idea of selling software cheaply at retail was his, too. And although he failed to manage his own hypergrowth, he showed a generation of other entrepreneurs what the hazards were - and many of today's giant corporations owe their survival to the warning his object lesson gave.

Finally, he should be remembered as larger than life. He was loud, confident, and full of enthusiasm. He inspired many, provoked others to match him, and left a stamp of outrageous ebullience which set the tone for the personal computer industry for the next twenty years ... and I miss him.

Comments? Mail me at or phone 020 8809 0492 in the UK (+44) area.