Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Portable Computing Turns 30 Years Old!

A big pic here, if you want a closer look.

Yeah, there's an old piece of technology pictured here; that means another piece of history is celebrated. This time, it's portable computing. Specifically, it's the Osborne 1.

Having just turned 30 years old on April 3rd, let us look back at the pioneer that has made the machine I write this post with, and the machine on which you're probably reading this post, possible.

The following story was romanticized (and possibly exaggerated) for dramatic effect.

Before LCDs, before flat screen monitors, before the Internet as we know it...hell, before the common person even started buying and having a single computer in their house...computers were still mainly used by colleges, government offices, and various branches of the American military. As far as business integration was concerned, computers and networks were still developmentally in their infancy.

Given all of this, somebody dared to see the current state of technology and look to the future; they realized Moore's Law (the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years; click here for the full, original statement). They knew that as time went on, the technology would only get smaller, and cheaper to manufacture...perhaps small enough to carry around.

Not exactly get-up-and-go machines just yet.

Acting upon this thought, visionary Adam Osborne set his sights on a computing device that can be physically moved from place to place and could still be able to perform all the basic functions of a computer at that time. The fruits of his labor resulted in a machine that more or less did exactly that, and it was introduced on April 3rd, 1981 at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco: the Osborne 1.

Not pictured is a handle to carry it, like a suitcase...a 24 lb suitcase.

To be fair, it was the first of its kind, so anything about this product (assuming it worked exactly how Osborne described) would be considered cutting edge. But for the sake of informing you good people, let's take a look at exactly what laid under the hood.

  • 4MHz Zilog Z80 CPU
  • 64K of RAM
  • two single-sided floppy drives (you know, for the big 5 1/4" floppy disks)
  • a teeny tiny 5" monitor that sits right between the 2 floppy drives
  • a fold-out keyboard/cover with keys that give your fingers a good workout

Of course, this wasn't a sophisticated model (the parts were rather fragile), so it was built with a case as solid as possible, able to withstand impact. That explains the small monitor: if it were any bigger, it would have been more likely to be damaged.

Speaking of which, the monitor itself wasn't that great of a display; it was 5" (a tad larger than an iPhone), square, and was able to show 52 characters per line (the cursor could be moved to scroll left and right to show up to 128). I'm sure that for its time, it was trailblazing (of course it was, it was the first!).

Click to read the text.

Everything that has been mentioned thus far has been good and all, but there's still the unanswered question: 


The answer to that is actually 6 answers, each a piece of software that came free:
  1. CP/M System
  2. CP/M Utility
  3. SuperCalc Spreadsheet
  4. WordStar word processing with MailMerge
  5. Microsoft MBASIC programming language
  6. Digital Research CBASIC programming language
Yeah, those came free. Separate from the machine, that small bundle of software would cost you a hefty sum of $1,500, and that's 1981 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that price would be closer to $3,966.78.

As for the price of the machine itself, a customer was set back $1,795 (that's $4,746.92 now). Of course, it wasn't enough to get the basic machine, you had to buy the accessories as well! 

  • a dial-up modem (access to 200 forums around the world!)
  • something called the "Double Density Disk Drive Option"
    • as it says, doubles the amount of memory space per disk

The only hitch to the accessories was that they had to be installed internally, so you had to take it apart and install them (unheard of back then: take apart my computer? never!).

It enjoyed a lot of success, selling 10,000 units per month for a few years, and making the Osborne Corporation its first $1 million within a year of starting.

Oh yeah, who's pimpin' now? This guy.

...but nothing lasts forever. Osborne Corp. enjoyed some success after the Osborne 1 with a few other models, yes. But Osborne's skills with consumer relations supposedly became his downfall when he teased with the announcement the Osborne 1's successors, model OCC-2 aka the Executive and then another model codenamed Vixen.

The story goes that Osborne Corp. made these announcements, teasing that they would be even better than the Osborne 1. That started a reaction that made their stock go down. Instead of continuing to buy the currently available Osbourne 1s, customers waited for the release of the Executive and the Vixen. This created a sharp decline in revenue. In October 1983, Osborne Corp. filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. 

They call that the Osborne Effect: promising something better, which makes your consumers hold their money in anticipation for it, creating no revenue in the meantime, eventually making the company go under. Sounds a bit familiar; many companies have fallen into this (or various versions of this) trap...

...except they've learned to not get into financial trouble.

Well, there you have it, folks. Without the Osborne 1, there would probably have been another pioneer to light the torch and place the first brick on the proverbial wall of portable computing. So as you finish reading this post on your iPod, iPad, smartphone, or even your laptop computer, remember the Osbourne 1. Remember Adam Osborne, the man who dared to dream and saw a future in using computers everywhere.

discovered on Engadget
Apple logo property of Apple, Inc.
information on the Osborne 1 via The Obsolete Technology Website

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