Last April 3rd marked the passing of a milestone in computing that a majority of laptop users are aware of. It was the 30th anniversary of portable computing and what a ride it has been. Thirty years ago, Adam Osborne's name was a by-word in emerging personal computer communities. His name rang more bells than an upstart named Steve Jobs who chose to name his small computer company after a fruit and lent the same name, perhaps appropriately to his first product.
The cat's pajamas of portable computing today is Aple's Macbook Air. It weighs just a shade over a kilogram, is 17 mm at its thickest point, has an 11-inch screen, up to 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of solid state storage, and most of its owners take it for granted. After all why shouldn't be a computer like this.
Unlike Jobs, Osborne lent his own name to his first product, the Osborne 1 and the fast growing PC market went wild. After all, the Osborne 1 was the first computer that you can actually take with you just like a suitcase. It had an 8-bit Zilog Z-80 processor that blazed around at 4 MHz, four times what the Apple I could do. And it has a dead serious operating system called CP/M – the Control Program for Microcomputers. Storage came in the form of two full height (read: three inches thick) 5.25-inch floppy disk drives that each stored 140 KB of data where one disk contained the OS and two or three other applications with the second drive available exclusively for data. It had 64KB of RAM and a built-in 5-inch green monochrome screen capable of displaying 80 columns (read: 80 characters) of text and 25 lines of it. Yes, rattling off these specifications today may sound a bit comical. But in the early 1980s, such a package in a 12 kilogram case the size of a medium-sized suitcase was a marvel of technology.
Enterprise computing in the early 1980s such as the Burroughs B series minicomputers were considered compact ('mini' you see) because it was the size of a regular chest freezer. File storage was in the form of 18-inch disk packs that were about 9 inches thick, driven off 8-bit processors with 64 KB of RAM.
Unfortunately, the Osborne 1 was a one-hit wonder although it did paint an interesting study for retail marketeers. Osborne Computer went from hero to zero in 18 months because Adam Osborne made a move that is now considered a marketing no-no. In fact it has earned him a modicum of notoriety with the term Osborne Effect being use to describe the result of announcing a new model while the old one is still being actively sold. Sales of the Osborne 1 dried up at a time when the replacement model, though announced, was not ready to go to production.
Today, a strong indicator that a new model is in the horizon, apart from the rumours, are disappearing inventories, aggressive price cuts, and a slew of below-the-line campaigns.
If only for this, the entire computer industry should pay Osborne some kind of tribute.