Osborne 1
Introduced:March 1981
Available:June 1981
Price:US $1,795
Weight:24.5 pounds / 11 kg
CPU:Zilog Z80 @ 4.0 MHz
Display:built-in 5" CRT monitor
52 x 24 text
Ports:parallel / IEEE-488
modem / serial port
Storage:dual 5-1/4 inch floppy drives
OS:CP/M on diskette
Osborne 1 - 1981
By Osborne Computer Corporation

Released in June 1981 by the Osborne Computer Corporation, the Osborne 1 is considered to be the first true portable, full-featured computer. It includes all the components required to be a completely useful and operational computer system:
  • two built-in floppy drives which hold 91K of data each, with floppy disk storage compartments
  • a detachable full-size keyboard with numeric keypad
  • a built-in, albeit small, monochrome CRT monitor.
  • runs the CP/M Operating System, the most popular OS at the time.

  • What makes it portable, or more often described as luggable, is that everything is in one package, easily transported from one location to another by simply unplugging the power, attaching the keyboard to the front of the system, and being on your way. The leather carrying handle on the back is a classy touch.

    Adam Osborne, the founder of Osborne Computer Company, enlisted Lee Felsenstein, who also designed the Processor Technology Sol-20 computer five years earlier in 1976, to design the Osborne 1 computer. Read Lee's blog at http://fonly.typepad.com for information and insight on his days at Osborne Computer Company.

    While exciting and unique, the Osborne 1 does have its limitations. For example, at 24.5 pounds (11 kg), the system is not light-weight by any means, and the screen is only 5" (diagonal) in size and can't display more than 52 characters per line of text. Adam Osborne said that the small screen was chosen to keep the overall system as small as possible, but that he later regretted that decision. Additionally, 5-inch screens were readily available, as IBM used them in their IBM 5100 Portable Computer from 1975.

    The Osborne 1 portable computer wasn't intended to be high performance or revolutionary - it was meant to be 'good enough'. Adam Osborne's philosophy was that "better is the enemy of good - adequacy is sufficient and everything else is irrelevant". And his opinion of the Osborne 1 computer? "Merely adequate - it is not the fastest microcomputer, it doesn't have huge amounts of disk storage space, and it is not especially expandable."

    The Osborne 1 was first unveiled to the public at the March 1981 6th West Coast Computer Faire and May 1981 National Computer Conference.
  • These initial systems were prototypes, not yet production systems, enclosed in metal cases, which turned-out to be too expensive to manufacture. Galgon Industries in Hayward CA had produced ten metal cases for the first run of prototypes.
  • Early production systems utilized an inexpensive vacuum-formed brown plastic case, which was thin and flimsy.
  • Later systems utilized a thicker and sturdier injection-moulded white plastic case. Both platic covers were made by Ajax Plastics of San Francisco.

  • While the Osborne 1 was a good deal at $1,795, it also came bundled with about $1,500 of free software:
  • CP/M Utility
  • CP/M Operating System
  • SuperCalc spreadsheet application
  • WordStar word processing application with MailMerge
  • Microsoft MBASIC programming language (interpreted)
  • Digital Research CBASIC programming language (compiled)

  • Osborne was able to include this software at no actual cost to the company - the software providers were given stock in the Osborne Computer Company in exchange for their software license.

    A person could purchase an Osborne 1 computer, take it home, turn it on, and start working immediately. Everything was included.

    The Osborne 1 computer was a huge overnight success - in September 1981, OCC had its first US$1 million sales month.
    The Osborne Computer Company (OCC) grew to over 3,000 employees and $73 million in revenue in just 12 months, with sales reaching 10,000 units a month.

    In 1982, a Double-Density Disk Drive Option was released, which allows twice as much data to be stored per floppy disk. It is comprised of an additional circuit board which must be installed inside the system. It recognizes these data formats:
  • Osborne 1 single density - 92K per diskette
  • Osborne 1 double density - 182K per diskette
  • Xerox 820 single density - 82K per diskette
  • Cromemco single density - 80K per diskette
  • IBM Personal Computer (CP/M-86 format) - 156K per diskette
  • DEC VT-180 - 171K per diskette

  • In 1983, the "Screen Pac" internally-installed display upgrade allowed an external monitor to be plugged into a front-mounted RCA jack, to allow a full 80x24 or 104x24 text display.

    In 1982, the Osborne Computer Company (OCC) announced a successor, the Executive model OCC-2 (seen here to the right), with a larger 7-inch 80x24 screen, twice as much RAM memory, and double-density floppy drives as standard. It was also more expensive at $2,495.

    Shortly thereafter, they announced the next system, the Vixen, an even smaller, lighter, cheaper, portable system, still running the CP/M operating system.

    Unfortunately, potential customers stopped buying the Osborne 1, waiting for the Executive and the Vixen, which wasn't even ready to ship yet. Additionally, the new Kaypro II was now available with a huge 9-inch screen for less money. Osborne sales plummeted and OCC quickly ran out of money and filed for bankruptcy in September of 1983. Unintentionally killing current sales by pre-announcing future products has since been referred to, perhaps unfairly, as the "Osborne effect".

    There were other factors at play as well - Adam Osborne admitted that in the early days, they had no idea what they were doing, and that the company was rapidly skyrocketing out of their control. Subsequent poorly thought-out "executive decisions" also contributed to its demise. Just one year later, in 1984, Adam Osborne and computer industry author and columnist John C. Dvorak coauthored a book about the experience, from Adam Osborne's point of view, of course - Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of the Osborne Computer Corporation. In his book, Adam Osborne said that the so-called "Osborne effect" is ficticious, and that he planted that story in the media to explain-away corporate financial losses and poor sales.

    It wasn't entirely the company's fault, though, because by this time most of the serious computer users were gravitating towards the new IBM PC, which had already been available since 1981.
    Anything that wasn't IBM compatible was bound to fail. In 1983, the Compaq Portable came out - a competing portable computer similar to the Osborne 1, except that it was IBM compatible and ran MS-DOS. It was a great success.

    Related Links

  • Osborne Computer Corporation from Classic Computer Magazine Archive
  • InfoWorld April 1981
  • "Osborne!" from Technologizer.com
  • Steve Jobs vs. Adam Osborne from www.folklore.org

  • History of the Osborne Computer Corporation

    • 1971: In November, Intel released the 4004, the first microprocessor chip. Documentation manuals were written by Adam Osborne who later founded the Osborne Computer Company.
    • 1980: March - At the West Coast Computer Faire, Adam Osborne approaches Les Felsenstein with the idea of starting a computer company.
    • 1981: January - Osborne Computer Corporation is incorporated
    • 1981: April - Adam Osborne, of Osborne Computer Corporation, introduces the Osborne 1 Personal Business Computer at the West Coast Computer Faire
    • 1981: September - Osborne Computer Company has its first US$1 million sales month.
    • 1982: August - Microsoft releases Multiplan for the Apple II and the Osborne I.
    • 1982: In the first 8 months since its introduction, 11,000 Osborne 1 computers ship.
    • 1983: March - Osborne Computer introduces The Osborne Executive and the Executive II portable computers.
    • 1983: September - Osborne Computer Corp. files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection
      Source: Chronology of Events in the History of Microcomputers

    Adam Osborne

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