The first step

Tech Sunday is weighed down by the first laptop.

Would you buy a laptop if it weighed more than 11 kilos? We thought so. But that didn’t stop more than 30,000 people from buying the Osborne 1 in its first year.

You probably needed 20/20 vision to use it, given that it had a tiny, five-inch display screen

Sales at their peak reached 10,000 units per month and in September 1981, Osborne Computer Corporation had its first US$1m (€770,000) sales month.

This made the Osborne 1 the first commercially successful laptop in the world, even though it retailed for a prohibitive US$1,795 (€1,383).

The Osborne 1 wasn’t a brand new shiny idea – in fact, the Osborne’s design was based on the Xerox NoteTaker, a prototype portable computer developed by Xerox in 1976. What the Osborne 1 had to its advantage was that it was packaged well enough to be commercially successful. That, and the fact that it was created by one of the most energetic and passionate people in the business.

Adam Osborne was a pretty colourful character. Born in Thailand in 1939, he spent his childhood in Tamil Nadu, India, and then moved to England where he graduated in chemical engineering from Birmingham University.

Armed with a doctorate in chemical engineering, he started working with Shell Oil, but left in the early 1970s to pursue his interest in computers and technical writing.

In 1972, Osborne set up Osborne and Associates and published a series of easy-to-read computing manuals. After selling his publishing company, he started writing for a number of computer magazines, in which he pushed forward his idea that for computers to be successful, they needed to be mobile.

Osborne was so convinced that mobility was the future of computers that in March 1980, during a computer fair, he approached computer engineer Lee Felsenstein with the idea of starting a computer company that would produce a portable computer. The two agreed and Osborne founded Osborne Computer Corporation in January 1981.

Released on April 3, 1981, the Osborne 1 came in a rugged ABS plastic case that closed up. The computer itself featured a Z80 microprocessor, a parallel port and a serial port. Yet what made it so popular was that it came with a bundled software package that included the CP/M operating system, Microsoft MBASIC, Wordstar, SuperCalc and Digital Research CBASIC programming language.

But the Osborne 1 wasn’t very nimble – it only used a single-sided, single-density floppy disk drive, which would not store sufficient data for a normal business application. The first models didn’t even have an internal battery. Moreover, you probably needed 20/20 vision to use it, given that it had a tiny, five-inch display screen.

The success of the Osborne 1 soon came to a stall – what killed the momentum was Osborne Computer Corporation itself, when it prematurely announced new and superior products.

Such was the blunder that until today, a premature announcement of future products is called “the Osborne effect”. Moreover, the Osborne 1 was soon overtaken by its competitors, especially by the Kaypro II – manufactured by Kaypro corporation, this portable computer had a more practical nine-inch display.

All came to an end with the launch of IBM, which was soon on its way to conquer the world. Moreover, Compaq was offering a portable computer that was almost 100 per cent compatible with IBM’s offering.

Osborne Computer Corporation wasn’t successful in bringing an IBM-compatible computer to market and in 1983, the corporation filed for bankruptcy. Adam Osborne returned to India, the land of his youth, where he died in 2003.


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