The Self-Made Man: Adam Osborne
I’m writing this installment of Self Made Men on a laptop computer, and you’re probably reading it on one (I don’t know how TSB interacts with smartphones, so just bear with me). Laptops are fairly ubiquitous at this point, but they didn’t just leap fully-formed from the R&D departments of Apple, Gateway, or Dell. They’ve actually been around for a while, and Adam Osborne, the guy who introduced them to the world, was an entrepreneur, which you probably guessed already. You just think you’re so clever.
Anyway, Osborne didn’t start off as a programmer like a lot of entrepreneurs in his field. He was originally a chemical engineer working for Shell Oil (whose corporate culture disagreed with Osborne’s brash personality), and a freelance technical writer on the side. He had a keen interest in the developing computer industry, though, and started his own publishing company in the early 1970s to fill the demand he was seeing for well-written, comprehensible books and manuals about computing (he even wrote a few himself). One of them, titled An Introduction to Microcomputers, was sold alongside IMSAI computers after Osborne struck up a friendship with an IMSAI employee at a computer club.
As he wrote and published books about computers, Osborne decided that they needed to be mobile to fully realize their potential in the business world, so he partnered up with Processor Technology circuit board designer Lee Felsenstein in 1980, and together they rolled out the Osborne 1.
It’s almost quaint today, kind of like oversized cell phones or ads for VCRs back when they cost $600. The Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds and had a five-inch screen, and only came with word processing and spreadsheet software, but it was an important and necessary step in personal computing, and a commercial success that made Osborne’s new company $70 million in its second year of sales.
Unfortunately, Osborne ran into management and cash flow issues and his company went out of business by 1984, which he didn’t help by announcing plans for a new computer too early and killing demand for his then-current model (this sales phenomenon is called the Osborne effect in his honor). He went back into publishing and cranked out a few more books, including one that detailed the rise and fall of his computer company, and tried to get a low-cost software company off the ground, but got sued by Lotus before he could get very far. He died of complications from a rare brain disorder in 2003.
Osborne’s defining trait as an entrepreneur, and what makes him worth profiling here at TSB, is the acceptance of risk. He could have made a very comfortable living at Shell doing what he’d gone to college for, but he wanted more out of life and he was willing to leave a perfectly good, stable job (which he hated, but that’s not the point) for something more fulfilling. While it’s sad that he died so young, at least he lived long enough to see how far ahead of his time he was, and how his ideas about mobile computing have dominated the 21st century so far.
Here’s an interview with Osborne from 1984, where he talks shop about the industry and how on earth anyone could ever compete with unstoppable titans like Tandy and IBM. Ah, retrospect.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.