Adam Osborne, Portable Computer Pioneer, Dead at 64
By Eric Auchard
NEW YORK (Reuters) -
Adam Osborne, whose successes and
failures pioneering the first portable computer became one of
Silicon Valley's great cautionary tales, is dead at 64 after a
Osborne, a British immigrant and long-time resident of
Berkeley, California, died in his sleep in Kodiakanal, a
village in southern India last Tuesday, his sister, Katya
Douglas, told Reuters on Monday.
His death ended a decade-long battle with an organic brain
disorder that caused him to suffer an endless series of
The popularity of the 23-pound luggable computer he
introduced in 1981 made his start-up, Osborne Computer Corp.,
the fastest-growing company up to that time, thanks in part to
his willingness to cut the cost of computers nearly in half
compared with rivals such as first-to-market Apple Computer.
But the rigors of "hypergrowth" -- a term coined to
describe his company's rise -- ended in an even quicker plunge
into bankruptcy two years later, making Osborne's legacy a
textbook study of the perils of undisciplined growth.
A later generation of dot-com entrepreneurs would come to
repeat his mistakes on an even more spectacular scale.
Friends and former colleagues said they remembered Osborne
as a man brimming with ideas, an engineer turned early computer
publisher, then pioneering computer executive, for whom
concepts ruled and business was secondary.
"My appreciation of him was that he was too much of an
entrepreneur and not enough of a jack-of-all-trades," recalled
Lee Felsenstein, another co-founder of Osborne Computer.
"He had the perfect personality to become a dot-com
billionaire," but arrived too early, said John C. Dvorak, a
columnist for PC Magazine. Dvorak helped Osborne write the
first Silicon Valley CEO confessional following Osborne
Computer's collapse, inspiring a mini-genre since then.
NEARLY FORGOTTEN PIONEER
Born in Thailand to British expatriate parents, Osborne
spent his childhood in southern India, the son of an author of
comparative theology who helped popularize Eastern religion to
After attending public school and university in England, he
married and moved to the United States to pursue a career in
chemical engineering with Shell Oil. He later became a U.S.
citizen. Osborne gambled on a new career in technical writing
and publishing during the formative years of the PC industry.
Seeing an opportunity to challenge Apple Computer after its
initial success in 1977, Osborne turned to developing the first
commercially viable portable computer. He received backing from
renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Jack Melchor.
In 1981, the company's first year, Osborne sold $5.8
million worth of the Osborne-1 computer. By the end of 1982, he
had sold $68.8 million, or as many as 10,000 units a month.
Then his classic business misstep occurred. Osborne boasted
in early 1983 of an improved second generation of his product
-- months before it was ready to ship. Sales of older models of
his portable sewing-machine-sized computers plummeted.
The inventory build-up that resulted led Osborne Computer
to collapse in September 1983.
"His enthusiasm for the next big thing meant Adam couldn't
keep a secret," recalled Felsenstein, who lives in Palo Alto,
California, where he continues to work as a computer hardware
designer and also working on a low-cost wireless computer
system for villagers in Laos.
Compaq Computer Corp., now a part of Hewlett-Packard Co.
(NYSE:HWP - news) picked up where Osborne left off when Compaq introduced
its first product -- a portable computer -- in 1983.
Undaunted by his company's failure, Osborne published a
memoir of his experience in 1984 entitled "Hypergrowth." He
then jumped into a new venture he called Paperback Software --
based on the idea that software could be sold like mass-market
That venture ran aground after Paperback was sued by rival
Lotus Development Corp. in a high-profile case that alleged
Paperback's spreadsheet program too closely resembled Lotus'
own 1-2-3 program. Osborne and Paperback parted ways in 1990.
Osborne's health began to decline in 1992, leading him to
move to India to live out the rest of his life with his sister,
He was buried on Tuesday in a local cemetery near his
sister's home, in Kodiakanal, an isolated village whose closest
major city is Chanai.
Osborne married and divorced twice. Survivors include his
first wife, Cynthia Geddes, and their three children, Marc,
Paul and Alexandra Osborne, and his second wife, Barbara
Would you recommend this story?
Not at all