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Adam Osborne

April 15, 2003

A public radio commentary

This month the high tech world lost one of its most colorful figures. Adam Osborne profoundly changed the way we use computers when he introduced the first portable computer. There was nothing like it before him, but then there was nothing before like Adam Osborne.

Born in Thailand to British parents, he grew up in southern India, then trained as an engineer in England, but failed at a career in engineering. I called him "colorful", but many thought him "loud" and "arrogant." Osborne himself reported that on his first job he "quickly became the guy everyone wanted to watch slip on a banana skin." So, he left corporate life to start his own publishing firm specializing in computers.

After writing about the industry for several years, he noticed the same gripe from his readers. He put it this way: "How are you supposed to use this machine that comes in five boxes and is wired together like spaghetti?" Seeing an opportunity, Osborne sold his publishing company and used a quarter million dollars from that sale to make compact, single-piece computers.

The Osborne I, as the computer was named, weighed twenty-four pounds - it was the size of a sewing machine - had a five inch screen, and a plastic case with an unpleasant pebbly texture. But it was much more than just the idea of a portable computer that Osborne brought to the field.

First, he pioneered bundling software with the computer. Before that each was sold separately. Who, today, would buy a computer that doesn't work immediately upon unpacking it?

His second legacy was to be the first entrepreneur to go through the boom and bust of the dot-com industry, so familiar to us today. So fast did his sales increase that the term "hypergrowth" was coined to describe it. Within a year and half from opening, his business had revenues of over 100 million dollars, making his firm the fastest growing company in history. But as fast as he rose, Osborne fell.

The myth is that Osborne announced too soon the improved, second model of his portable computer, causing sales of the first to fall off as buyers waited for the new version. But the truth is that he lost ground to the giants like IBM as they introduced their PC, thus creating a standard for all manufactures, and leaving the Osborne I computer stranded. Less than three years after he started, Osborne was bankrupt.

He once said, "When you become an entrepreneur you can go up awfully fast but you can go down just as fast. One day they're famous, the next day nobody knows who the hell they are."

I think we should remember Adam Osborne. He died this month, aged 64, in Kodiakanal, an isolated village in India far from the glitter of dot-com hype.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises