This Sunday marks the 30th anniversary of the introduction of one of the first “portable” computers, which also happens to be the first home computer that my family had. This was the machine that first got me into much of the geekery I’ve been into for years.
The Osborne 1 had a Z-80 processor (like Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and many other early systems) and a generous-for-the-time 64KB of RAM. It had two single-density floppy-disk drives, each of which stored a relatively skimpy 102KB of data, plus a handy pocket for extra disks. And it ran Digital Research’s CP/M, the popular operating system that was very much like Microsoft’s later MS-DOS.
Even by 1981 standards, the Osborne 1′s 5″ monochrome CRT was puny; today, there are smartphones with displays as big. It could display only 52 columns of text at a time–less than the eighty you really wanted for word processing, but more than the Apple II’s forty. The screen size was chosen in part because 5″ displays were readily available, having been engineered for a 55-pound behemoth that IBM had optimistically marketed in 1975 as the IBM 5100 Portable Computer….
The sewing machine-sized Osborne 1 weighed 24 pounds (slightly more than ten modern-day 11″ MacBook Airs) and sported a handle; it created a class of PC that would forever be known as “luggables.” It was famously touted as fitting under an airplane seat, but you couldn’t actually use it on an airplane–not only because you would have busted your tray table, but also because it had no battery. Just getting it from place to place involved effort. Felsenstein has written that “carrying two of them from my car four blocks to the [West Coast Computer Faire] had nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets.”
The fact that the Osborne 1 was a fully-functioning personal computer in a portable case captured the imagination of techies in 1981. But it was only the second most innovative thing about the system. The most impressive part of the deal was that the computer gave you absolutely you needed to be productive for one remarkably low price: $1795 (about $4370 in current dollars).
I spent hours entranced by the machine. I learned to type (with the help of my mom’s vintage typing class book from when she was in school), I figured out the intricacies of the WordStar word processor (which gave me a leg up in learning HTML a decade and a half later, as the printer control codes used to create bold and italicized text in the not-even-close-to-WYSIWYG interface of WordStar mapped very closely to HTML tags), and I used BASIC to translate entire Choose Your Own Adventure books into simple test-based command line video games.
Not only did our family have one of these, but we eventually ended up with three. A few other families that we were friends with had had Osbornes, and as newer, smaller, more powerful computers from competitors like IBM and Compaq came on the market, they upgraded and gave us their old Osbornes as hand-me-downs. Not only did this let us upgrade ours with some goodies that we hadn’t added — like the state-of-the-art 1200 baud modem — but I was able to keep one working for quite a few years by cannibalizing pieces from the other two.
Eventually, of course, the machines either died out or simply got shoved away into storage as the family upgraded. I saved up and got myself my own computer — a Mac Classic, with 1MB RAM and no hard drive, just a single 1.4MB floppy disk drive — in 1991, and though I’ve occasionally pieced together a Frankenstein PC, Macs have always been where I feel most comfortable. Interestingly, the same article excerpted above points out that the Osborne itself may have influenced why the simplicity and “it just works” attitude of the Mac has always appealed to me.
Price was only part of the appeal of the Osborne 1′s all-in-one approach, Thom Hogan, an InfoWorld editor who became Osborne Computer’s director of software, says that the company’s greatest achievement was:
Something that Steve Jobs eventually learned from us, actually: simplicity of customer decision. At the time the Osborne 1 was launched, your choices at that level of capability were basically CP/M based systems from a number of vendors or an Apple II. In both cases, those other choices required you to make a LOT of decisions as a customer. For an Apple II: memory, drives, monitor, sometimes boards to add those things, plus software. A typical customer had to make five or six, sometimes more, decisions just to get the boxes necessary to build a useful system, and then they had to put it all together themselves…So Osborne not only saved the person money, but time and agony on the decision-making. Note how iPads are sold: two decisions: memory and communications. And they work out of the box, nothing needing to be assembled by the user.
The Osborne 1 was the first personal computer product that really did that (even the Radio Shack TRS-80 forced you into a number of decisions). Basically, plop down US$1795, take the box home, unpack it, plug it in, and start using your computer. One of the things that was integral to that was a stupid little <1K program I wrote. Previous to the Osborne, the user had to CONFIGURE CP/M. Even once configured, you’d boot from CP/M, then have to put in your word processing disc and execute from that. When you got an Osborne, you put the WP disk into the computer and you ended up in WordStar. In other words, we booted through the OS to the task the user wanted to do. Again, simplification of both process and pieces. As a result of that the Osborne was a no-brainer in terms of selling it against any other computer that was available in 1981: any sales person could demonstrate “put in the disc, turn it on, start writing” compared to “assemble the computer, configure the software, start the software program, start writing.”