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Technology - Reuters
Adam Osborne, Portable Computer Pioneer, Dead at 64
1 hour, 40 minutes ago
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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 long illness.

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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 mini-strokes.

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.


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 the West.

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 paperbacks.

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, Katya.

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 Burdick.

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