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Adam Osborne, 64; Introduced 23-Pound Portable Computer

March 25, 2003|From Reuters

Adam Osborne, whose successes and failures in pioneering the first portable computer became one of the Silicon Valley's great cautionary tales, has died. He was 64.

Osborne, a British immigrant and longtime resident of Berkeley, died in his sleep in Kodaikanal, a village in southern India, on March 18, his sister, Katya Douglas, told reporters Monday.

His death ended a decade-long battle with an organic brain disorder that caused him to suffer a continuing series of mini-strokes.

The popularity of the 23-pound portable computer that he introduced in 1981 made his start-up, Osborne Computer Corp., one of the fastest-growing computer companies up to that time, thanks in part to his willingness to cut the cost of computers nearly in half compared with rivals.

But the rigors of "hypergrowth" -- a term coined to describe his company's rise -- ended in an even more rapid plunge into bankruptcy two years later.

A former colleague 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.

Born in Bangkok, 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 in 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. He later became a U.S. citizen. Osborne gambled on a new career in technical writing and publishing during the formative years of the personal computer industry.

Seeing an opportunity to challenge Apple Computer after its initial success in 1977, Osborne turned to developing the first commercially viable portable computer.

In 1981, the company's first year, Osborne sold $5.8-million worth of the Osborne-1 computer, which was the size of a portable sewing machine. By the end of 1982, he had sold $68.8 million, or as many as 10,000 units a month.

Then he made a classic business misstep. In early 1983, Osborne boasted of an improved second generation of his product, months before it was ready to ship. Sales plummeted for older models of his computers.

The resulting inventory buildup led to the collapse of Osborne Computer in September 1983.

"His enthusiasm for the next big thing meant Adam couldn't keep a secret," recalled Felsenstein.

Compaq Computer Corp., now a part of Hewlett-Packard Co., 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 titled "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 with his sister, Katya.

Married and divorced twice, Osborne is survived by his three children from his first marriage, Marc, Paul and Alexandra Osborne.

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