Thinking Portability: The Osborne 1 Is 30 Today

It was early 1984. Apple had just released the Macintosh, but IBM (and its partner/stepchild/competitor Microsoft) had jumped into the nascent personal computer market in mid-1981 with the IBM PC. However, the tried-and-true operating system (or tired-and-old, depending on your point of view) of the day was not DOS but CP/M.

Somehow I convinced my then husband-to-be that we should not buy a Mac (shiny!) but an Epson CP/M computer that came bundled with Peachtree Software’s office suite: word processing, spreadsheet and database. This was years before Microsoft would release Office for the Mac (1989) or Windows (1990).

What I didn’t know was that what I thought of as “ease of use” was a direct result of the work done for the Osborne 1, a “portable” computer launched 30 years ago today (April 3, 1981). According to Thom Hogan, who had been Osborne’s director of software, the Osborne 1 was the first computer that allowed the buyer to “take the box home, unpack it, plug it in, and start using [the] computer.”

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.

Like the Osborne 1, our Epson computer (now mothballed at my dad’s house in south Georgia) was plug-and-play. And like the Macintosh, it was “a bundled product” — we didn’t have to buy bits and pieces of hardware or software to make it work.

This simplicity is the cornerstone of Apple products today. It also reflects what Japanese and German automakers did for the new car market: make the purchase process less cognitively taxing by offering “models” that consist of commonly-desired features. But in the early 80s, American car options were almost exclusively a la carte, just like the personal computer business. Maybe especially the personal computer business, if you were a geek.

Back to the Osborne 1: it weighed 24 pounds (hence the “luggable” moniker) and cost $1,785 ($4,370 in 2011 dollars). It had a 5-inch integrated screen/monitor, a modem port, two 5-1/4-inch floppy disk drives and bundled software valued at about $1,500 (CP/M, WordStar, MailMerge, SuperCalc, Microsoft Basic and C-Basic).

For comparison, the contemporary Apple II Plus had less RAM than the Osborne and cost about $1,530. But you had to add the floppy drives and interface (another $1,170). A 12-inch monochrome monitor cost about $300, although many hobbyists used their TV sets for a monitor. The hardware cost was almost double that of the Osborne, and that was before adding the software.

However, later in 1981, the 800-pound incumbent gorilla, IBM, would launch the IBM personal computer. In addition to putting those hobbyists in their place (so to speak), IBM would transform one of those upstarts, Microsoft, into a partner/competitor.

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