A tribute to a great man

Adam Osborne


By Mark E. Olson © 2003


It is very sad to say the least, but Adam Osborne passed away on March 18, 2003 from complications of a brain disease.  He was only 64 years old.


He was a British citizen, born in Thailand where his father was a teacher of history at the Bangkok University.  He had very simple life – living in India for a while also.  From 1950 – 1961 he live in England and graduated from Birmingham University with a degree in chemical engineering.


He was 22 when he went to America “chasing a girl”.  He married her – divorced her and remarried – spent most of his adult life in California. 


Adam was the first Computer Columnist – he started “The Fountainhead” column in the Interface Age Magazine in the mid-70’s.  His column lead to a publishing house that bore his name – that company has since be bought by MacGraw Hill.


He founded the Osborne Computer Company in conjunction with Lee Felsenstein in 1980.  They built the first “luggable” computer (the Osborne I) and showed it off at the West Cost Computer Faire in April of 1981.  The company failed – not because of the founder or the product – it was just another victim of the changing tide of the computer industry.  Some of the best computer companies never survived for one reason or another – failure was so common it is amazing why some like Microsoft flourished while Osborne crumbled.  But such is the way of our industry.  Just about every major industry has had it “growing pains”.


Beside being the first portable computer and the first computer that did not cost a fortune it was also the first to offer a “bundle” – software included with the purchase of the computer.  Adam realized that if you sold someone a computer, they needed to be able to do something with it beside watch the floppy drive light blink.  He included a complete “Office Suite” – that suite included WordStar, SuperCalc and two versions of Basic.  Now the user could write letters, do financial computations and write data storage and retrieval programs in Basic.  What more could a person ask for?


He also started a company “Paperback Software” in 1983 – that was the only connection this writer had with Mr. Osborne.  About 1985, I was having a problem with one of the products (VP-Planner) and called the company – thinking to get a technician or something.  The phone was answered with a deep British sounding voice saying “Good morning, Paperback Software, Adam Osborne speaking”.  I sat there in my office – kind of speechless for a few seconds – I said “THE Adam Osborne?” to which he replied a simple “Yes!”  We talked about him and the Osborne computer and various other things (included the problem I was having).  I must have taken about 20 minutes of his time, I was very excited about the conversation – however I was the only “nerd” in the office so I did not get much chance to share my experience.


His company was on the receiving end of one of the most famous lawsuits in the industry – as VP-Planner grew, Lotus (now owned by IBM by the way) won a court victory the put Paperback Software out of business.   This was the first “look and feel” infringement suit.  Lotus was afraid of VP-Planner and they should have been, it was a completely new – from scratch written product (in Forth laungage).  It used the same key-strokes and looked like Lotus.  That was where Adam made his mistake – who could ever guess that how a computer screen looks and how keys work could be considered intellectual property? 


After that failure, he moved to back to his childhood home in India.  He lived there till his death from organic brain syndrome, in March of this year.  The “Fountainhead” is no longer flowing, may he find his peace.

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Page last up-dated 10/14/2003