Today in Apple history: One of Apple’s earliest rivals bites the dust

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The Osborne 1 portable computer proved ahead of its time.
Remember the Osborne 1 computer?
Photo: Tomislav Medak/Flickr CC

September 13 Today in Apple historySeptember 13, 1983: Osborne Computer Corporation, one of Apple’s early rivals, declares bankruptcy.

Many consider the company’s Osborne 1 the world’s first truly portable, full-featured computer. It packed everything users needed to set up shop at home or on the road. Alas, it doesn’t last!

Brief history of the Osborne 1

The Osborne 1 landed in June 1981, two months before IBM released its IBM Personal Computer (thereby igniting the Apple-versus-IBM feud).

Never intended to be the world’s most powerful computer, the Osborne 1 boasted multiple built-in floppy drives, with a maximum storage capacity of 91K each. A Z80 microprocessor powered the machine, which had a detachable keyboard with numeric keypad and a tiny, built-in, 5-inch monochrome display. In a neat touch, which Jony Ive would later use for Macs like the iMac G3, the Osborne 1 featured a carrying handle to make it easily transportable.

The company announced two other, better Osborne computers would follow. That strategy backfired, discouraging customers from buying the existing model. The press nicknamed this the “Osborne effect.”

In the end, a series of bad decisions on the part of Adam Osborne led to the company’s September 13, 1981, bankruptcy. Later that month, a group of investors filed suit against the company, looking for $8.5 million in damages for apparent insider trading. They also accused Osborne of covering up the company’s perilous financial situation.

Osborne eventually came out of bankruptcy, but his company was never the same.

Perfectionism versus ‘good enough’

Apple’s clash with the Osborne Computer Corporation is interesting as a historical footnote, but it goes further than that. In fact, it represented the first of many design-oriented philosophical disagreements that characterized every major rivalry Apple has since been involved in: Apple versus IBM, Apple versus Microsoft, Apple versus Google, and most recently Apple versus Samsung.

Osborne1
A U.K. ad for the Osborne 1.
Photo: Osborne Computer

The Osborne 1 computer was not great even by the standards of the day. But for a time, it sold well. The war was therefore between Apple’s perfectionist tendencies on one side and Osborne’s “good enough” attitude on the other.

“Adequacy is sufficient,” Osborne once stated. “All else is superfluous.”

Steve Jobs hated that sort of approach. “This guy just doesn’t get it,” the Apple co-founder said of Osborne. “He’s not making art, he’s making shit.”

Apple versus Osborne Computer Corporation

As with so many early personal computing rivalries, the main players in the Osborne-versus-Apple clash knew each other.

The Osborne 1 computer was designed by Lee Felsenstein, who moderated at the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist meet-up that Steve Wozniak and Jobs attended. (That’s where they first showed off the Apple-I.)

Osborne himself was a regular attendee at Homebrew. He often wound others up at the meetings by endlessly talking about his upcoming machines.

Later on, he needled Jobs about the rumors Apple was building the Macintosh. “What’s this ‘Macintosh’ I keep hearing about?” he once asked Jobs. “Is it even real?”

On one occasion, he pushed Jobs too far.

“Adam,” Jobs said, “it’s so good that even after it puts your company out of business, you’ll still want to go out and get one for your kids.”

It was a good quip. But by the time the Mac launched in 1984, Osborne’s time as a major threat to Apple’s success already had passed.

Do you remember Osborne Computers? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

  • Giovanni Cardona

    Commodore 64 was the real rival.

  • Ronji

    It’s so sad. Had two of ’em, and nearly went insane trying do a term paper on MS Word, on 5″ monitor, due the next day. Got it done, nobody died, but probably cut 10 years off my life. Loved ’em, used them at the office and home, but when Mac SE’s came out, off to the attic of baffling antiquities…

  • Furutan

    Had one. Weighed a ton, tiny screen. This was never a rival to the Mac. It was a predecessor that happened to linger for a couple of years. I sold it (for cash money, believe it or not) and switched to the Atari ST for music production (amazing dongles with MIDI and cartridge support – hair-pulling but powerful C-Lab Notator software / now known as Apple Logic), then got an amazing LC I when they came out and never looked back.