Today in Apple history: Osborne Computer Corp. goes bankrupt

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


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 history: Osborne Computer Corporation, one of Apple's earliest rivals, bites the dust September 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 didn’t last!

A brief history of the Osborne 1 computer

The Osborne 1 landed in June 1981, two months before International Business Machines Corporation released its IBM Personal Computer (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 Zilog 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 said 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 founder 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’

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

Apple’s competition 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.

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.”

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hated that sort of approach. “This guy just doesn’t get it,” Jobs 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. Lee Felsenstein designed the Osborne 1 computer. Felsenstein also moderated the Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist meet-up that Jobs and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak attended. (That’s where they first showed off the Apple-1.)

Osborne regularly attended Homebrew meetings, too. He often wound up other people at the sessions by endlessly talking about his upcoming machines. Later on, he needled Jobs about rumors that 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.



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