Monday 8 March 2021

Osborne 1

The Beloved worked for Clive Sinclair in the early 80s getting the ZX80, ZX81, ZX Spectrum series on  the road and into homes across the World. We have the stamps to prove it. Sinclair was a boffin, but also a bodger, making stuff up as he went along. The ZX80/81 didn't have a display [because all homes in the market had a TV] or storage [because those same homes had a tape cassette player] and, initially, it only had 1k of RAM onboard.  It wasn't marketed as a business or university tool but b'god it was empowering for that generation of youngsters who were prepared to do a lot of typing and thinking to get a game going that would be more amusing than tic-tac-toe. But it only cost £99! It was a sort of Protestant machine. Hard to work, thrifty of resources and, really, a bit dour.

Meanwhile across the pond Adam Osborne, another supersmart [also Mensa] [part-]British entrepreneur, had recognised a gap in the market between the home-hobbyist futzing about with their ZX81s and the big-assed corporations and universities who were operating time-share on mainframe computers the size of a utility room. He was embedded in the computer world because he used to write books and manuals: An Introduction To Microcomputers sold 300,000 copies. He reckoned that a portable computer priced at $1,750 would sell like hot cakes, and he was right. Even if the 5in/12.5cm screen was much smaller than kids were getting on the family TV. And see the trendy besuited exec [L] swinging his Osborne 1 as he races to catch the plane to JFK? [And yes, the Osborne 1 was designed to fit under airplane seats]. The running salaryman wants to be careful he doesn't drop the box on his executive toes - it weighed 12.5kg. Then again, maybe the insider message is that the Osborne 1 is for well fit young turks as they claw up the corporate ladder planting their portable computer in the faces of losers.
Check out what working was like with a computer the size of a sewing machine and a screen the size of postcard. It's all command-line driven because the mouse was still being bred in captivity; not to be released before 1984.

For a while in the early 80s, the Osborne 1 was Number 1 as executive status symbol. Then in late 1983, the brash youngish CEO of Osborne boasted that the company had two new products in development which would make the Osborne 1 look lumpy and over-priced. Sales collapsed! And the company went bankrupt before these new wonder computers could be launched. Timing is everything in the mass market. The unintended consequence of premature bragulation will be known forever as The Osborne Effect. He was only 64 when he died in Kodaikanal, India.

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