Adam Osborne’s Trade Show Theory of Productivity

I was reminded of Adam Osborne (1939-2003) yesterday. If you’re old enough to have been hooked on computers in 1981, you’ll remember the Osborne 1 — Adam’s flagship product — as the first true portable, squat and ugly, but priced way below the competition ($1,795).

I remember him well for several reasons.

First, I was finishing up at business school and had fallen in love with computers and wanted one for myself. The Osborne was sensationally cheap.

He brought a prototype with him to class that day. Several of us fondled it. It was hard to imagine a real computer — even though it had that tiny 5" screen you see in the illustration here — for under $2,000.

Back then, real business computers, even the new personal computers, went for about 2-3 times that price. Even the Apple II, more a hobbyist machine than a serious computer, was priced at about $4,000.

Second, Adam was a guest speaker at a computer industry class I took that year, my second and final year at Stanford. He was brilliant. You couldn’t spend an hour with him without wanting him to succeed.

He was also a maverick. He got into the personal computer world very early, late 1970s, wrote well, and established himself as a writer of computer books and engaging columns in computer magazines. I was a frequent reader. When he came out with his own computer line, well, things were different then because the industry was so young, but it was something like what would happen today if David Pogue (NY Times) or John Dvorak (PC Magazine) announced a computer line.

It was easy for me to identify with him. I got into business school having spent the preceding eight years as a foreign correspondent in Mexico City. Then I discovered computers. 

Adam himself, born in Thailand, was raised in India near the hermitage of Sri Ramana Maharishi, now considered a saint. His parents were devotees. He got his university degree in Manchester (UK) and his PhD (Chemistry) in the U.S. He was a true character.

He sparkled on a podium. I attended several of his conferences in the early days of the industry, at venues like the early Comdex and industry conferences in Silicon Valley. Which brings me to why I remembered him yesterday. It was the following quote that came to mind…

"90% of the gross national product is produced the night before the trade show opens."

That was a typical Adam Osborne comment. Not what you’d expect from the founder of a computer company, particularly not in the old days when companies were smaller and things were often a bit dashed together.

I think it was in the same talk about productivity that he complained about product developers not letting go, holding the product hostage for all the bells and whistles, after which he shared the following words of wisdom for high-tech product success:

"Adequate is good enough."

In context, what he meant was sometimes you have to ship the product or go broke. Still, the implications are typically Adam Osborne contrarian.

So there’s a piece of history on the last Friday of August, 27 years (or so) later. The good old days.

3 thoughts on “Adam Osborne’s Trade Show Theory of Productivity

  1. Tim, my career in software began, though I didn't know it at the time, when my dad bought an Osborne 1 for his startup business. I think it was 1980.

    The serial number on the machine was something like 0000000000059. That's a good reminder of how early it was in the adoption of home computers. It's also a little heartbreaking, all those optimistic zeroes in the serial, few of them ever used.

    We had a 10" green-on-black monitor ribbon-cabled to the box, so I didn't spend much time squinting at the tiny screen.

    I do remember lugging the machine down to the local Osborne/Kaypro users group meetings and thinking, Just because you attach a handle to something, does that automatically make it portable?

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Josh

  2. I worked for Adam Osborne from 1979 to 1980 at Osborne/McGraw-Hill. In fact, I was a young graphic designer, the first trained graphic designer hired by Osborne. One of my first assignments was to design how the new company name would appear on business cards since being acquired by McGraw-Hill Book Company. So I’m responsible for the / between the names, as we were asked to drop the name Osborne & Associates. I also redesigned the cover of an Introduction to Microcomputers: Volume 1.

    I was thinking of Adam today so I searched to see if I could find anything new on the web. Your Adam quotes prompted this note.

    I remember asking Adam if I should take a class at UC Berkeley to learn more about computers. He said, “No way. They’ll ruin you. Just read our books and buy a computer. You’ll figure it out.” Classic Osborne.

    Adam liked hanging around the art department where we did the design and layout of our books. I was responsible for book cover designs and magazine ads. He loved my work. He always made me feel great so I craved his advice when I’d get the chance to talk with him.

    He once said, “You have to find a way to combine your artistic skill with computers.”

    I started my own marketing communication company in 1984.

    I left Osborne/McGraw-Hill in June 1980. Little did I know Adam planned to leave as well to start Osborne Computer Corporation. I ended up back in my home town, Wilmington, Delaware. I’m also a University of Delaware graduate where Adam did his doctorate work, so maybe that helped to draw us together. I learned much later that Adam was a spiritual man as am I. Something brought us together, myself a 24 year old, curious artist, and Adam, who turned 40 that year, 1979. Thanks for sharing your memories of Adam.

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