By Harry McCracken | Friday, April 1, 2011 at 6:45 am
Here’s a November 1984 ad introducing the Vixen:
Let’s see–the ad refers to Osborne’s financial woes and the Vixen’s overdue arrival. It says “this market doesn’t need another IBM clone.” It says that “lap-sized computers” are compromised. All of that helps to explain why the Vixen couldn’t save Osborne: It was a CP/M luggable from a troubled company which hit the market at a time when what the world wanted were PC-compatible laptops from outfits that looked like they’d be around for the long haul.
The new Osborne Computer also introduced the Encore, an actual $3000 PC-compatible laptop–albeit one designed by a third-party firm and also offered in slightly different form by other companies. It kept saying it would shortly bring PC compatibility to the Executive without ever quite doing so. And it eventually unveiled a pricey desktop PC clone. None of its activities were enough to catapult it into the new era of PCs, and in February 1986 the company shut down.
Even then, the name didn’t quite perish: The company’s Australian distributor continued to use it and was eventually acquired by US PC company Gateway 2000. And if you live in Finland, you can still buy Osborne PCs.
Adam Osborne, meanwhile, fared better than the company he left behind, at least for awhile. Even as he was working on Hypergrowth, he was hatching plans for a new big-idea startup. He called it Paperback Software, and its name encapsulated its business model: software should be sold like books, at book-like prices under $50. It should even be sold in bookstores–the company signed a distribution deal with the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks chains.
Paperback Software got off to a rocky start, in part because its first applications weren’t so hot. (Title of InfoWorld review of its $39.95 spreadsheet: “Number Works Doesn’t.”) But its products got better, and gained traction–so much so that Lotus Development sued the company over VP-Planner, its 1-2-3-like spreadsheet, claiming that Paperback Software had illegally appropriated 1-2-3’s look and feel. The court case dragged on for years and prevented Osborne’s new company from ever truly taking off.
In 2003, Michael Swaine wrote a lovely appreciation of Adam Osborne.
In 2004, The Computer History Museum devoted an evening to the Osborne odyssey.
TechRepublic performed a teardown of the Osborne 1.
In early 1990, Osborne stepped down as president, a few months before a US district judge ruled in favor of Lotus. (In a perverse twist, the news of his resignation came at the same time that Osborne Computer archrival Kaypro filed for bankruptcy: InfoWorld reported on the two developments on the same page.)
Osborne continued to dabble in new startup ideas–one involved importing PC motherboards from India, another dealt in artificial intelligence–but Paperback Software turned out to be his last hurrah. After years as one of the computer industry’s highest-profile personalities, he became part of its past.
“He just sort of unraveled–he was on top of the world, and then he had pretty much lost everything and was trying to come up with concepts and start up again,” says David Bunnell, who stayed in touch and introduced Osborne to Glide Memorial Church, the church in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin neighborhood where Bunnell was actively involved. Bunnell says that Osborne became active in the church and tried to put together a software company in association with it: “He could still impress people but his reputation was tarnished–venture capitalists weren’t interested.”
“He would tell me ‘I’m still famous in India,'” Bunnell remembers. “And I guess he was.”
Tech journalist Peggy Watt, now associate professor in the Department of Journalism at Western Washington University, had interviewed Osborne several times over the years, and had always found it a pleasant experience. “One of the last times I interviewed him was when I was again at InfoWorld, in about 1990,” she says. “I may have caught him in a bad mood; he spoke with bitterness about being perceived as a has-been and complained that fickle Americans preferred success stories and were unwilling to examine other scenarios, losing interest in people who were not currently winners. I was puzzled by the anger in his comments, because I and other reporters did seek his perspective on occasion, and I was always curious what he was looking into as a next venture.”
By the time Watt found Osborne to be pricklier than he’d once been, he may have had other things on his mind: in the early 1990s, he was diagnosed with a brain disorder. “He had a series of microstrokes and fell out of commission,” says Dvorak. Unable to continue efforts to reboot his career in Silicon Valley, he relocated to India, the home of his youth, and lived with his sister. He died on March 18th 2003, having just turned 64.
For more than a quarter century, the tech world has believed that the lesson it can learn from the Osborne Computer saga is that announcing products before they’re ready to ship can be catastrophic. If that’s a gross oversimplification of what happened at the company–and it is–is there anything else that its story can teach us? Let’s let Osborne veteran Thom Hogan have the last word:
Things haven’t changed a lot. Today the big idea chase is mostly in Web software, but I see all the same problems and issues coming up in, oh, say a Twitter, that I did in Osborne. One small difference is that VCs are free-er with money these days, as no one wants to miss the next Netscape or Google. The funny thing is that the hardware companies are the one that need the capitalization, as you can’t build a factory or order parts without money. The software business is consistently getting overcapitalized, which is resulting in companies running without a profit or even a clear business model because they have the cash to survive big burn rates.
You don’t need big burn rates to create big successes. You need ideas, brains, perseverance, and cash flow. Osborne had the first three, but not the fourth. Many of today’s startups are neglecting the fourth because they have a big bank account from funding. That’s a mistake. Cash flow will always get you.
(Thanks to David Bunnell, John C. Dvorak, Lee Felsenstein, Thom Hogan, Erik S. Klein of Vintage-Computer.com, and Peggy Watt for their help with this story–and to Google Books for its invaluable archive of InfoWorld issues.)
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