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Adam Osborne


Jul03: Programming Paradigms

Michael is editor-at-large for DDJ. He can be contacted at mike@swaine.com.


"When we were children, we bumped into our rich neighbor one day. I asked him if he would help me with my stamp collection. He agreed. Our sister Frania then asked for help with her matchbox label collection. He agreed. Adam was quiet, so Mr. Bose asked him if he needed help with his collection and what was it. Adam said he was collecting money."

—Katya (Osborne) Douglas

Adam Osborne died this year, on Tuesday, March 18, at the home of his sister Katya in a southern Indian village not far from where he spent his childhood years. He had been living there for a decade, all but forgotten by the personal computer industry he helped to shape.

Those of us who remember Adam probably agree on the broad strokes of the portrait: The most flamboyant entrepreneur of the personal computer revolution; a dignified, precise, and eloquent presence; firm in his opinions; fearless in his predictions; boldly rolling the dice and lavishly savoring and sharing the bounty when they fell his way.

If that is the portrait, the frame is of another material entirely. Adam Osborne spent his early years in the quiet village of Tiruvannamalai, where his parents, followers of the Hindu holy man Sri Ramana Maharishi, embraced a life of poverty. Adam and his sisters spoke Tamil and ran barefoot and carefree in the hot valley and cool uplands of the area. Adam was "a bright, mischievous little boy, full of laughter and up to all the tricks and trouble that little boys enjoy," his sister recalls. It was to her home that Adam returned in the quiet closing decade of his life.

As I interviewed those who knew him, I was looking for the connection between the two worlds of Tiruvannamalai and Silicon Valley. Here is what I found.

From the Fountainhead

"The popular press likes to identify the present leaders in the microcomputer industry as farsighted geniuses who either invented the microcomputer or designed the best products. This is rubbish."

—Adam Osborne, "From the Fountainhead"

In 1981, the year I began writing full-time for computer magazines, Adam Osborne had just retired his popular and influential column "From the Fountainhead." Having made a reputation telling the players in the fledgling industry how to do their jobs, he decided it was time to show them what he meant. The April 13, 1981, issue of InfoWorld carried his final "From the Fountainhead" column as well as a front-page story on his new computer, the Osborne 1, with a picture of Adam in a three-piece suit showing off the curious beast.

"Curious beast" is accurate. Closed up, the machine looked, everyone agreed, like a portable sewing machine. Opened, no one could say what it looked like. The 5-inch monitor was easy to miss, surrounded by the shock-absorbing padding, bulky cheap disk drives, and shelves like glove compartments that gave the Osborne 1 its inimitable look. Although it was so heavy that it was immediately dubbed a "luggable" rather than a portable, it did meet Adam's criterion of fitting under an airplane seat, and introduced portable computing before Compaq was a scribble on a napkin.

The most radical feature of the Osborne 1, though, was the bundled software, combined with the price. For $1795 you got the machine and $1500 worth of software: CP/M, CBASIC, Microsoft BASIC, WordStar, MailMerge, and SuperCalc. This was unheard of at the time.

The bundled software invited a question, the answer to which gives some insight into what made Adam Osborne unique. Osborne Computer Company (OCC) was a startup in an unpredictable industry, run by a tech pundit, taking big risks with little capital. But in large part, Adam got the software he needed not for cash but in exchange for stock in OCC. How did this mere writer get all those software company presidents, including Bill Gates, to buy into his vision?

Running Wild

"He had this ability to be charming, coupled with being good at understanding things from a user's standpoint."

—Thom Hogan

In point of fact, he wasn't a mere writer. Adam had already launched a successful company.

While I was still working at a computer store in the midwest, my coworker Thom Hogan had written an instruction manual on the CP/M operating system for our customers. Suddenly, Thom was getting pitches from someone named Adam Osborne to let him publish the CP/M manual as a book.

Osborne hadn't made his name yet, but he was working on it. After writing the Intel 4004 microprocessor documentation for Intel, Adam had bootstrapped a microcomputer book company into existence. One moment he was selling books out of a box at the back of the Homebrew Computer Club meetings, where he talked Bruce Van Natta into packing a copy of his An Introduction to Microcomputers with every IMSAI computer shipped, and the next moment he had seduced bookstore buyers into stocking his books.

He did this by offering them a little book that they had to have. Adam wrote Running Wild: The Next Industrial Revolution on two legs of a plane flight, turning it over to a researcher to fill in the factual details. Running Wild was a tiny book, but it predicted the impact of microprocessors on society. It was visionary, it was informed, it was a good read. It was also exactly the right book for the intended audience—bookstore buyers—and it got his foot and his books in the door.

Thom's CP/M book was a big success, and there were many others. Some of the books were excellent, some less so. Osborne books weren't always the best, but Adam had a seemingly unerring talent for picking the right titles. The staff called it his "golden gut." It was an early proof of his exceptionable ability to see things from the customer's point of view.

Selling his successful book company to McGraw-Hill (spawning Osborne/McGraw-Hill, a leading computer book publisher to this day) gave Adam the money and the confidence—or perhaps he only needed the money—to launch a new business.

Adequacy Is Sufficient

"Adequacy is sufficient. All else is superfluous."

—Adam Osborne

In 1980, at the West Coast Computer Faire, Adam recruited populist computer designer Lee Felsenstein with a promise calculated to push Lee's buttons: Adam wanted him to build a kind of "Volkscomputer"—portable, inexpensive, and easy to use. Before long, Adam had launched the company, delivered the computer, and incidentally hired three of my best friends.

Thom Hogan was one of them, and he tells a story one hears repeatedly. "He made six or seven offers. I finally realized that he wasn't going to take no for an answer." Lee Felsenstein characterized Adam as the kind of leader people would follow off the edge of a cliff. Georgette Psaris, who worked more closely with Adam than anyone else, vividly recalls her first interview with him. "He was extraordinarily charismatic," she told me. Slipping unconsciously between present and past tense, she explained, "when he feels that someone doesn't get something, the whole dam of his charisma opens up. His passion was contagious; and if he felt he could trust you, you had unrestrained freedom." "Adam was Don Juan," Thom summarizes, "the great seducer." But he could also cut you down if you fell out of favor.

These were the last weeks of innocence of the personal computer market. The hobbyists who had made or lost money building the machines that they and their friends wanted were just waiting for the Big Boys—Hewlett-Packard, DEC, and the biggest one of all, Big Blue—to come in and take it all away from them. Some of these hobbyist entrepreneurs were not waiting: While Adam was recruiting Lee Felsenstein, Bill Gates was being recruited by IBM—or vice versa.

In this portentous atmosphere, Adam released his Volkscomputer, and it sold like crazy. Once again, Adam had read the consumer right. The bundling of all the necessary software was a brilliant coup. Not only did it give OCC a big price edge, but it simplified the purchasing process. Alone among computer vendors of the day, Adam understood how important this was to the consumer. As for the software, the programs weren't necessarily the best available, but they did the job. Adam freely admitted that the machine wasn't the fastest, the most attractive, or the most expandable computer on the market. But it did what users needed. The whole package was—his term—adequate. And that was sufficient.

60 Minutes

"The company grew from zilch to 100 million dollars in less than two years. Who do you hire who has experience with growth like that? Nobody exists."

—John C. Dvorak

It was sufficient to make Osborne Computer Company the fastest-growing computer company in history. The executives, including Georgette Psaris and Thom Hogan, were interviewed on "60 Minutes," where they famously predicted how they would all be millionaires. Why not? Within five months, OCC was booking a million dollars a month in sales.

Meanwhile, other companies were imitating the bundling idea, the $1795 price, and the luggable form factor of the Osborne I. At the same time, IBM had, as feared, entered the industry and changed all expectations. The phrase "IBM compatibility" was on the lips of executives of every personal computer company. Osborne needed to come out with a new model, and it needed to offer IBM compatibility.

There were other, internal, reasons for developing a new model as well. Production of the Osborne machines took far too long given the tidal wave of orders the company was getting. A new model could be designed for faster assembly. Thom recalls doing crude studies to determine how to speed up the process, until Adam simply asked the assemblers what would make their job easier. Their answer—reduce the number of screws we have to put in the machine—was the solution. Thom thinks that Adam got the solution because he looked on the assemblers as customers and tried to determine what they needed.

A second and a third machine were planned, as well as a way of building in IBM compatibility. But in a very brief time, it was all over. On September 13, 1983, OCC declared bankruptcy. A week earlier, photographer Sam Forencich got the shot that told the story: Against the backdrop of the building with its bold Osborne logo, a nattily-dressed Adam Osborne holds a briefcase in front of his face to hide from the press as he hurries across the lot toward the solitary Mercedes.

How things got to this state is a matter of some controversy.

There is, of course, the well-known story of the Osborne Executive leak. Adam loved to give the press something hot, and it is true that he leaked the news of the new machine, the Osborne Executive, before it was ready to ship and at a time when the announcement would do damage to sales of the existing product line. This became the official reason for the fall of OCC. Adam later claimed that he deliberately planted this story to distract the press from the true depth of OCC's problems. Thom and Georgette maintain that the preannouncement of the Executive, while unfortunate, was not enough to sink the company. Other mistakes by the "professional" management—which Adam brought in to prepare for the IPO that was going to make them all millionaires—accomplished that.

The principals all look for reasons for the failure. They feel confident that they could have ridden the whirlwind if only this or that mistake had not been made. While their confidence is understandable, I incline to John Dvorak's view. Osborne Computer Company flew so high and fast that no one could control it any longer.

Paperback Software

"Each company made history. The book company basically started the microcomputer book industry. [OCC's software] bundling was a brilliant insight. The packaging for Paperback Software was really clever."

—Georgette "Jett" Psaris

Adam Osborne, the darling of the press, had become an icon of failure. "Adam was forever iconified when he held the briefcase in front of his face as he walked to the parking lot," John Markoff told me. John was right. And yet...

Adam bounced back. A few years later he founded Paperback Software on another dead-on user-centered idea—sell computer software like paperback books. No shrinkwrap license, no nonsense, and a price point that made the decision to buy easy.

The business took off. But although it was doing well, the company wasn't meeting schedules or budgets on anything from documentation to warehousing, and soon Adam was looking for another manager to handle the follow-through. The candidate Adam went after this time was Jonathan Erickson, today DDJ's editor-in-chief, but then (coincidentally) an editor at Osborne/McGraw-Hill books. Jonathan initially accepted, as most people did when approached by Adam, but then changed his mind—and saw the flip side of the charisma: "He wasn't rude, it was just that I didn't exist beyond that moment."

Evidently, Paperback Software found competent follow-through management. Once again, Adam's golden gut led to making the right choices of titles, and the company was doing well. When it went under, it did so not for any weakness in the product line or in the business model or in the management, but because of a lawsuit. This was the heyday of software look-and-feel litigation, and Lotus thought that the order of menu commands in one of Paperback Software's titles looked and felt too much like those in Lotus 1-2-3. Lotus was at the same time also suing Silicon Graphics, Mosaic, and Borland.

Icon of failure, did I say? I don't think so. All of Adam's companies embodied successful ideas. One was sold at a nice profit. One was a casualty of its own success. The third fell victim to a climate of litigiousness. But all of them dramatically changed the industries of which they were a part. However things worked out, there was a lot of success along the way.

Paperback Software, though, was to be the last of the dramatic Adam Osborne ventures.

Homeland

"He never forgave his parents for, as he saw it, abandoning him, and he resented it for the rest of his life."

—Katya (Osborne) Douglas

After Paperback Software, Adam's health began to fail and his thoughts turned to Sri Ramana and the country of his youth.

Those early years in India had, in many ways, been idyllic. Then, at age 11, Adam was sent to live with relatives in England in order to get a proper British education. With scant money for flights halfway around the world, Adam and his family saw little of one another for many years. He later told friends that he felt like a neglected Cinderella among the favored stepbrothers. He never forgave his parents for sending him away. He grew up fast in England and grew away from the family.

The connection between Tiruvannamalai and Silicon Valley was mediated by the years in England.

When he came to the United States to earn a doctorate in Chemical Engineering, he was an ambitious and driven man. Most of his time was spent thinking about business, and the rest was spent in pleasures of which his parents would have disapproved. Both the business focus and the sybaritic pleasures were probably a reaction against his upbringing. Was he also driven to prove himself worthy of his parents' love? And at the same time to reject them and their values by achieving success in the way of life that they had rejected? And were his charisma and his ability to read customers both aspects of one trait—a tremendous need to be loved?

Whatever his demons, Adam seemed somehow to have conquered them in his last years. He returned to India, to his sister's home. Even as his health worsened, he was a model of grace and courtesy. His consideration and endurance touched his sister deeply. "Not at all what I would have expected from the old rambunctious Adam," she told me. And his sense of play remained. Although his mental and physical powers both declined, early on he loved to play Scrabble. His sister recalls one game: "He came up with the word 'gnathic.' I asked him where he had unearthed a word like that. 'It came from a poem,' he replied. There was a long pause, then: 'I wrote the poem.'"

DDJ


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