Osborne 1: The Groundbreaking Portable PC of the Early 80s

The laptops and mobiles devices we use today owe a debt to early innovators in portable computing. Of these pioneers, 1981‘s Osborne 1 is an icon – the first commercially successful portable personal computer. Who developed it? What was special about it? Read on for a data-rich expert guide on the Osborne 1 phenomenon.


  • Designed by tech entrepreneur Adam Osborne and engineer Lee Felsenstein
  • Released in April 1981, weighs 24 pounds with a handle and enclosure
  • Ran on CP/M 2.2, Z80 CPU, 64KB RAM, 52 KB storage, 5" screen
  • Bundled productivity apps like WordStar and SuperCalc
  • Initial sales very strong at >10,000 units per month ($1.8M revenue)
  • Sales declined rapidly from 1982, company bankrupt by Sept. 1983
  • Inspired many follow-on and more successful portable designs

Dawn of a New Era in Mobility

Inspired by early prototypes like Xerox‘s NoteTaker, Adam Osborne set out to turn the concept of a "portable PC" into reality. He founded Osborne Computer Corporation (OCC) in 1980 and recruited well-known electrical engineer Lee Felsenstein to design the Osborne 1.

The goal was ambitious – package the power of desktop computing machines like the Apple II into a unit portable enough for travelers. After several iterations, the Osborne 1 prototype came together as a heavy but luggable machine with decent specifications (full table below).

Year launched1981
DimensionsWidth: 18.6′′
Height: 12.5 "
Depth: 28 cm
Weight24 pounds
Processor4 MHz Zilog Z80
Storage52 KB
Display5" CRT 52 x 24 chars
PortsSerial I/O, External Monitor
OSCP/M 2.2

Felsenstein described his design approach as creating a "cross between a World War II field radio and the instrument panel of a DC-3 airplane." While appearing crude today, it met the core goal of easy transport, with the case and enclosure distinctly created for mobility.

Packed With Productivity

Another differentiating factor of the Osborne 1 was its software bundle aimed at business users. For the $1,795 retail price, it came packed with:

  • WordStar: The most popular word processor of the 1980s
  • SuperCalc: A Lotus 1-2-3 predecessor and iconic spreadsheet app
  • CBASIC: A programming language
  • MBASIC: A popular BASIC interpreter
  • A selection of games

This software suite combined with its uniqueness as a truly portable system generated strong initial demand.

"I aimed the company at the corporate buyers who would be writing their own software.." Adam Osborne mentioned in retrospect. True to his word, the systems found rapid adoption in early-adopter corporations.

Meteoric Early Growth

The Osborne 1 began shipping in April 1981. By September, monthly sales had crossed a million dollars – $1.8 million to be precise.

This growth trajectory seemed to suggest OCC was onto a winning product:

MonthRevenuesUnit Sales
April 1981Launch
May 19811,000
June 19814,000
September 1981$1.8 million10,000
Peak Month10,000 per month

With over 100,000 Osborne 1s eventually sold during its lifetime, the numbers made it a runaway success compared to other systems like the 128K Apple II or IBM PC.

For a while in 1982-83, Osborne owned a majority share of the CP/M-based computer market. But the good times would not last.

Outcompeted and Outdone

Despite glowing initial reviews and sales, the Osborne 1 could not sustain dominance in the rapidly evolving personal computer market.

The company chose never to upgrade the system‘s specs to match improving technology. Competitive systems rapidly caught up:

  • Kaypro II: A 26-pound CP/M portable with larger 9" screen
  • Compaq Portable: Cloned the IBM PC‘s software and hardware at half the price
  • Apple II and new IBM PC: Much faster with rich ecosystems

OCC also fumbled the product roadmap – CEO Adam Osborne spoke publicly of next-gen systems before they were ready, meaning few customers bought the current models. Inventory piled up rapidly:

Early 1982$10 million in sales per month
Early 198320,000 unsold models in inventory
July 1983Sales slowed to $150,000, price cut to $1,295
Sept 1983Company declares bankruptcy

Once the hottest startup of early 80s Silicon Valley, OCC folded rapidly amidst cash flow troubles and product woes in 1983. But the Osborne 1‘s inspirational role was already etched as the first widely used portable PC.

Legacy: Genie Was Out of the Bottle

While not successful long-term, the Osborne 1 showed business users the promise of portable computing. Later brands worked out engineering and durability weaknesses, but the underlying mobility need was proven beyond doubt.

Adam Osborne himself tried to recapture the magic with 1984‘s Osborne Vixen, another CP/M portable. But his later efforts failed, and Osborne returned to his native India in the 1990s before passing away in 2003.

Yet today‘s laptops, tablets and 2-in-1 hybrid devices that we tote everywhere owe a debt to his vision. The Osborne 1 sparked the portable computing revolution – one that continues to evolve daily three decades later.

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