The Osborne Effect, named after its discoverer Adam Osborne (who was also arguably the inventor of the "portable" computer) is an effect which the marketing departments of technology companies need to be aware of, and possibly the prime reason for technology firms being secretive about their release plans, roadmaps and product cycles. I am, at this very moment, exerting the Osborne Effect on Apple Computer Inc, although you wouldn't think it to look at me.

Back in the early 80s, Adam Osborne was due to hit it big. Spectacularly big. Thanks to a marketing coup and the inclusion of a valuable package of bundled software, the briefcase-sized Osborne 1 was selling by the bucketload, and Osborne had big plans for the future. He'd planned to release a successor "Executive" model in the same briefcase form factor, and after that, a machine capable of running MS DOS.

With a roadmap like that, he should have been tripping over himself with investors. Instead, the company folded before it reached IPO. Counter-intuitive? Highly. I'll get back to that in a minute; first, we'll fast-forward to the present day.

I'm typing this on my 12" PowerBook G4. It's a lovely little machine, it's shiny and silvery and everything just works. But it's a bit underpowered. The Athlon-based desktop PC I bought in 2001 outpaces my 1GHz PowerBook, and in fact it still almost outpaces Apple's top-of-the-range PowerBook computers which currently clock in at around 1.67GHz. Intel and AMD-based notebook computers are far ahead of it in terms of performance.

What are my options? I could upgrade to a marginally faster PowerBook, but that would seem a large waste of money. I could buy a iMac G5 or a PowerMac G5, which would be adequate performers and certainly take the pain out of all those long compile jobs. But they're not very portable, so it's not viable to take them to work every day, never mind to the pub.

Instead, I choose to wait until IBM have sorted out a new lower-power, process-shrunk silicon on insulator version of the 970, and Apple have incorporated it into a notebook computer, at which point I'll buy that, and be happy. But in the meantime, I'm not buying a faster PowerBook or a G5 desktop system because I know that at some point in the not-too-distant future, I'll be able to buy what I really want.

While Apple are secretive about the development (or otherwise) of G5 PowerBooks, the existence of the corresponding desktop product gives us a clue to what lies ahead. Apple have inadvertently created a period of time in which I, as a (somewhat) loyal customer and enthusiastic exponent of their products, refuse to buy one of their products. And that, or so the story goes, is precisely what happened to Osborne.

Osborne announced the successors to the Osborne 1 at the height of the popularity of the machine. He was so successful at generating hype and technolust for the new products that the computer-buying population decided that it would be a far more sensible use of their cash to wait for the newer machines to become available, rather than acquiring an Osborne 1 and thus contributing to the company's research and development budget for the new machines.

Without enough cash flow to fund the R&D on the new machines, they were never successfully launched, leading to the collapse of the company and the disappearance into vapourware of the very product the public had been crying out for.

With a cautionary tale like that, is it any wonder that Uncle Steve is keeping quiet about when PowerBook G5s may be introduced? Personally, I'm happy to wait it out, safe in the knowledge that all the iPod-buying teenagers (or, perhaps more accurately, their parents) are funding the R&D of my next PowerBook. God bless their scrawny little hides and their angelic little lip piercings.

Epilogue

It's been recently brought to light that certain key aspects of the story of the Osborne Effect owe more to mythology than to reality. The company did indeed expecience a significant slump in sales following the announcement of the newer models, and it did indeed subsequently (but not neccessarily consequently) go bust. Competition from other vendors also played a significant part in the lack of turnover, and a few unfortunate management decisions (for example, the decision to spend $2,000,000 to make more mark 1s in order to make use of a $150,000 stockpile of unused mainboards) are more likely to be major culprits in the eventual demise of the company.

Regardless of which combination of factors, in what proportions, was responsible for the company's collapse, the Osborne Effect is still a tangible and concrete one. Far more tangible and concrete, in fact, than my speculated-upon PowerBook G5; which will, thanks to Apple's recent decision to switch over to Intel processors, never see the light of day.

http://oldcomputers.net/osborne.html
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2003/03/25/portable_computer_pioneer_adam_osborne/
http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~tlosborne/Osborne/Osbornehistory/Adamosborne/adamosborne.htm
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/06/20/no_osborne_effect_at_osborne/

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