Stone Knives and Bearskins

The lad in this picture is not actually me, but it might as well have been. Back when I was about his age, I got my very first computer: the Osborne 1, the same model you see in the picture. It may not look like much now, but back then the Osborne 1 was a groundbreaking machine -- the first totally self-contained portable computer for the retail market. Maybe it wasn't within everyone's financial reach, but $1,795.00 was actually a competitive price for a home computer at the time, especially considering that it included a well-rounded suite of home-office software (word processor, spreadsheet, and database programs) -- indeed, Osborne essentially started the trend of pre-bundling software with computers.

The Osborne 1 may have had its functional limitations -- it weighed a cumbersome 24 pounds, had a puny 5-inch display, and yielded about as much computing power as your average programmable universal remote control does now (a processor speed of 4 MHz and a whopping 64KB of RAM). And this was back in the day when the most popular computer storage medium was 5.25-inch floppy disks: thin, flexible and lightweight, but they each only held about 100KB of data. The Osborne 1 sported two such disk drives, labeled Drive A (from which the program disks were run) and Drive B (where the data files would be read and/or written). In case you younger computer users out there have ever wondered why the letters assigned to drives on modern computers start with C, this is why ... as one disk medium superseded the next, eventually being rendered obsolete altogether with the advent of plug-and-play USB-based flash drives, Drives A and B vanished with them.

And speaking of Drive C ... sorry to burst your bubble, but a built-in hard drive was a feature that was still years away. So was the mouse, but that was because Windows (or any other kind of graphical user interface, for that matter) also had yet to exist. Osborne computers used an operating system called CP/M ... not the most user-friendly in the world, but it did its job. (I have to wonder if CP/M was the inspiration for the writers of "Tron" to call their evil, tyrranical mainframe the "MCP".) I don't remember if I had the daisywheel printer (for letter-quality text printing) or the dot-matrix printer first, but they both used tractor-feed paper. To save me from eyestrain, my folks fixed me up with a larger external monitor (probably had a 10-inch picture tube, near as I can recall), which was a good thing, 'cause the built-in display died before the system was a year and a half old.

Anyway, I can still remember the somewhat limited fun I had with this machine for the few years I had it, and I was pretty-much never without a computer from then on. After the Osborne 1 outlived its usefulness, I was hooked up with a more advanced machine ... it still didn't have any of the fancy advances that we take for granted nowadays ("not even a mouse"), but it was capable of what I thought were pretty nifty graphics at the time ... I remember playing early versions of "Wheel of Fortune" and a couple of other games on it. And I think I had one other computer -- with a hard drive (something like 4MB), a mouse, Windows, and even a color monitor!! -- before I boldly stepped into the digital age in 1995 with an Acer, my first computer with a modem of any kind, internal or external, not to mention the first one with a CD drive.

Call me crazy, but despite the fact that today's notebook computers pack a thousand times the power and versatility into a package one-tenth the size and weight, I still look back on that old dinosaur called the Osborne 1 with nothing but fondness. It may have been a simple machine, but it's also true that the simpler the machine is, the fewer things can go wrong with it. I'd hate to have to choose between the limited-but-reliable technology of yesterday and the powerful-but-precarious possibilities of today. And I have to wonder about the future; advances in PC speed and capacity seem to be leveling off from their far quicker pace of ten years ago, but how powerful are computers going to be 30 years from now? Hmmm ... isn't it funny how we can hardly remember what the world was like before the Internet, let alone computers of any kind? How time flies.

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