Remembering the Osborne

This is the 3oth anniversary of the Osborne 1 the first portable computer. The Z80 machine had 64k of memory and 2 floppys, a 5 inch amber display. and came with CPM and a decent office suite. At a Price  of about $1,8000 it was concidered a pretty good deal.

At first, they seem to belong in completely different weight categories. Osborne 1 is just under 11 kg, enough to pull your arm out of the socket, if you’re a skinny geek. That’s roughly 20 times more than an iPad, or about the same as whole suitcase of them.

But what about the processing power? Osbourne 1 was sporting a Z80 CPU, running at a stunning frequency of 4.0 MHz. You cannot compare the different architectures directly, but iPad’s CPU is a dual core A5, clocked at up to 1 GHz. That’s approximately three hundred times more, not counting in the vastly superior architecture.

Z80 CPU was supported by whopping 64KB of system memory. Surprisingly, it was enough to run databases, word processors and complex, professional software. Today’s iPad is equipped with 512MB of RAM (roughly eight thousand times more), and some reviewers complain it’s a bit on the low side.

Although it may be worth noting that the the Osborne 1 allowed removable storage and that you could actually connect it dirrectly to a printer. The Osborne didn’t support Flash either.

Now let’s compare storage. iPad offers you 16GB of flash memory in basic configuration. Osborne 1 doesn’t have anything to write home about, even though it was a well specced machine in its days. It has a dual 5.25 inch floppy disk drive, each disk holding 110KB of data. An upgrade was possible to more modern, “dual density” drive with 360KB floppies. Even with the maximum theoretical storage of 720KB, Osborne had 20,000 times less disk space than iPad. Well, it was never meant to hold music videos and MP3’s. Each disk was enough for 1600 pages of text, and it was thought to be an impressive feat.

It’s not only about power and storage, though. It’s about what a device can actually DO with the resources, as without good software all those MHz’s ad KB’s are for nothing. Osborne was particularly well equipped for its time, it came with a self-configuring CP/M 2.2 OS (which would launch a program automatically after inserting a disk – a novelty for the time). It had a WordStarword processor, SuperCalc spreadsheet, BASIC programming language, and a dBASE II database. You could work on it from day one – and it was a huge leap in terms of user friendliness. In early 80’s most machines were sold without any software. Sometimes there was no software at all, and the user was supposed to write all the necessary programs himself (take Altair for example). Be as it may, Osborne’s three apps pale in comparison to iPad’s array of pre-installed stuff, and hundreds of thousands of programs in App Store.


Leave a Reply