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From Osborne computer to smart phone computer

From time to time I do Samizdata postings about how rapidly technology is advancing these days. Recently I stuck up an SQotD on the subject. Here is another such posting. Basically it’s two pictures.

The first is a picture of my first proper computer (I do not count the Sinclair Spectrum), purchased in about … 1981? This computer, an Osborne 1, consisted of a very small screen, a keyboard, and about half a ton of electrical gubbins, including two disk drives, each accommodating disks that were, I seem to recall, 256kb in capacity. 256kb was a lot of kb in those days.


The second picture is of my latest computer, which is a Google Nexus 4, plus a couple of bits of plastic to prop up the Google Nexus 4, plus a keyboard:


For me, the killer app of all computers has always been word processing, the ability to type a piece of writing into a machine, and then to modify and expand the piece at will, and only when it’s nearly finished have it automatically printed out. And then printed out again if you need that, as you almost certainly will. Amazing. (This being the twenty first century, you may want to read “print out” as “publish”.)

My first “word processor” (the inverted commas because word processing as we now use that phrase was exactly what it couldn’t do), which I used for about a decade, was an Olivetti typewriter. For this I paid twenty five quid, which is about the same as what I recently paid for the Google Nexus 4 after you include inflation. For those who do not know what a “typewriter” is, the basic rule was that the only way you could store the words you had thought of, in the order you wanted them in, was to print them all out, one letter at a time, as you thought of them. The switch from that to the Osborne 1 remains the single most exciting technological leap of my life, although the arrival of blogs runs this a close second.

As for the smallness of the screens of both these computers, well, each to his own, and I entirely get why many would hate to process words on such a tiny thing as the Google Nexus 4 or with a screen as tiny as that of the Osborne 1. But I loved the small Osborne screen. There was something very appealing to me about those tiny little letters, so much more so than the big clunky letters on other computers of that era. Me being short-sighted, the distinction that really matters to me is not big-screen-versus-small-screen; it is screen (however big) far away: bad, versus screen (however small) near: good. And if the Osborne was not in any very meaningful way “portable”, it was at least, to use a word from those days, “luggable”, from one work top to another, as and when the need arose, which for me, then, it often did.

And just as I loved the tiny old Osborne screen, I now rather like the Google Nexus 4 screen. But of course what I really like about the Google Nexus 4 screen is that, since a tiny screen is all that it is, it is so light and so small that I am happy to carry it around in case I need it to process any words, even if I never actually do, on that particular expedition. For me, in my present aging and physically weakened state, the difference between a computer too heavy to carry around without being irritated by it unless I use it, and a computer so light that its weight is not a problem even if I don’t touch it all day long, is a big difference. Even today’s small laptops – minute compared to the Osborne – fail this test, for me, now.

The beginnings of this posting were mostly typed into the second of the two computers pictured above, before being transferred into my regular non-portable computer, the one that resides permanently in my kitchen. I am still amazed at how well this transfer worked, the very first time I tried it. While I was doing the transfer, it looked as if all the paragraphing would be lost, but when I pasted everything into a text file on the kitchen computer, there it all was, just as it began. Magic.

In addition to being a word processor, the Google Nexus 4 is also, as already noted, a telephone. And like all mobile telephones these days, it can also send what used to be called telegrams. It is also an A-Z Guide to London, and a map of the Underground. The map even works, unlike an A-Z of London, when I venture outside of London. It tells me when the London bus I await will reach me. It is a mini web-browser, a mini-Kindle, and a means of posting relatively straightforward postings to my blog or (when I have worked that out) to this blog. It is a gadget for identifying music recordings just by it listening to them, being just as good at identifying classical recordings as it is a identifying pop. It is even a rudimentary camera. All of which makes it that much more likely that I will use my Google Nexus 4 for something during just about every expedition I go on. The old Osborne 1 could do none of these things. But you knew all that, and much else besides which I have yet to discover. You get the pictures.

I am, of course, not the only one who has noticed how well technology is doing these days compared to politics. If you look for this particular meme, you see it everywhere. Here is a whole book with that notion as its starting point, linked to recently by Instapundit. (Who, by the way, also linked to and recycled that SQotD. I thought he might like that one.) Says the author of this book, Kevin Williamson:

Why are smart phones so smart – getting better and cheaper every year – while our government is so dumb? Is there a way to apply the creative and productive institutions that produced the iPhone to education, public schools, or Medicare?

He thinks there is, as do I. More from and about Williamson here.

LATER: Instapundit quotes Williamson again:

We treat technological progress as though it were a natural process, and we speak of Moore’s law — computers’ processing power doubles every two years — as though it were one of the laws of thermodynamics. But it is not an inevitable, natural process. It is the outcome of a particular social order.

25 comments to From Osborne computer to smart phone computer

  • Everyone to their own tastes. I work as a copy editor, and going over to a screen with enough space to have two full pages side by side was a major improvement in the quality of my work experience.

  • For me it was the computers ability to do repetitive arithmetic calculations rapidly and accurately.
    I was a theatre manager in Australia and had bought a Dick Smith computer. It consisted of a cassette tape drive and a keyboard. The connections provided a b&w video output to which I connected a 9″ TV.
    I then learned to write in basic and wrote a program to reconcile the theatre’s box office receipts.
    This with a tape drive & 32k of RAM.
    Great fun!

  • llamas

    But so-called ‘smart phones’ are going down the exact-same route as government – becoming more and more bloated with all sorts of functions which are often useless to most users, at ever-increasing cost (relatively speaking) and with business models which are a mixture of indentured servitude and the preferred approach of the heroin dealer.

    After all, if cell phones had followed the model of PCs (and PC-like devices) which are described in the first few paras of this post, a cell phone would cost 48¢, you could pick one up with your morning paper, and you could call anywhere in the world, unlimited, for 23¢ per month. But instead of that, the average smart-phone experience now looks more and more like dealing with the DMV every day.

    I know people whose lives are negatively-dominated by their smart-phones far worse that by the ministrations of the State. It doesn’t take long before something which is supposed to help you and make your life easier can become an instrument of durance vile, if you let it.



  • Surellin

    Ace of Spades ran an article today comparing a 1973 IBM mainframe to today’s computers. Hint – the 370/115 had memory of 64-280MB, and cost $265,000 to $352,000. Verizon is now GIVING AWAY phones with 32GB memory. Is this a great world or what?

  • Scooby

    @llamas- if you want a bare-bones cell phone, those can be had for free or next to nothing. The phone service isn’t 23 cents per month, but my bill for internet access hasn’t gone down in the last 20 years, either (it’s gone up 4-5x, though not in proportion to the bandwidth).

    Unfortunately, I can’t ditch my state and go with a bare-bones nightwatchman state with the same ease that I could bin my smartphone in favor of a simple no-features cell phone.

  • RRS

    For me, the great steps forward have been Voice Recognition software (speak and type principally)[Dragon Naturally Speaking]. Of course, that has had many other applications, including in robotics, and sadly “customer *service*.”

    My experience goes back 0ver 30 years to the CPT system (a dedicated word-processor)Typists (2-3) transcribed dictation, I revised on a 20″ screen. As Brian says the “leap” to having *spoken* thought appear in type, that can be easily revised is enormously gratifying (and in the process humbling no matter how much one is enamored of one’s speech!).

    The other has been WebEyes Reader, an app for IE to read HTML texts in enlarged fonts, columnar style, by pages without scrolling.

  • Mr Ed

    The only thing that seems to develop faster than computing power is the UK National Debt. Will there be a tipping point at which so much is consumed in paying off debt that there is not enough leftbto make selling faster computers viable?

    I suspect that the physical limitations of humans iterms of fingers/eyesight etc. will lead to a certain levelling off in device design parameters within 5 years, unless workable neural integration is achieved and economically viable.

  • Laird

    When I first started practicing law in 1980, my firm had word processors. These were dedicated IBM machines, each one shared by two secretaries. They used 7 1/2″ floppy disks (no significant internal memory, as I recall) and were tied to a printer which used a print ball (you had to physically change the ball to change the type font). They couldn’t do anything other than word processing, but at that one function they were great. Not only could I edit text, but sentences and whole paragraphs could be saved for use in later documents, which basically automated my wills and trusts practice. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen.

    Some other time I’ll regale you about my joy at discovering the fax machine . . . .

  • The Osborne 1 was developed by Lee Felsenstein, who was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, another member of which was Steve Wozniak. Which facts are in the 4-hour director’s cut version of my open source talk, which I plan to translate into a blog post at some point…

    Osborne the company suffered badly when they announced a shiny new version and everyone cancelled their orders of the old version. I think that’s one reason why new versions of gadgets come along so frequently now. If there is always a new version just around the corner you have to buy one at some point.

  • Mr Ed

    @ Laird, the fax is older than the telephone, are you over 145?

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, I’m not sure how a fax would work without a telephone line, but in any event I never said they didn’t exist before I “discovered” them, merely that I was overjoyed to find that we had them. Two, to be precise, in a firm of 40 lawyers. And they weren’t used very much, either, since at the time there was no solid rule about the legality of faxed signatures, etc. And of course we had to photocopy any faxes we wanted to keep because the thermofax paper would turn brown and disintegrate over time. Ain’t technology grand?

  • Mr Ed

    Laird, apologies for my asinine comment, seeking to sketch an inference. The fax is no longer approved by law for use by British Employment Tribunals (Labor Courts) as a definitive means of communication, but it is surely (as another face of the photocopier) a wondrous miracle of a device that has done more than any tool bar the WP application to make office life better and easier.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thermo-anything paper, ugh. You could only write on it in soft pencil, which immediately rubbed off the paper onto your desktop, hands, clothes, …. A lot of cash-register tapes still seem to use some unfortunate relative of the stuff. 🙁

    Just to be perfectly clear, “I, Pencil” is an essay by Leonard Read, not Milton Friedman. It was first published in December, 1958, per Econlib, who presents ‘”I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard E. Read”: A selected essay reprint’ at


    Me, I love the expansive real estate of the 17″ MacBook Pro, which, sadly, was discontinued last year. Admittedly it is heavier than a Kindle or even my 8″ Acer netbook, but it is the bee’s knees if you want two or more pages open side-by-side, as is possible with *gasp* Real Books. Or if you want the older draft and the latest draft for side-by-side comparison. Which changes to keep, which to reject?

    Then there was the Kaypro. At 29 lb., it was a “luggable,” only portable for those possessing a Pachyderm Patrol to do the heavy hauling. Per WikiFootia, it was released to the public in 1982 (I gather) and cost $ 1795, which is only $ 20 less than I just paid for one of the last of the 17″ MBP’s, slightly used, and upgraded with 16G RAM and a 1T HD, from eBay. They say the Osborne I came out in 1981 at the same price, and was much lighter at 23.5 lb. I’d rather have the MBP….

    [It seems MacMall now has three MBP 17″-ers in stock, varying from around $ 1800 to $ 2200 (this with the highly desirable anti-glare screen). They said they had none, when I enquired a month ago.]

  • Julie near Chicago

    Brian, how big was that Osborne screen? (Heh…I learned to watch TV on 9″ screen. It was my 8th-grade graduation gift, our very first TV, and I loved it.) And how big is the present Nexus?

    llamas, on “Smart Phones”: Agreed.

    My little 8″ Acer netbook connects to the Internet via the ATT cell-phone system, or it did when it was working properly. ATT say the only way I can run the Macs off their cell system is via a Smart Phone. Sigh…. I have one of those by-the-minute cells for emergency use only. I am by firm preference a land-line girl.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    I am slightly baffled as to why Apple discontinued the 17 inch Macbook Pro, too. It had a devoted following – our beloved editor Perry included – that was willing to pay a high price for high spec, and it cannot have been much effort for Apple to simply update it to the latest internals. They now all seem rather sad about its demise.

    Personally I need more portability in a laptop – I have a 13 inch Macbook Air, which is wonderful in every way except for the smallish amount of storage on the 128Gb SSD. I like to have lots of screen real estate when I am working at home, though, which is why I continue to have a desktop with a dual monitor setup.

  • Julie near Chicago

    The excuse I got from Apple is that the 17″ “wasn’t selling very well.” The world seems to be in love with tablet-type devices nowadays, and “smart phones,” or small “netbooks” like your MacBook Air, Michael. Admittedly they are a lighter than the “big” MBP 17″. But I get very noivous if I don’t have complete kit with me. *g*

  • Julie near Chicago

    Of course, now I’m hearing people saying that the PC (Personal Computer) is on the way out: Who needs all that hardware when you can just store everything in the Cloud.

    Some people are entirely lacking in a sense of self-preservation.

  • Rich Rostrom

    One feature of the Nexus you may not be aware of:

    Ms. Stoaty Weasel clicked on the My Location icon on her Nexus 7, and it popped up a Google Earth picture of the back yard she was sitting in.

    The privacy concerns are, I think, obvious.

  • Michael Jennings (London)

    Rich: There is a certain sense that you are 30 seconds from a box popping up and asking you whether you wish to call in drone strike, yes.

  • You could just disable your GPS function though, no?

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Keep in mind that the Google Map images may be three or four years old. I just checked the old homestead, and the overhead shot is at least three years old, and the Street View version is from Apr 2012.


  • Tedd


    Stored-on-your-PC (that you carry around with you) and stored-in-the-cloud aren’t the only two options. One thing that’s already here and I’m sure will get much bigger is PCoIP, the ability to access your PC desktop from anywhere, securely, through a dumb device. Think of it as your own personal cloud. Many companies are already using it, so that (among other reasons) sales staff and other traveling employees have access to everything they need but no actual data goes with them, so nothing can be lost or stolen.

  • Tedd: thanks for the tip – I’ll sure look it up.

    Still, anything can be lost or stolen, given enough bad luck/effort, no?

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tedd: I too thank you for the info; I’ll have to look into that. :>)

  • Tedd

    Still, anything can be lost or stolen, given enough bad luck/effort, no?

    I’m not an expert, I just know someone involved in developing the technology. But, as I understand it, the idea behind PCoIP is that no actual data is transferred, only an image of your virtual desktop. All of the data and all of the actual processing remains on your PC, safely behind whatever firewall you have. (Safe being a relative term, as always.) Conceptually, it’s not unlike Remote Desktop, which you’ve probably used, but the underlying technology is quite different.