30 years later, why Otrona didn’t compute


It didn’t come as a shock when I turned 70 last summer. I had seen it coming for a long time.

What did come as a shock was the almost simultaneous realization that 30 years had passed since I bought my first computer.

Wow. That’s a generation in human years, and six or seven generations in computer years. It still seems like it was only yesterday.

When I started looking for a computer in 1982, I thought globally and shopped locally.

I bought an Otrona Attaché.

Otrona was Boulder’s first (and last) personal computer company. Otrona opened its doors in early 1982 and closed them in late 1984.

But it produced, for its time, IMHO, an insanely great personal computer.

For one thing, it was a portable, a radical departure in 1982. It was about the size of a fat attaché case (thus the name) and everything — micro-processor, disk drives, screen and keyboard — were packed into one light 20-pound package.

(Compaq Computer’s original “portable,” which came out a few months later, weighed about 30 lbs and was the size of a suitcase.)

Otrona’s double-sided, double-density 5 ¼-inch floppy disk drives held more data than those of any other PC company — a jaw-dropping 400,000 bytes each.

Its display, a six-inch, monochromatic cathode ray tube, was tack sharp by the standards of 1982 tacks; it could display a stunning 80-character line.

Its keyboard was the best I’ve used before or since.

It was twice the machine of the Apple II and, at $3,995, alas, about twice as expensive. (I got a deal.)

If all of this seems impossibly quaint, it’s worth recalling that 30 years ago personal computers like the Attaché were a disruptive technology whose introduction changed society as profoundly and swiftly as the introduction of the automobile.

The Attaché was the brainchild of company founder Ron Lingeman. I got together with him a few weeks ago and asked him to talk about what led him to be a computer pioneer.

Unlike Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who were gifted amateurs, Lingeman was a tough-minded, veteran computer engineer who made his bones at Hewlett-Packard, among other places.

Lingemann is the kind of engineer you want around when you get a “Houston, we have a problem” call. He’ll grab a bucket of parts and turn them into an elegant solution.

That’s how the Attaché came about.

“Somehow I got connected with a physicist at Los Alamos named Sterling Colgate,” Lingemann said. He was doing some interesting experiments.

Like shooting rockets into tornados from a light plane. Lingemann built him an 80-pound airborne computer for data collection. That got him thinking about “what could I do to make a computer more portable.”

“I took a few parts and put them together … I wanted to make this primarily for technical customers, so I used the best of everything,” he said.

“It took a lot of evenings and a lot of long days; I designed most of it myself,” he added.

Otrona showed the machine at Comdex, the country’s signature computer show at the time, and it attracted a lot of buzz and a venture capitalist — the Charles River Fund of Cambridge, Mass. Otrona was off and running.

But not fast enough.

Otrona sold 600 machines to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and it attracted the attention of scientists and engineers “because the communications were better than anyone else’s, its disk drives were faster, and it had graphics — all in one package,” Lingemann said.

But in the end Otrona sold fewer than 10,000 machines. One reason for this was that the Attaché was based on the Z-80 microprocessor, a chip that was found in most first-generation personal computers.

In 1981, a few months before Otrona opened its doors, IBM entered the personal computer market with a computer — the IBM PC — based on Intel’s 8088, a more powerful chip.

IBM’s machine was not a portable, but it established hardware and software standards (including use of the 8088 chip) that most personal computer companies adopted, which meant Otrona was playing catch-up almost from the day it opened its doors.

“Our problem wasn’t technical; running a business was too much for us,” Lingemann said. “We were making sales of the 2001 … we just couldn’t figure out a way to do things inexpensively enough to make a profit.”

The company needed another round of venture capital to keep going, and the venture capitalists said no.

When the company pulled the plug in September 1984, it had 160 employees.

“It was a nice ride,” Lingemann said. “I wish I had the resources to do it again. If I knew then what I know now, we probably would have succeeded.”

I asked Lingemann if he had any thoughts about what it takes to be an entrepreneur.

“You have to really know yourself,” he said. “You should choose your employees and your partners really carefully. You have to have a vision, and you have to believe what you are doing is worthwhile; it’s not just a moneymaking thing. Why would you want to do something less? Otherwise it’s just work.”

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This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.