Osborne Computer Corp., once the high-flying pioneer of portable computers, is now desperately scrambling to find a buyer to save the business, according to several sources close to the company.

Launched just two and a half years ago, Osborne was the first company to offer a portable computer that also came with the software to make the machine immediately usable. Advertised as an automated office the executive could take on the plane, the company soon boasted annual revenues of $100 million and employed over 1,000 people.

Today, the company has struggling finances and a payroll of roughly 80 employes after the latest layoffs last week. The talents that let writer-turned entrepreneur Adam Osborne successfully create an Osborne Computer weren't enough to manage the company in a turbulently competitve marketplace, say sources familiar with the venture.

"The market for these sorts of computers is exploding," says Seymour Rubenstein, president of MicroPro and a former director of Osborne Computer, "What do you think of a company that stumbles in a growing market?"

Osborne's success attracted literally dozens of competitors. Some of them, like KayPro, simply improved upon Osborne's idea and marketed it more successfully. Other companies built portable versions of the successful non-portable personal computers--as Compaq did for the IBM Personal Computer.

"They underestimated KayPro on one side and IBM on the other," says a source close to Osborne's board.

Perhaps the most crippling mistake the company made was pre-announcing an improved version of the Osborne earlier this year. The company had let it be known that its new Executive computer would be vastly superior to the old Osborne 1. That caused potential Osborne buyers to wait for the new model. "Sales, which were really going great at the time," says MicroPro's Rubenstein, "dropped dead."

The sudden gap in the cash flow forced Osborne to delay plans to sell stock to the public and crippled the company as it tried to play catch up.

Computer industry observers criticized Osborne's early management team as ill-equipped to manage the transition from entrepreneurial start-up to ongoing business. A new team, headed by Robert Jaunich II, former president of Consolidated Foods, was brought in to rescue the company, which sold more than $100 million worth of computers last year yet has never made a profit.

Industry insiders say that time and opportunity have passed Osborne by. They point to machines like Radio Shack's lap-sized TS-100 that retails for less than $1,000, Sharp Electronic's portable that weighs only 11 pounds, compared with Osborne's 26, or Galivan's $4,000 briefcase-sized computer that comes with a touch-sensitive screen and high-powered software.

"Osborne came up with a great first package," says a venture capitalist with investments in companies that compete with Osborne, "but what did they follow it up with and when? In an industry like this, you're dead if you stand still."

No spokesman at Osborne was available for comment. However, reports from investors in the company point out that it would take an investor with deep pockets and an aggressive ability to compete in a fast-moving market to successfully acquire Osborne. RCA and General Electric were mentioned as potential candidates.

Still, people are a bit taken aback at the speed of Osborne's rise and fall.