Revisiting Apple’s ill-fated Lisa computer, 40 years later

Revisiting Apple’s ill-fated Lisa computer, 40 years later

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Zoom in / Steve Jobs poses with Lisa in 1983.

Ted Tye

Forty years ago, a new type of personal computer was announced that would change the world forever. Two years later he was almost completely forgotten.

The Apple Lisa was launched in 1978 as new project for Steve Wozniak. The idea was to make an advanced computer using a bit-slice processor, an early attempt at scalable computing. Woz got distracted by other things, and the project didn’t begin in earnest until early 1979. Then Apple management appointed a project manager and began hiring people to work on it.

Lisa is named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, although Jobs denies the relationship and parentage. But the more interesting thing about the Lisa computer was how it evolved into something unique: it was the first personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI).

The vision is taking shape

GUIs were invented at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the early 1970s. The Alto workstation, which was never sold to the public, had a bitmap screen that mimicked the size and orientation of a piece of paper. PARC researchers wrote software that displayed windows and icons and used a mouse to move the pointer on that screen.

Refurbished Xerox Alto still running code in 2017.
Zoom in / Refurbished Xerox Alto still running code in 2017.

Ken Sheriff

Jeff Raskin, an early Apple employee who wrote the Apple manual ][, had visited PARC in 1973. He believed that GUIs were the future. Raskin managed to persuade the Lisa project leader to change the computer into a GUI machine. However, he couldn’t convince Jobs, who thought Raskin and Xerox were incompetent.

Raskin altered his approach and got graphics programmer Bill Atkinson to propose an official tour of PARC in November 1979. Because Jobs thought Atkinson was great, he agreed to come along. Jobs’ visit to PARC became the stuff of legend, a tale of a brilliant visionary seeing the future of computing for the first time. But in reality, Atkinson was already working on LisaGraf—the low-level code that would power the Lisa’s GUI—months before Jobs saw the PARC demo.

The Lisa’s hardware changed as well. The team abandoned the bit-slice processor and adopted Motorola’s new 68000 CPU. The 68000 was a 16/32-bit chip and used a 24-bit address bus, giving it a maximum of 16 megabytes of memory. This was fine, as memory prices were still sky-high in 1980, and most computers of the day had a maximum of 64 kilobytes of RAM.

In January 1981, senior leadership at Apple got tired of Jobs’ constant interference and micromanagement of the Lisa project and officially removed him from the team. Jobs seethed, then took over a smaller skunkworks project being run by Raskin. This would become important later.

By early 1982, the Lisa hardware was mostly finalized. However, the software was still in flux. A team of designers—including Larry Tesler, who had left PARC to join Apple—had been busy doing tons of research, prototyping, and testing. The main question they had was: How should the Lisa’s GUI actually work?

In an article in Interactions magazine, designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith, and Frank Ludolph described how Lisa’s interface changed from early prototypes to a familiar icon desktop, then away from that model, and finally back to an icon-based, document-oriented approach. The goal was to make Lisa powerful and fun to use.

Lisa was finally ready to be revealed to the public. On January 19, 1983, Apple announced the computer, which it accurately described as “revolutionary.”

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