Revisiting Apple’s ill-fated Lisa pc, 40 years on

Steve Jobs posing with the Lisa in 1983.
Enlarge / Steve Jobs posing with the Lisa in 1983.

Ted Thai

Forty years in the past at the moment, a brand new kind of non-public pc was introduced that may change the world without end. Two years later, it was virtually fully forgotten.

The Apple Lisa began in 1978 as a brand new project for Steve Wozniak. The thought was to make a sophisticated pc utilizing a bit-slice processor, an early try at scalable computing. Woz acquired distracted by different issues, and the challenge didn’t start in earnest till early 1979. That’s when Apple administration introduced in a challenge chief and began hiring folks to work on it.

Lisa was named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, despite the fact that Jobs denied the connection and his parentage. However the extra attention-grabbing factor in regards to the Lisa pc was the way it advanced into one thing distinctive: It was the primary private pc with a graphical consumer interface (GUI).

The imaginative and prescient takes form

GUIs had been invented at Xerox’s Palo Alto Analysis Heart (PARC) within the early Seventies. The Alto workstation, which was by no means offered to the general public, had a bitmapped display that mimicked the scale and orientation of a chunk of paper. PARC researchers wrote software program that displayed home windows and icons, they usually used a mouse to maneuver a pointer on that display.

A restored Xerox Alto, still running code in 2017.
Enlarge / A restored Xerox Alto, nonetheless working code in 2017.

Ken Sheriff

Jef Raskin, an early Apple worker who wrote the handbook for the Apple ][, 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 journal, designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith, and Frank Ludolph described how the Lisa’s interface modified from early prototypes to a well-known desktop with icons, then away from that mannequin, then lastly again to an icon-based, document-centric strategy. The aim was to make the Lisa highly effective and enjoyable to make use of.

In the end, the Lisa was able to be unveiled to the general public. On January 19, 1983, Apple introduced the pc, which it precisely described as “revolutionary.”