#111 The Apple Lisa
An evolutionary link in the personal computer revolution.
A couple weeks ago, the world celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Apple Lisa, a revolutionary computer that first came out in 183. Today we'll talk about the Lisa and its influence on the development of personal computers. Welcome to Copec Explained Software, the podcast where we make computing intelligible. The development of the Apple Lisa started in 1978. Now this is amazing because Apple was only founded in 1976. So personal computer revolution we've talked about on some prior episodes that I'm going to link to in the show notes. But the development of the Lisa was started at a very early phase in development of the personal computer industry.Speaker B:
And when was it released?Speaker A:
It was released in 1983. So it had a five year development cycle. And in that time, what they were going for changed radically. A lot of that came from the connection between Apple and Xerox. Xerox had a revolutionary research laboratory in California called Xerox Park. At Xerox Park, they were developing some of the technologies that would be foundational to modern personal computers. Things like Ethernet networking, the graphical user interface and object oriented programming. All of those originated at Xerox Park. And Apple got a sneak peek through a special relationship that allowed Xerox to invest in an early Apple and Apple to have access and cross licensing to some of Xerox's early technologies. In fact, several researchers at Xerox Park would end up leaving Xerox to come join Apple folks like Larry Tesla, who, if you go look up, are some of the most influential people in that era of computing.Speaker B:
One of the things that you touched on just now was the user interface. Let's talk a little bit about that in the Lisa.Speaker A:
Yeah, that was one of the most revolutionary parts of the Apple Lisa. The GUI had been developed at Xerox Park, but it was really refined in the Lisa. The Lisa was the first personal computer that most average users of macOS or Windows would really recognize as an ancestor of the machines that they use today. In fact, about a third of the Apple Lisa's source code was used on the original Macintosh. Now, for some context, we're going to talk more about the Macintosh a little bit later. The Lisa comes out in 1983 and the Macintosh comes out in 1984. And many of the same people worked on both the Lisa and the Macintosh. So the two are closely related.Speaker B:
And who was the target audience of the Lisa?Speaker A:
The Lisa was really aimed at business users as kind of an appliance for the office. It came with several built in office applications against things we'd be familiar with today. Things like a spreadsheet and a word processor. It was priced though, at just below $10,000. With inflation, that's almost $30,000 today. That's a lot of money even for early personal computers. In fact, most early personal computers were priced between one and $3,000. So the Apple Lisa was on in a whole other ballpark and was aimed for a totally different clientele. But it was the first computer to be priced under $10,000 that had a Graph Loser interface. Those earlier computers at Xerox like the Xerox Star were much more expensive and many fewer of them sold than even the Lisa, which we'll talk about in a few minutes, was really not a commercial success.Speaker B:
So the Lisa was really inspired by it got influenced by Xerox Park. What were some of the things, some of the innovations that the Lisa had?Speaker A:
Yeah, one thing that I've heard about this era is that they saw three big things at Xerox Park, right? They saw networking, they saw the graphic user interface, they saw the mouse, which kind of goes together with graph user interface and had been invented quite a bit before that. And we've talked about that on prior episodes and I'll link to some of those user interface evolution episodes in the show notes. But they saw the mouse with the graph use interface, they saw networking, they saw object oriented programming. And really the big one that they took away Apple from that experience was the Graph Loser interface. And the Lisa went on and further refined what they developed at Xerox Park. I said earlier that it would resemble what we're familiar with today. That's because Apple added additional widgets, not every widget and a widget is something like a button or a drop down menu or a scrollbar. Not every widget that we're familiar with in the graph user interface was present on those original Xerox machines. So it's not like Apple just copied what Xerox had. They re implemented a graph user interface from scratch, being inspired by what they saw at Xerox and added additional refinements new widgets that really made it complete.Speaker B:
How did that compare to the computers that were out at the time, like the Apple Two and the IBM PC?Speaker A:
Right? Those are really good examples because those were the dominant two machines at least in the United States in the era when the lease that came out. The Apple Two was apple's big success had come out in 1977, had an eight bit, 6502 microprocessor running at 1. It had, of course, a text based user interface. It was extremely primitive compared to the Lisa. In fact, just the microprocessor was many times more powerful. The Lisa had at the time pretty cutting edge. 68,000 microprocessor for Motorola, which was a 32 bit microprocessor, 1632, depending on who you ask. There's some, some detail there that I don't want to get into, but a much more powerful microprocessor. This incredible graph. Loser interface. Incredible compared to what came before it. And it even had a hard drive built in, which was kind of unheard of in the Apple Two series at that time. The IBM PC four years later as a 16 bit, 8088 microprocessor comes out in 1981, is kind of the standard already by 1983. And IBM and what are soon to be the clones, like those from Commodore are starting to dominate the industry. But all of those, the Apple two, the IBM PC and the clones are all text based user interfaces. And so there was no mainstream graphical user interface yet when the Lisa came out. And if the Lisa had not come out, we would not have then had the evolution of the IBM PC to go from Dos to Windows and we wouldn't have, of course had the Macintosh to come out from Apple. So the Lisa is an important evolutionary step from Xerox and early personal computers kind of coming together to lead to the Macintosh and Windows.Speaker B:
Who was Lisa, by the way?Speaker A:
Yeah, so there was a lot of speculation about when Lisa came out, where that name came from. And this was also at the same time that there were revelations about Steve Jobs having a daughter out of wedlock. There was national news stories about it. Lisa is a brilliant writer, by the way, who's written a really interesting memoir about her life that I recommend. But it's actually named after her, after Steve Jobs daughter Lisa. And they tried to kind of hide that by making Lisa into an acronym. But it came out in Steve Jobs official authorized biography that it was actually named after his daughter.Speaker B:
So the Lisa was this important evolutionary step. It had some real innovations. How did it do for Apple?Speaker A:
It didn't do very well. There were four reasons, I think that it was a commercial failure and a bunch of these were listed in a recent retrospective interview with some of the Lisa's creators held by the Computer History Museum that I'm going to link to in the show notes. One is that it was too expensive. $10,000, when other personal computers were $2,000 was just like a whole other level. Another is it was too slow. That 68,000 microprocessor running at 5 MHz in it was really being taxed trying to run that graph loser interface. And the software was sluggish. Some of the software was implemented using object oriented techniques that might have been a little bit ahead of their time for the hardware that was available then. The floppy disks which were in the first versions of the Lisa, specialized floppy disks invented by Apple were unreliable and floppy disks were really the mainstay of storage at the time. And so you can't have unreliable floppy disks because that's your only way to really transfer things from one machine to another. Another thing was the software ecosystem was quite limited. This was really something very new. Apple didn't make it super friendly for developers to develop apps for it and it wasn't compatible with any of the other computing systems at the time. So you don't have a lot of software. It's super expensive, it's slow, it's unreliable floppy disks, even if it's revolutionary, it's not going to do well. And it just didn't for all those reasons.Speaker B:
What did do well for Apple was the Macintosh which the Lisa was this important ancestor to. Let's compare the Macintosh and the Lisa.Speaker A:
Yeah, they had a lot in common. In fact, if you wanted to develop software for the early Macintosh, you actually needed a Lisa. So the Lisa was development platform for the Macintosh at first and the Macintosh was based on the graphical user interface of the Lisa. It wasn't the exact same code, but in this retrospective that I'm linking to in the show notes, they say it was about a third of the same code was literally straight from the Lisa, including a lot of the graphics primitives and a lot of the widgets.Speaker B:
And a lot of the same people worked on it.Speaker A:
That's right. And so there was a smaller team working on the Mac than had worked on the Lisa. But over time, more and more of the people who had worked on the Lisa kind of gravitated over to the Mac team. In fact, Steve Jobs himself had originally been on the Lisa team and then he kind of took over the Mac team and made it let's make it more like a low cost Lisa. That was kind of the vision there a more accessible Lisa that was aimed not just as business users but also could be used by home users. The Mac was a lot cheaper, though. The Mac didn't have a hard drive, it had a lot less memory and it was therefore able to be sold for a quarter of the price. It came out at 2500 compared to $10,000. A huge difference. Probably one of the main reasons I was so much more successful. But it's fair to say the Lisa, even though it came out a year before, was actually a more advanced machine technology wise than the Macintosh. For example, it had a more advanced operating system. That operating system had protected memory. A feature that wouldn't come to the Mac until 17 years later with Mac OS Ten in 2001, it had object oriented programming environment. There wouldn't be object oriented frameworks for building Mac apps until several years after the Mac came out. But the Lisa had that. So the Lisa was actually ahead of the Mac. The Lisa was actually this technological showpiece that the Mac was kind of like a watered down version of but a more airtight version and a version that was more ready for mainstream usage.Speaker B:
Now, looking back at the Lisa, we can see that it was just this really important step in this personal computing revolution.Speaker A:
Yeah, it's a critical link between the early innovations at Xerox Park, the early innovations in the personal computer industry and the line of personal computers and operating systems that have led to today. And what I mean by that is the IBM PC leading to Windows would probably not have happened in quite the same way with quite the same set of widgets if the Lisa had not come out in 1983. And of course, the Macintosh would not exist if the Lisa had not come out. And we're still here with Windows and macOS almost 40 years later. So the Lisa, of course, might have been inevitable. Something like it probably would have come out after those ideas had already been invented at Xerox Park at some point in the 1980s. But if Apple hadn't taken the baton and done the Lisa as early as they did, I think it probably would have been a few years later. And it just inspired a lot of what came after it. And I don't want to give it short due in terms of its own innovations. A lot of the metaphors used on it are still the same desktop metaphors that we use today. And they were beyond the metaphors that existed at Xerox. So it wasn't just this clone of Apple saw what happened at Xerox and they just copied it? Sure, they copied the idea of the graph loser interface and then they evolved it quite a bit. All right, thanks for listening to us this week, Rebecca. How can people get in touch with us on Twitter?Speaker B:
We're at copic explains K-O-P-E-C-E-X-P-L-A-I-N-S.Speaker A:
Thanks for listening, and we'll see you in two weeks.Speaker B:
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the Apple Lisa. The Lisa was an important evolutionary link in the history of the personal computer between the innovations at Xerox's PARC laboratory where the graphical user interface (GUI) was first conceived, and the modern GUIs that we are familiar with today. Released in 1983, the Lisa predated the Macintosh by a year and Windows by almost three years. Yet, the Lisa was a commercial failure. In this episode we discuss the Lisa's features, the reasons for its failure, and its legacy today.
- Episode 16: The Personal Computer Revolution
- Episode 21: How have UIs Evolved?
- CHM Live Happy 40th Birthday Lisa! via YouTube
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