1983: Apple releases the Lisa, the first commercial computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) — the advance that would finally make computers usable by people with no special training. It doesn’t sell well, but it does get Apple on the right development track, sparks the first of many brawls with perpetual rival Microsoft, and sets in motion the animus between Steve Jobs and John Sculley that would frame the company’s history for a decade.
Sure — you’re all fancy now with that multitouch iPhone. You wiggle and writhe like an idiot to operate your Nintendo Wii. Maybe you’ve got your eye on a breath-controlled laptop — because using a mouse to work on your computer is so 20th-century. But you owe it all to one of Apple’s earliest and most magnificent failures.
Apple revolutionized computing with the Macintosh of “1984″ TV-ad fame — the world’s first affordable GUI computer. But a year earlier Lisa set the stage. It was one of the company’s most glorious missteps, one without which the Mac may not have succeeded as dramatically as Lisa had failed.
“The Lisa was doomed because it was basically a prototype — an overpriced, underpowered cobbled-together ramshackle Mac,” Cult of Mac author (and former Wired.com editor) Leander Kahney said in an e-mail interview. “Lisa taught the Mac team they’d need to articulate a clear purpose for the Mac.”
Apple spent $150 million developing Lisa but sold only 10,000 of them in a world dominated by cheaper IBM desktops. With an outrageous price tag of $10,000 (more than $21,000 in today’s leaf), the Lisa’s built-in calculator could tell you Apple lost a lot of money.
Lisa’s specs were improved and the price cut in half, but the plug was pulled in only three years. And — oh yeah — Apple co-founder Jobs got kicked off the Lisa team by CEO John Scully and went to another project. The Macintosh. See above. Jobs, of course, would be pushed out by Scully in 1985 only to get his revenge by returning the favor 10 years later.
Before Lisa — the name was the acronym for “Local Integrated Software Architecture” and possibly the daughter of someone on the development team (Jobs had a daughter names Lisa) — the only user interface was the command line, the only input was a keyboard, and the only display was some lines of off-white text on a black screen. Microsoft’s somewhat approachable DOS (Disc Operating System) had been around for a couple of years, but that only simplified the command set, not the input technique.
Lisa changed all that. Its screen displayed little pictures — icons. Moving the mouse on your work surface moved a cursor in a spatially equivalent way on the screen. When your cursor hovered on an icon you clicked a soon-to-be-iconic one-button mouse, and a program would start, as if by magic.
Not so magical was the dearth of software for Lisa, which was not compatible with any other computer in the world. Lisa shipped with seven programs, and not much else got written for it during its brief stint in the Apple product line, which (price aside) contributed to its lack of traction.
Though Lisa was first to market, the GUI was not exactly an Apple innovation. Jobs got a look at the very first computer with a graphical user interface during a tour of the storied Xerox PARC lab. This was a turning point, according to invention historian Mary Bellis: Even though work on Lisa had already begun, Jobs would hire several PARC engineers to join the Lisa (and later Mac) team.
Apple sued when Microsoft released Windows 1.0, arguing that its once and future nemesis had stolen the “look and feel” of Lisa’s OS. According to Andy Hertzfeld, who says he witnessed an exchange between Jobs and Bill Gates at the 1983 Comdex industry trade show, the Microsoft co-founder expressed the nuanced view that both companies had stolen the idea — from PARC.
From Hertzfeld’s account:
“You’re ripping us off!” Steve shouted, raising his voice even higher. “I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!”
But Bill Gates just stood there coolly, looking Steve directly in the eye, before starting to speak in his squeaky voice.
“Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Xerox itself had an early incarnation of a machine that had some GUI functionality — the Star — and Lisa’s developers said they were informed by that less-than-successful commercial attempt, to a point. In an interview with Byte in October 1982, three months before the Lisa came out, Wayne Rosing, Bruce Daniels and Larry Tessler were asked about the Xerox Star:
BYTE: Do you have a Xerox Star here that you work with?
Tesler: No, we didn’t have one here. We went to the NCC when the Star was announced and looked at it. And in fact it did have an immediate impact. A few months after looking at it we made some changes to our user interface based on ideas that we got from it. For example, the desktop manager we had before was completely different; it didn’t use icons at all, and we never liked it very much. We decided to change ours to the icon base. That was probably the only thing we got from the Star, I think. Most of our Xerox inspiration was Smalltalk rather than Star.
BYTE: What does Lisa have that the Star doesn’t have?
Tesler: We’re talking about graphics capability. You originally asked why we didn’t use graphics hardware. Our graphics primitives in software are more general than the Star’s, so they perform better. We have a faster and more general ability to draw on the screen a picture of multiple graphical objects in different shapes, to have one window that uncovers another, and to repaint just the parts that are uncovered.
Daniels: Look at the desktop managers of the Star and Lisa. With the Star, you can only put them at fixed places on the screen so you know they don’t ever overlap. On ours, you can put them any place you want. It’s that generality that allows I us to have arbitrarily shaped things I and covering each other up and…
BYTE: Documents or forms, shapes, or anything…
Tesler: Right. We have curves in it. Everything in the Star, you’ll notice, is really rectangular, and our things can have curved edges and that sort of thing.
Apart from some specialized contexts GUIs are the norm now in computing. Microsoft has considerably more copies of its GUI in customer hands than Apple — yet another instance of the first to market not becoming the dominant player. And while it would be Mac that captured the public’s imagination, he might not have had quite the swagger without lessons he learned from his awkward older sister.
“Although it was a technical and commercial flop, Lisa was important because it was the progenitor of the Mac,” says Kahney. “Apple screwed up the Lisa, but without it, there would be no Macintosh.”
Lisa advertisement courtesy Apple
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The Lisa--doomed from the start but got Apple on the right track!