The Apple Lisa, named after Steve Jobs' daughter, Lisa Nicole, was considered a dismal failure by Apple and the industry. Luckily Apple was able to recuperate. Many design goals from the Lisa Desktop Project failed to ever produce anything worthwhile, but as you can see from the sketches and general scrap notes, many of the principles and original ideas are finally being played out in today's Mac OS X / Rhapsody software.

The Apple Lisa, released in 1983, was the first widely-produced computer system to utilize a graphical user interface as a major part of the computer's functionality. It also introduced the idea of the WIMP (window icon mouse pointer) interface for using the computer. It also was a complete flop, and almost resulted in the death of the Apple Macintosh before its eventual release in 1984. Steve Jobs christened the machine Lisa, supposedly after his daughter (noted by JayBonci). Although the machine was such a huge failure commercially, the ideas developed during the project are still influencing Apple's software development today (OS X borrowed a few ideas from the Lisa, in fact).


The Apple Lisa was first proposed by Steve Jobs (the once and future head of Apple) in late 1978. He desired a machine perfect for general office use, one that was actually fun to use, not just another job burden. This was to go far beyond the Apple II, which relied heavily on understanding the idea of a command line interface; he wanted something truly intuitive. It was the first time that the idea of a truly useful office computer was seriously discussed in terms of an actual product. Steve wanted the computer to truly fit his vision of what a useful computer should be, and this notion would end up causing great waves later on.

In 1979, Apple had the great fortune of gaining access to Xerox PARC, where the original development of the WIMP interface was happening. During this meeting, Apple's developers got their first glimpse of the internals of the production-level Xerox ALTO, the first true production-level machine to use a WIMP interface. The Xerox engineers explained in great detail how it was done, but Jobs was truly inspired. For the rest of the year, the plans for the Lisa were carefully articulated and in early 1980, the first real requirement document was published internally, stating what the goals of the project were. The ideas Apple had in early 1980 are still the ones guiding user interface development today. Some of the items included:

  1. The Lisa must be fun to use, not a system used by someone because it's a part of their job. Special attention should be paid to the friendliness of the user interaction and the subtleties of using the Lisa that would make it enriching.
  2. The Lisa must require extremely minimal user training by providing one standard method of interacting with any type of data.
  3. The Lisa must adhere to the idea of gradual learning, meaning that important things are easy to grasp but more complex features are unobtrusive and available when needed.
  4. The Lisa must handle errors as cleanly as possible, protecting the user from many of them.
  5. Users should be able to personalize the Lisa.
  6. The Lisa should allow multitasking or at least the appearance of such.
  7. The Lisa should use graphics for general user interaction, making it seem more friendly and enjoyable to use, with intuitive icons and such.

Item #4 is particularly interesting, as this is what has caused so many weird error messages to creep up when the system becomes so bogged down with tons of hidden simple errors. Also, #7 pretty much pushes the interface down the road of the WIMP interface.

As the system developed throughout 1980 and 1981, a number of truly advanced features were added, some of which wouldn't show up in the Macintosh until OS X (the docking station existed on the Lisa prototypes in 1981). Realizing that the Lisa was starting to turn into more research than development, the management at Apple chose to split the project in two (in essence) in mid-1981, starting a new group with some people from the Lisa group. This second group would go on to develop the Macintosh using principles straight from the Lisa.

By 1983, the OS interface, known as the Lisa Desktop Manager, was ready, but it had huge hardware requirements at the time. The system was equipped with the hardware necessary to run the Lisa Desktop Manager, and the machine was shipped in January 1983. The Lisa would finally come to its bitter end in 1986 after being one of the biggest commercial failures in personal computer history.

Why did the Lisa fail?

The biggest reason was the price. The Lisa debuted in January 1983 with a sticker price of $9,995. It was an amazing machine; the interface was very much like the early Macintosh and I would say that the Mac OS really didn't catch up until Version 6. Compared to the clunky IBM PC available at the time, relying on a monochrome screen with nothing but text, it was clearly a huge leap forward.

Unfortunately, the leap wasn't big enough for most companies. No one bought the thing; thousands of Lisas sat on the shelf in 1983 gathering dust, quietly bringing Apple's 1983 profit margin down greatly (they were still held up by the ongoing rampant success of the Apple II, though). Jobs still believed in the Lisa, though, so in 1984 at the same time as the much-ballyhooed Macintosh debut, the Lisa was repackaged and sold at $4,995 as the Lisa 2. Unfortunately, Apple's marketing juggernaut cost the Lisa this time, as people going to the store to buy Apple weren't interested in the Lisa; they wanted the Macintosh they had heard so much about instead. The Lisa tanked again.

The Lisa's final hurrah came in 1985, when it was renamed the Macintosh XL and a Mac OS emulator was run on top of the Lisa Desktop Manager. Impressively enough, the machine was actually quite competitive in terms of performance with other versions of the Macintosh; this machine probably produced more sales of the Lisa than the Lisa itself did. Many people probably have a Lisa running a Macintosh emulator on top of it in their closet right now, not even realizing it.

In 1986, the Lisa was killed off for good, relegating it to dusty backrooms, talk among computer afficionados, and museums.

The Lisa Itself

The Lisa had a Motorola 68000 processor running at 5 Mhz, 1 MB of RAM, two 5.25" floppy drives, an external 5 MB hard drive, and a built in 12" 720 x 360 monochrome monitor. In terms of hardware in 1983, it was quite impressive. The system also included a keyboard and the familiar Apple one-button mouse.

The interface itself was virtually identical to the early stages of the Mac OS. In fact, anyone who has used the Mac OS could pick up the Lisa in a snap. Having used an early Mac as well as a Lisa, it seemed that the Lisa interface was a bit more responsive; of course, it ran on superior hardware as well.

The case was extremely clunky. The monitor and floppy drives were all in the same ugly white with black trim case, with the floppy drives mounted to the right, making the case utterly dwarf the monitor. It was really not very aesthetically pleasing, perhaps another reason that the system failed.

The Lisa 2 kept the same hardware, but replaced the two 5.25" floppy drives with one 3.5" drive, which had become the Apple de facto standard in 1983. The Lisa 2 looks much more like a desktop-model Macintosh than the earlier Lisa, much more aesthetically pleasing with the monitor sitting atop the case that held most of the hardware components. The Macintosh XL was essentially a Lisa 2 with a different sticker on the front.

Final Thoughts

The Lisa was the first computer with a graphical user interface to be widely released. When you use a mouse, click on an icon, and open a window, you are using concepts that were brought to fruition by the Lisa. It pretty much set the standard for graphical user interfaces on personal computers, a standard that is pretty much set in stone today.

Good luck finding one, though. The few Lisas that are not in museums are true collector's items, and you'll have to pay a pretty penny to find one of them. If you actually manage to stumble upon one cheaply, pick it up; it is truly a piece of history to own (and perhaps to sell to an interested collector).

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