Apple introduced the Lisa computer in January 1983. It was Apple’s first attempt to sell a computer designed from the bottom up with a graphical user interface (GUI). It was not merely an attempt to throw a graphical operating environment over a text-line operating system like early versions of Windows or early Apple II graphical operating environments. The Lisa graphical operating system defined all aspects of the computer’s operation. It served as more than a program launcher or file manager. Lisa OS was designed to mimic an office desktop.

There is a common misconception that the Lisa was the direct predecessor to the Macintosh. It beat the Macintosh to market by about a year, but its development did not directly lead to the Macintosh. The development of both systems coincided for a time with the Macintosh project starting much later than the Lisa project. The Lisa project started in 1978 and quickly evolved into a project to bring a graphical user interface to market targeted primarily toward business users. The Lisa would become an expensive high-end computer priced at nearly $10,000, well out of the reach of most home users.

In December 1979, the Lisa team was granted a visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). It was the result of high-level negotiations between Steve Jobs and the people of the Xerox Development Corporation, a branch of Xerox, specializing in venture capital. Xerox agreed to buy 10,000 Apple shares for $1 million. In return, Xerox hosted a contingent of Apple engineers for a peek at the PARC wonders. Xerox hosted visitors on a regular basis, so this was nothing new to the company. Xerox was getting a tangible stock deal and believed that the PARC technology belonged more to science fiction than to future revenues[1]. Xerox’s $1 million investment in Apple stock shot to $17.6 million within the year after Apple went public.

To this day, nothing sticks more deeply into he craw of Lisa and Macintosh designers than the suggestion that all their interface work simply consisted of making a copy of the work they saw at PARC[2]. This is simply not true. A look at the revolutionary design of the Lisa interface shows that much more was involved. Xerox never seriously intended to go to market. Apple was primarily in the business of selling personal computers and could not afford such a luxury. Apple had to design an interface intended for use by millions of people. It had to be intuitive and robust. The Lisa team built the Lisa OS from the ground up with the intention of making it friendlier to novice users. The Lisa’s engineers realized that the PARC’s ideas had to be stripped down and rebuilt to more demanding specifications[2].

One of the primary differences of the Lisa interface was the implementation of direct manipulation – the ability to reach out into cyberspace and get things done without any mediation. The PARC depended on moving the cursor over pop-up menus. Lisa allowed users to move objects without reverting to the middleman of menus. For example, in order to resize a window on the PARC GUI the user had to use a menu. On the Lisa, the user could simply drag the window using the cursor[2]. The PARC GUI would not allow the user to move icons. Lisa OS allowed users to move around icons like one would move a coffee cup to the other side of a desk. The Lisa team developed innovations such as the menu bar (the row of white space that rests at the top of every Macintosh or Windows application) and the Wastebasket (Trash Can in Mac OS, Recycle Bin in Microsoft Windows). Many of the Lisa constructs found their way to the Macintosh, “incorporated” by Steve Jobs, who was kicked off the Lisa team in 1982.

Jobs’ disruptions of the Lisa project emboldened the engineers and executive to bounce him off, with the blessings of Apple’s chairman and president[3]. Wondering the halls of Apple Computer, Jobs came across a little project headed by a brilliant software designer, Jef Raskin. Raskin called the project Macintosh. Raskin intended the Macintosh to be a low-cost computer with a built-in bit-mapped display, built-in keyboard, and built-in file storage device (originally a cassette-tape drive). Jobs wrangled the project away from Raskin, eventually forcing him out. He soon moved the Macintosh team to use many of the Lisa team’s innovative creations, but he took the vision one step further. Ultimately, the Macintosh would go on to dominate the direction of the company while the Lisa quietly faded away, but in 1982, it was the Lisa project that was well on its way to beat the Macintosh out of the gate. The Macintosh languished in development for a further two years, while the Lisa team readied the Lisa for production.

The Lisa was a computer developed by committee. Since the Macintosh was a smaller project, changes to the interface could be made on an ad hoc basis. The Lisa team worked under a considerable bureaucracy. Since the Lisa’s primary customer would be business users, the team tended to be more conservative than the Macintosh team. This resulted in a good user interface, but one that lacked the inspired devotion of the Macintosh team’s Mac OS interface. There were differences in scroll bars on the side of the windows, on the title bars on the top of the windows, and even the addition of a three-dimensional shading effect on the Macintosh pull-down menus. There was the significant variation of allowing folders to reside within folders, ad infinitum. There was the innovation of the “Apple Menu,” a command on the left of the menu bar that would pull down a set of tools called “desk accessories” that would enable things like a calculator or a clock. These were things that pleased the Mac team, features they wanted on their own dream computers. Though this approach was less scientific than the Lisa team, it was arguably better[4].

The Macintosh was a more efficient computer than the Lisa. It sold for a fraction of the cost ($2,495 – Macintosh, $9,995 – Lisa), ran faster, and used less disk space and RAM. The only advantage the Lisa had over the Mac was a slighter larger screen. The Mac made extensive use of instructions hard coded in its ROM (the Macintosh Toolbox), while the Lisa depended primarily on the system software running on its mechanically slow 5.25-inch floppy disk drive.

Susan Kare, a visual designer, began work on the Macintosh team in 1983. Her primary responsibility was the “look” of the Macintosh. The Lisa did not have a counterpart that fretted over every pixel of every icon. Susan Kare’s work transformed the Macintosh from a great computer to an insanely great computer. It was her job to imbue the Macintosh with uniformly attractive and functional images[5]. She even designed the Mac’s original set of custom fonts, which were clearly lacking in the Lisa.

When the Mac finally shipped in early 1984, it had the effect of rendering the Lisa a bulky doorstop[6]. The Macintosh was not a son of the Lisa, it was more of a first cousin. The Lisa’s development undeniably influenced the Mac team, but the Mac’s eventual success and the Lisa’s sudden decline was Steve Jobs’ ultimate revenge for being booted off the Lisa team.

Although many of the innovations of the Lisa found their way to the Macintosh, a few “Lisa-isms” have been lost to history. The first version of Lisa OS did not have “double-click” functionality. For example, in order to open a folder, it was necessary to move the cursor over the folder icon, click the mouse to select the icon, and then choose Open from the File/Print menu. The Lisa had an unusual function that Apple described as “pulling a document”. It fit within the Lisa’s desktop motif. On the Macintosh, a user would double-click an application icon in order to launch the application, and application files (like a MacPaint document) were presented as a distinctive icon, which could also launch its parent application if double-clicked. On the Lisa, the user selected the application with a single click, moved the cursor to the File/Print menu, and selected “Tear Off”. This created the application document, similar to the way one would tear off a sheet of stationary from a note pad. Below is a scan of a few selected pages of the LisaWrite User Manual, copyright 1983, Apple Inc., demonstrating this process.

Apple finally buried the Lisa in 1986 after several revisions and price cuts. The Lisa never really caught on with consumers. It was too expensive and it just could not compete with the successful and spectacular Macintosh. In 1985, Apple attempted to re-brand the Lisa as the Macintosh XL, but differences in the bit-mapped display caused Macintosh software, graphics software in particular, to display incorrectly. The Lisa had been transformed into a Mac-compatible with the addition of Macintosh ROMs. Developers were not interested in writing native software for Lisa OS because of its small installed user base. Lisa’s greatest impact on the world was through its influence of the Macintosh. The Mac team learned a great deal from the Lisa project. The Macintosh encapsulated the best aspects of Lisa OS and avoided many of its shortcomings.


Mac Issues

At Mac Issues, we're dedicated to helping you learn how to use your Macbook properly. With tutorials, how-to troubleshooting guides & real reviews, hopefully we can make your day that little bit easier.

Read more from Mac Issues