Macintosh: Back to the Future



Tho the Lisa is now a decade old, Lisa Technology still influences the Macintosh (and the Apple 2 computer series). The title of this section attempts to convey the idea that as the Macintosh product line matures it has in many ways approached the Lisa's technology of 1983.

When Apple introduced the Lisa in January 1983, the Macintosh was still under development. In January 1984 Apple introduced the Macintosh, a physically smaller version of the Lisa.

The Macintosh from a casual glance resembled the Lisa in many ways. But underneath, the Macintosh and the Lisa were totally different. The Lisa supported a multi-tasking operating system, the Macintosh supported single-tasking. The Lisa's extra memory (8 times larger than the Macintosh) and hard drive allowed larger more-sophisticated Lisa programs and larger data files.

The Lisa's Desktop Manager and its distinctive user interface were used by the Macintosh developers as a foundation for the Macintosh's Finder and its user interface.

A short list of Lisa legacy items from Mr. Larry Tesler's article "The Legacy of the Lisa" (MacWorld magazine, Sep. 1985) appear below (I've added the Software development list):


User interface

  • Menubar, pull-down menus, keyboard-activated menu commands
  • Printing dialog boxes
  • Appearance, structure, and operation of windows and scroll bars
  • Ability to move windows and icons by dragging with the mouse
  • Windows that zoom to open and close
  • Dialog and alert boxes with buttons and check boxes


  • QuickDraw graphics package
  • LisaDraw converted to MacDraw
  • LisaProject converted to MacProject
  • LisaWrite, LisaCalc, LisaTerminal influenced Mac applications
  • Lisa Desktop Manager influenced the Mac Finder design
  • Lisa printing architecture influenced Mac printing

    Software development

  • Lisa Pascal converted to MPW Pascal
  • Lisa Clascal influenced MPW Object Pascal
  • Lisa Workshop influenced design of Mac Programmer's Workshop
  • Lisa Workshop editor (LisaEdit) influenced editor design
  • Lisa ToolKit influenced heavily the Macintosh MacApp framework


  • Single-button Mouse design
  • ImageWriter printer

    The Lisa legacy may also be seen in its influence, thru the Macintosh at least, on the state of non-Apple microcomputers. This includes Microsoft Windows, Digital Research's GEM, and Commodore's Amiga DOS. If one looks at these systems closely one will see that they have a superficial resemblance to the Lisa (and Macintosh) environments. But many times below the surface one finds behavior that is reminiscent of the older PC-DOS and C/PM systems from long ago.

    Other Macintosh technical areas were also influenced by the Lisa:

  • System 7 Stationary
  • System 7 Apple Events
  • Finder's Print Monitor

    When I work with the Macintosh (eg a Macintosh II series machine) now (1993) I notice two prominent differences from the Lisa of 1984.

    First, the Macintosh is much faster than the Lisa. Editing complicated images in LisaDraw is almost an exercise in futility. Apple has made excellent strides in enhancing the speed of its Macintosh series. If Apple had kept the Lisa product line one could only assume that hardware speed improvements would have emerged as technology advanced. I've heard that Apple even developed a prototype Lisa based upon the 68020 processor, but canceled this project when Apple canceled the Lisa. This may have made the Lisa a much faster machine.

    Second, Macintosh seems incomplete in some areas. For example, the Macintosh Finder does not save the desktop and open application location and data states as did the Lisa's Desktop Manager. I miss being able on the Lisa to press the Lisa's power-off button and just walk away from the computer. I could do this because I knew the Lisa would save all my application data and turn off automatically. Later, when I wished to resume work with the Lisa I just pressed the power-on button and the Lisa showed me a screen matching the one I had left.

    I don't mean to criticize the Macintosh unfairly since it has in its own right contributed much to the field of personal computing. But from an overall perspective the Lisa was a result of a total system approach that delivered integrated functions with a consistent and high quality user interface. I can only speculate how this "total approach" originated but think it may have something to do with the experience and age differences of the Lisa and Macintosh development teams.

    From my readings it appears that the Lisa developers were about a decade older than their Macintosh counterparts. The Lisa developers came mainly from large computer companies (eg Xerox, HP, DEC) which dealt mainly with mini-computer class systems, while the Macintosh developers came mainly from Apple itself and its Apple 2 and 3 computer divisions. The Lisa developers also appear to have had a different perspective on programming than the Macintosh developers. The Lisa's core software was mainly written in Pascal, a high-level language. Macintosh core software on the other hand was written in 68000 assembly language.

    I can only hope that Apple will try to bring back some Lisa technology that is appropriate for its Macintosh (and newer) systems. For this hope to become reality Apple will need to preserve the Lisa development materials as best it can.

    Unfortunately, from my experiences with Apple in this area, Apple appears to have lost some of the Lisa materials already and does not seem too interested in spending time on what many at Apple may consider antiquated Lisa technology. I see the preservation of the Lisa design notes and the Lisa Office System source code files as very important for the continuance of the Lisa's legacy.

    Hopefully Apple will remove the confidentiality status of its Lisa materials in the upcoming years so that outsiders like myself may have access to this body of knowledge.


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