A Little Bit of History



Apple began developing the Lisa computer in 1979. The Lisa charter was to build a revolutionary computer that was truly easy to use and thereby mitigate the limitations of existing computers.

Developing a computer which was an order of magnitude easier to use than traditional computers required several major departures.

The name "Lisa" has always been rather enigmatic for most computer users, including Lisa owners. To set the story straight (as far as I know) here are the facts behind the name "Lisa". Officially, Apple states that "Lisa" stood for Local Integrated Software Architecture. Unofficially, "Lisa" has been associated with the name of a child fathered by one of the Lisa designers (this may be the same person who is now head of Next Computer, Inc., Mr. Steve Jobs).

The Lisa had several design goals:

  • be intuitive
  • be consistent
  • conform to the ways people actually work
  • have enough performance to do the jobs that need doing
  • provide an open software and hardware architecture
  • be reliable
  • be pleasing and fit into an everyday work environment


The Lisa was built upon sophisticated hardware technology. This included a compact desktop unit containing a 12 inch black-and-white screen, and two revolutionary floppy disk drives called Twiggy.

The Lisa internally contained a 68000 processor and 1 megabyte of memory (expandable to 2 megabytes).

External to the Lisa's case was a keyboard and a rather rare (at the time) computer peripheral called a "mouse". The mouse was a key element of the Lisa's design.

Apple introduced the Lisa to the general public in January 1983 at a price of $9,995. In April 1985, after a life of one and a half years, Apple discontinued the Lisa in favor of its sibling, the Macintosh computer.

The development of the Lisa was a tremendous undertaking for Apple and basically required most of the company's resources, both financial and personnel. Apple reports that Lisa cost $50 million to develop and required 200 man-years of development effort. The story behind the development is a fascinating story in itself which should be more fully recorded. This paper will provide only a Reader's Digest version of the Lisa development history (a complete development history can only be written by the Lisa developers themselves, a history which this author does not think will ever see the light of day, alas!).

The Lisa may be considered a computer system that sprang from the loins of a host of successor systems. As such, many of the Lisa's "revolutionary" ideas were not really new (you may ignore the cries of the Apple marketers who think everything Apple does is new). The work by many computer companies over the decades (yes, decades) was used by Apple to design the Lisa. For example, Apple borrowed several key ideas from Xerox and its early Alto system.

In 1979 Mr. John Couch, Apple's head of software, was put in charge of a new Apple division called POS, Personal Office Systems. Mr. Couch's charter, as POS General Manager, was to develop and market the Lisa for the office system market (and provide a return on Apple's rather substantial Lisa investment).

From meager beginnings POS blossomed into a 300 person division with around 100 people devoted to the software and hardware development effort. Finally in charge of a division Mr. Couch was able to put together a team of very talented people from within Apple and from other Silicon Valley computer companies. The Lisa began life as a rather humdrum text based system, not a good sign for a "revolutionary" computer. After some field trips to a neighboring Silicon Valley computing center, Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), the Lisa developers (and some ex-PARC people who became Apple employees) embarked upon what became the Lisa computer as known to the public. One of the key changes at this point in the Lisa development history was the change from a text based system to a window based system (Xerox's Smalltalk development environment provided the inspiration for the Lisa's windows).

After repeated delays and two years beyond the initial Apple desired introduction date (January 1981), Apple unveiled the Lisa in late 1982 to selected outsiders. On 19 January 1983 Apple officially declared the Lisa a working system that would be deliverable in May 1983. Apple at this time hoped to mark the beginning of a new era in personal computers & establish the software technology standard of the 80's.

Apple's introduction of the Lisa hardware was also accompanied by a suite of revolutionary and sophisticated programs called the Lisa Office System (this program suite was later renamed "Lisa 7/7" by Apple). This suite consisted of 7 general application programs: LisaWrite, LisaDraw, LisaCalc, LisaGraph, LisaProject, LisaList, and LisaTerminal.

Apple supported new Lisa owners with an extensive set of well-written documentation and an innovative interactive self-paced training course based upon the LisaGuide program (Apple called LisaGuide an "interactive manual"). For hardware diagnostic purposes Apple provided the LisaTest program, though Apple appears to have discontinued the release of this program to Lisa owners in favor of sending the owners to the local friendly Apple dealer for Lisa servicing.

For a user "operating system" Apple created the Desktop Manager. This program was a file organizer and a program manager. It created the illusion of a "desktop" on which users could place files, move files, rename files, delete files, and run programs.

On the printer front Apple provided Lisa with three different printers all capable of printing exactly what the user saw on the Lisa's screen. The dot-matrix printer could print both high-resolution text and graphics. The daisy-wheel printer was unique in that it could also print graphics, tho the ribbon was used up very quickly for this task. Later in the Lisa's life Canon provided a color inkjet printer for the Lisa. Apple appears to have had plans to support a laser printer with the Lisa, but these plans were abandoned (Apple did have a $30,000 laser printer which Apple's Lisa developers used).

Apple's internal software development efforts centered around the Lisa Monitor development environment. This environment was text based and resembled the environments Apple provided for its Apple 2 and Apple 3 computer systems. The majority of Lisa programs were written in the Pascal language by Apple with a few programs written in 68000 assembly language. To give an idea of the size of this effort the Lisa operating system was written in around 90,000 lines of Pascal and each Lisa program (eg LisaWrite) contained somewhere around 50,000 lines each. The programmers used a wonderful window and mouse based editor called LisaEdit. Other languages included COBOL and BASIC.

For outside developers Apple provided a development environment for the Lisa called the Lisa Workshop. The Workshop was a decedent of the Lisa Monitor environment. With the Workshop a programmer could develop rather sophisticated programs using mainly the Pascal language.

A major software development effort by Apple focused on the Lisa Desktop Libraries. This collection of around 100 software modules provided the software foundation for Lisa Technology. These modules were used by all Lisa programs (eg LisaWrite) and were the main reason for the Lisa's consistent user interface.

A key component of the Desktop Libraries was QuickDraw, a fast and versatile graphics module which formed the basis for Lisa Technology. QuickDraw was written in around 40,000 lines of 68000 assembly language. After Apple developed the major Lisa programs Apple permitted outside developers access to the Desktop Libraries via the Lisa ToolKit.

During the Lisa's rather short life very few programs were written for the Lisa by outsider developers that supported the Lisa's revolutionary user interface. The main reason for this was Apple's inability to provide outside developers with a fairly simple development environment that allowed the developers to write Lisa-like programs without having to know a tremendous amount of technical details for the computer. Apple attempted to develop a "framework" program called the Lisa ToolKit. Tho Apple basically finished the ToolKit development Apple decided to not support Lisa software development and instead focus its resources on Macintosh development. Apple had also not documented fully nor designed in an easily understandable fashion the underlying software modules which formed the basis for the software component of Lisa Technology. Outside software developers were also hesitant to develop for the Lisa given its high perceived price and its low sales numbers.

A major headache for Apple during the development effort was the Twiggy disk drive. Named after the British fashion model (the drives, like the model, were thin) these drives proved to be a little too revolutionary for Apple. The Lisa contained two Twiggy drives. Consisting of a single 5.25 inch high density floppy (860K bytes) with software controlled automatic ejection mechanism, micro-stepping technology Twiggy proved detrimental to Apple and its Lisa schedule.

After introducing Lisa Apple wisely abandoned Twiggy in favor of the new more reliable 3.5 inch 400K bytes Sony micro-floppy disks. Complimenting the floppy drives was a ProFile hard disk drive (built originally for the Apple 3) holding 5M bytes of data (a 10M byte ProFile was later developed by Apple for the Lisa).

Apple spent a lot of time during Lisa's development testing Lisa features with real users. From Apple's literature on this topic the Lisa developers were occasionally suprised by the user testing results. The end product of these tests was a better Lisa system.

In the area of foreign languages Apple spent much time providing understandable foreign language translations for the Lisa software. Apple developed a very useful technical solution to the problem of "localization" via Phrase files. A phrase file contained all the phrases that a Lisa program could display to the user. These files simplified the translation problem by letting a language translator with minimal computer skills translate the phrases in the phrase file itself without having to delve into the highly technical source code for the program. The Lisa at power-on also supported foreign language diagnostic messages which were keyed off of the attached keyboard.

Apple planned to sell around 10,000 Lisas in the last half of 1983 and 40,000 Lisa in 1984. In retrospect, Apple was able to sell around 80,000 Lisas during its 18 month life. On the average Apple sold 4,500 Lisas a month or 13,000 Lisa a quarter, figures which were very close to Apple's initial Lisa sales projections (I believe Apple's sales were less than expected in the first months after the Lisa's introduction, but sales picked up near the end of the Lisa's life).

Apple faced several significant risks with Lisa's introduction.

On the technical front the software development effort was immense and could easily delay Lisa's introduction. The Twiggy disk drive proved barely workable, but was fixed by the use of the more reliable Sony 3.5 inch disk drives. The Lisa's printing technology was a risk since Apple was trying to get a dot-matrix printer and a daisy-wheel printer to basically emulate a high-resolution laser printer. The Lisa fonts and printer problems were resolved.

On the business front Apple had several very high hurdles to jump. Apple was unable to devote as much time as needed to helping outside developers. The Lisa's seven software programs were basically all the programs Apple had for the Lisa's introduction. Apple was dangerously on the edge of confusing the Lisa and Macintosh product lines. Apple's data communication's strategy appeared to be rather primitive (Apple did develop for the Lisa a network called AppleBus [later called AppleTalk], but Lisa networking never seemed to catch on with users).

After a year with the Lisa product line Apple's management came to the conclusion that Apple could only support a single line of computer. The Lisa lost, Macintosh won. The Lisa's name was changed to Macintosh XL ("XL" has been quoted as meaning "Extra Large" or "X-Lisa"). The Lisa was discontinued in April 1985 and the Macintosh computer became Apple's top end system (the existence of the Apple 2 series at Apple at this time will not be discussed in this paper tho it was very important for Apple financially). After the Lisa discontinuation Apple supported the Lisa hardware with a 5 year program of spare parts and repair services.

Besides the name change to Macintosh XL Apple also developed a software program called MacWorks that allowed the Lisa to run most types of Macintosh programs. MacWorks was basically Apple's gamble to sell its remaining inventory of Lisas to the Macintosh public which desired a higher powered Macintosh than the original low-end Macintosh 128K and 512K models.

The balance of Apple's Lisa inventory was sold to a Logan, Utah company called Sun Remarketing (1-800-821-3221). Sun continues to sell the Lisa today as a Macintosh. Apple's final Lisa collection was placed in a landfill by Apple several years ago (I'm not certain of the reason for this but believe it may have been a result of a lawsuit by several Apple stockholders concerning the Lisa).

The Lisa legacy at Apple, at least in a physical sense, is still somewhat alive. The Apple Corporate Museum houses a few functioning Lisas for display purposes (I've never seen this collection [the museum was closed for repairs the last time I was in Cupertino], but believe the Lisas may be running Macintosh software, not Lisa software).


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