History of Apple Lisa at 40: The Flop that Influenced Macintosh

Apple Lisa Computer

Apple Lisa Computer. Image: Smithsonian National Museum of American History


Forty years ago, on January 19, 1983, Apple Computer introduced Lisa. It has well been called Apple’s biggest flop, but it’s accurate to say that without the Lisa computer, there would have been no Macintosh, and it is likely Microsoft Windows would not look like it does today.


In this article, I’ll address the following:

  • What was the Apple Lisa?
  • How did it influence the creation of Macintosh?
  • How did it influence Microsoft Windows?
  • What did it do for the NeXT computer?


Lisa at the Computer History Museum

But first, in celebration of the anniversary, the Computer History Museum (CHM) in Mountain View, CA, has received permission from Apple to release the source code to the Lisa software, including its system and applications software, as part of CHM’s year-long celebration of the “Art of Code” program. You may access the Lisa code here.

Additionally, earlier this week, the CMH hosted a meeting with some of the original Lisa development team. I attended the event virtually.


Apple Lias

Apple Lisa. Image: livestream from Computer History Museum.


History of Apple Lisa

Uniqueness of Lisa

Lisa software

Lisa Software. Image: Mac History


Apple’s Lisa was the first consumer-available personal desktop computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Unlike Unix or Microsoft DOS, or even the Apple II at the time, it did not use text-based “green screen” command line instructions but used icons on a white screen with a desktop metaphor.

It came bundled with a suite of seven “office” and productivity applications, including: LisaWrite, LisaCalc, LisaDraw, LisaGraph, LisaProject, LisaList, and LisaTerminal. LisaProject, a project management application, was used by NASA, the largest customer of Lisa. But third-party applications did not develop into an ecosystem due to the requirement to boot a different Operating System to do software development on Lisa. That same software development system was used for the first two years of Macintosh’s creation.

Its unique design harkened back to the Xerox PARC Alto machine, as I describe in more detail in my article on the history of Macintosh.


The name “Lisa”

Steve Jobs and Apple Lisa

Steve Jobs and Apple Lisa. Image: History.com


Steve Jobs, the head of Apple Computer (now known as simply Apple), considered this computer his “baby” and spent $50 million over four years to develop what he believed would be a revolutionary personal computer.

Initially, Steve Jobs said that the name was an acronym for Local Integrated Systems Architecture but later confessed to Bono that:

“obviously, it was named for my daughter,”

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose paternity he had denied for many years.

Even Andy Hertzfeld — whom I had met once at the Association of A32 Users, a popular Macintosh User Group in Silicon Valley — said when he was working on Macintosh software:

They did manage to reverse engineer an acronym for Lisa… but internally we preferred the recursive “Lisa: Invented Stupid Acronym”, or something like that.


The Fate of Lisa

Ultimately, Lisa didn’t succeed commercially and sold between 10,000 and 50,000 units before being discontinued in 1985. This was due, no doubt, to its $10,000 price tag, which would be equivalent to over $27,000 in today’s dollars.

Because Lisa was based on the Motorola 68000 CPU chip operating at 5 MHz — which didn’t have a Memory Management Unit (MMU) yet — the Lisa operating system was responsible for memory protection and cooperative multiprocessing, features not available on Macintosh for over a decade and a half after its introduction. This made performance relatively slow for Lisa. By comparison, today’s iPhone 14 Pro‘s A16 CPU operates at 3.46 GHz, almost 1,000 times faster.


Lisa’s Influence on Macintosh

Lisa and Macintosh

Lisa and Macintosh: Image: Mac History


But while it presaged Apple’s Macintosh, launched in 1984, in some ways, it was technically superior. Indeed, the final Lisa, called Lisa 2/10, was modified and sold as Macintosh XL.

  • The original Lisa had hard drive support and 1MB of RAM (Random Access Memory), upgradable to 2MB. Macintosh was introduced with 128KB of RAM.
  • Lisa came with two 871KB diskette drives called “Twiggy.” Macintosh had a smaller capacity 400KB Sony microfloppy drive.
  • Lisa had a higher resolution display and expansion capabilities. Macintosh was famously a “toaster” appliance with all-in-one capabilities that were not expandable by the typical end users.

Along with other considerations, the price for the original Mac was about a quarter of the cost of the Lisa.

Not only were many of the hardware and software features of Apple Lisa later borrowed by the Apple Macintosh Team, but several of the engineers were also “borrowed” from the Lisa Team, including Brad Silverberg, Bill Atkinson, and Rich Page.


Lisa’s Influence on Windows

While the Lisa/Mac GUI was not the first seen, it was the first commercially available. Microsoft’s Operating System for IBM and IBM-compatible PCs (Personal Computers) was MS-DOS. Microsoft Disk Operating System was used on many Intel x86 CPU-based personal computers during the 1980s. It was not until 1985 that Microsoft released Windows 1.0, a graphical operating system “shell” that sat on top of MS-DOS. While intending to compete with the Lisa/Mac GUI, it was not a complete operating system and did not gain much traction. It was only in the release of Windows 3.X, notably Windows 3.1, shipped in March 1992, that there was a considerable facelift, adding peer-to-peer networking.

But it was not until July 1993, with Windows NT, that Microsoft shipped a true top-to-bottom graphical operating system without any MS-DOS vestiges, especially for booting. This was intended to be a workstation-level operating system, not just for personal computers, and suitable for data center servers.

It was developed by a skunkworks inside Microsoft and led by former Digital Equipment Corporation developers Dave Cutler and Mark Lucovsky. It introduced concepts from an experimental version of DEC’s VAX VMS operating system and ideas from a joint IBM/Microsoft operating system called OS/2 to create a true 32-bit OS. (Full disclosure: I wrote the first competitive analysis of Windows NT while I was an Operating System Product Manager at Sun Microsystems.) The latest version of Microsoft’s Windows 11 traces its kernel history back to Windows NT. But its GUI goes back to Lisa.


What’s NeXT?

NeXT logo

NeXT logo


After Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple, he took with him some of his Lisa and Macintosh development team, including Rich Page and Susan Kare.

Additionally, he took Bud Tribble, who later worked for Sun Microsystems. Jobs’ next company was famously called NeXT. Tribble helped NeXT partner with Sun Microsystems on the OpenStep operating system, based on their own NeXTSTEP, a visually beautiful and workstation-class operating system.

NeXT was not a commercial success, selling only 50,000 units, despite their automated factory in Fremont, CA, being able to produce 150,000 per year. This sales shortfall could have been due to the unit price of $10,000.


How like Steve Jobs’ original Lisa.

Continued in Apple Lisa, part 2: Meet Its Creators


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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