As he lay his hands on Apple’s ikonoelastic Lisa, Richard King
goes through his mystical experience
Reprinted from Personal Computer News, 18th March 1983, pp. 50-55.
Please note that illustrations from this article are not currently available.
Write if you have this issue of Personal Computer News and could
Measured by the hardware specification, Lisa is not a micro. It’s a fair-sized
mini-computer studying to become a mainframe. What else can you call a machine
with a full-blown 16-bit processor, three subsidiary processors, a whole
megabyte of fast RAM, 6.74Mb of disk-space and a bit-mapped screen?
The machine tested was a pre-production US version, and because of this such
details as the packaging, documentation and completeness of the equipment
supplied could not be checked. It was using a late-development copy of the
software, and operates a little more slowly than the final version will
since it’s still running the concurrent debugger. In fact, I found
myself in it once, for no obvious reason.
A full reset was required to restart the system. Here the machine showed
some of the thought which has gone into it. When it started up again, it
announced that “Lisa has found an error on the disk. It will attempt
to restore all ikons [sic – MW] to their
The amazing thing was seeing all but one of the ikons go back correctly.
That’s error-trapping (More about the ikons later).
Overall, the construction appears to be sufficiently solid to stand up to the
rigours of office use. It consists of a main unit, on top of which sits the
5Mb Profile hard disk. Connected to the console are the
keyboard, the “mouse” and one or two printers. The usual one
is the Apple dot-matrix printer, which is specially designed to work with
Lisa does have documentation, but this was not available at the time of
testing. However, it really doesn’t need any, since it has a very
powerful “Help” utility which leaches interactively.
The micro is very simple in appearance, just a rather hunchbacked off-white
cabinet containing a 12in screen and two horizontal 5¼in disk-drives.
The drives are of a new type, which takes a specially-notched floppy. This
has two head-windows per side, opposite each other, and a large square
cut-out in one corner.
This design allows the machine to warn the user if the disk has been put in
the wrong way round. The double head-windows are there because the two
heads, instead of squeezing the disk between them, are on opposite
sides. This causes much less wear – indeed, the disk manufacturing
company Verbatim is prepared to guarantee its own Lisa-type disks for the
life of the computer.
There is a deep cutaway under the front of the console which has a socket
for the keyboard-cable and an illuminated button. This performs a hard
reset when pressed, but is sufficiently out-of-the-way to be unlikely to
be hit by accident. A bracket leg on either side prevents the cabinet
The keyboard is on the end of a coiled cable and has one of the eight or
so national versions or an ISO-standard layout with a combined numeric
Unlike many recent micros there are no rows of function-keys, since, as you
will see, Lisa has no need for them. The most unusual feature is that
symbols from any of the eight national character-sets may be written by
the user at any time.
The most useful part of Lisa is the mouse, a little box with a wire coming
out of it. This plugs into the main console at the back. It has a button on
the top, and on the underside a large ball-bearing in a cage. When you move
the mouse around, the ball rolls against three small wheels, which produce a
signal telling the computer where to point on the screen.
The screen display is black and white, very steady and clear.
At 720 × 364 the resolution is good, and the screen is bit-mapped.
This allows many different type-styles lo be displayed in sizes ranging
from 6 point (about the size of PCN’s small ads) to several inches,
as well as lectures, symbols and graphics all on the same screen.
There are several modes too, such as inverse, flashing, low-intensity
and combinations of these, which may be placed on various backgrounds. The
result is like looking at real printing, since one of the styles at least
has true proportional spacing.
Lisa’s main store is the Profile hard disk. This is where the
data-files that are generated are kept. The two floppy drives, each
holding 860 kilobytes, are used to store the main program modules and
In use, all the organisation of the disk is handled by one of the
subordinate processors, and the user never needs to know where a
file is stored.
Precise details of the three expansion slots are not yet available, but
it is believed that one is used for the printer-card, leaving the
others for such additions as communications interfaces. They are not
the same as Apple II slots, and will not use Apple II peripherals.
The operation of Lisa is where the machine really shows its paces.
It just doesn’t work like other machines. Instead of booting
the system, calling up the file catalogue, selecting a program and
then running it, or some equally complicated procedure, you see
an entirely different world.
The screen comes up with a grey tone overall, a white menu-bar
across the top, and little pictures scattered around. This is the
Lisa-desk, which is the normal operating environment. Each of the
pictures has a small label underneath.
There’s a picture of Lisa itself, labelled “preferences,”
the Profile, which says “filing cabinet,” a clock,
calculator, clipboard and rubbish-bin, and a picture of a Lisa-type
diskette labelled “stationery cupboard.” There are also
small rectangles with lags at the top, which bear names such
as “blank paper,” or “budget 1983-4.”
These little pictures are collectively called “ikons,” and their
shape is representative of their use. Thus the rectangles
are “folders” where documents are kept, and the Profile ikon
labelled filing cabinet is where the folders are kept.
There is also a little arrow on the screen which points NNE. This is the
mouse-pointer. When the mouse is moved around on top of a real desk
the pointer moves
about the Lisa-desk. It can be made to point at either an ikon or an item on
the menu-bar. Pressing the mouse-button twice either opens the ikon, which suddenly
gets bigger, or unrolls a menu.
The mouse is very helpful. If you have asked for a function which will take
a little time, the pointer changes into an hourglass: much more economical than “Please
wait a moment.”
Thus, moving the mouse to point to the stationery cupboard and “opening”
it makes it suddenly expand on the screen. Now a small version appears in the
top corner next to a larger label. Underneath are several folder-ikons,
Make the mouse now point to “spare stationery,” and it can be moved
out onto the desk-top.
Point to the stationery cupbonrd ikon, press twice, and it shrinks back to its
original size, leaving the spare stationery folder on the desk.
Point at that, press twice and look inside. More folders. Take one out and put the
rest awny. Look at the new folder labelled “cash-flow.”
Ahah! – a full set of blank pages prepared for doing the monthly cash-flow.
There’s a form for putting in the raw figures, an attached graph
and calculation sheets for budgeting, forecasts, and performance analysis.
Fill in the figures and watch the calculation take place.
Point at the menu-bar and select Edit. Snip out the results using the “cut”
option and leave them on the clipboard. Put that sheet away and get out the others,
cutting and pasting as necessary to transfer figures from one sheet to another.
Soon the job is done, filed and printed out. The four or five sheets which come out
of the printer are exact copies of what
you’ve just prepared on the screen, looking clean, neat and professional.
The interesting thing is that apart from the use of the mouse, you didn’t
do anything differently from normal, everyday procedure, did you? Nor did you have
to learn any jargon (ikon? Well, maybe) or even type anything other than the
words you’d have wnden, dictated or typed in the usual way.
This is what makes Lisa so revolutionary. The simple idea of treating everything,
including the machine itself, as objects which may contain other objects and
which have attributes.
Part of the subtlety is in the way an attribute is viewed in the Lisa system.
It is best considered as a cause rather than a result.
Take a door, for example. Paint it red. The door now has the attribute of being
painted red, or it does from the normal viewpoint. Considered ttom Lisa’s
viewpoint, the door causes red light to be reflected. The result may be
the same, but the Lisa attitude allows more flexibility.
Pointing at the picture of Lisa and pressing the mouse button twice allows the
user to set his personal preferences for certain functions. In other systems
this would involve some lengthy and complicated installation procedure.
The other ikons are thie same. The clock, and calculator explain themselves.
The garbage bin represents the only way of removing an unwanted document or folder
from the system.
The clipboard is very clever. It’s a stash, and on it goes the result of the
last “cut” operation. If you want to “paste” information
into a new document, the material added will be the top item on the clipboard.
Obvious... so obvious that we’ve never thought of it.
The programs in Lisa are seen as sheets of paper of different kinds. There’s
writing-paper, drawing-paper, graph-paper, list-paper, calculator-paper and
project-paper. That’s all you need, although you can set up pads of paper
with specified details and keep them in the stationery cupboard.
Each type of paper has similar attributes, so once you’ve learned how to
use one kind, the others are easy, since they all work the same way.
Lisa will be covered by Apple for a period of 12 months from purchase (as for all
Apple products) with a further year’s maintenance at 8 per cent of retail
cost. If the machine does go wrong, it can be returned to the dealer, who will
send it to Apple for replacement or repair.
An optional extended warranty will be on offer, though the cost has not yet been
finalised. In a new departure, Apple is also negotiating a special national
maintenance agreement for Lisa with a third party; formerly there was no
central co-ordination. Details should be released soon, and the company will
take Apple’s 8 per cent into account when setting the charges.
Lisa has little need of huge libraries of software, since just about anything
you could want to do on a desk is easy to do. However the Unix operating-system will
be available with its associated languages.
More interestingly, Apple says it will be releasing a toolkit in the near future
that will allow programmers access to the Lisa control-program. This means
that everyone will be able to invent their own ikons which will be be activated
just like the existing ones.
One possible ikon might be a small picture of an Enigma coding machine. I leave it
up lo the reader to imagine what that might do.
The nature of Lisa makes it impossible to measure its processing power in normal
terms. My subjective assessment is that it is much more efficient than
conventional systems, not least because all the programs and data-files are
immediately available to the system. That means no more disk-swapping.
No mini-builder would have the nerve to introduce a machine like this with a price
tag of less than £35,000. And with software that would probably mean spending
closer to £80,000, a fact which must be taken into consideration when assessing
Apple will be selling Lisa for $12,000 in the US and about £8,000-£10,000
in the UK. Put simply, for this much hardware that is dirt cheap.
When the incredible sophistication of the software is added to the equation,
Lisa simply falls off the graph. It is not valid to compare any other machine with it.
No exceptions. None.
The problem is that, even though the price is practically giveaway, it’s still a
big pile of pennies – outside the reach of most individuals. The majority of
buyers will be businesses, so it’s not going to be seen in everyone’s
The most significant thing about Lisa will be its effect on software development.
Hardware is still far more highly-developed than software.
The average program is a hopeless mess, and when integrated with other programs
– even those written by the same person – horrendous inconsistencies
appear in the resulting edifice.
Lisa shows us that there is a better way.
Programmers will be quick to learn the lessons, and we can expect to see a
vast improvement at the user’s end of programs in the near future.