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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 scan them.

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 former positions.”

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.


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 falling forward.

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 cursor keypad.

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 configuration files.

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, variously labelled.

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 value-for-money.

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 front parlour.

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.

by Richard King

Second opinion

I love Lisa

The next revolution in personal computing? Eliminates the need for expensive programmers? These are just some of the claims being made for Apple’s new Lisa. We’ve heard it all before – or something very like it.

But a second look at Lisa will soften even the hardest of cynics, and may even raise a shudder from the odd “expensive programmer.” It really is a micro you can use “with one hand tied behind your back.”

I’ve been in the computer business a fair number of years, including that time any number of “revolutionary” new ideas – in hardware, software, or systes and program design techniques – have been proposed.

“Brilliant innovations” regularly failt to make the slightest impact, and this has bred a degree of cynicism in me, and in the vast majority of old computer hands. We must be the despair of the bright young things propounding similar notions.

Anyway, PCN asked me to travel up to Apple UK. There I could see this absolutely marvellous new system they were about to launch. With it they would change the basis of microcomputing as we know it.

You will understand I was not immedialely convinced. But I came away from Apple in a rather different, and subdued, frame of mind. The Lisa hardware is impressive. There is one megabyte of RAM, a 68000 main CPU (with two or three less exotic ones beside), and so on. The software – well, here is something even a hardened professional has to admit is a breakthrough in user-to-computer communication.

But more importantly, Lisa promises to have a profound effect on the future of personal computing.

Few of the individual ideas that have gone into Lisa are original to Apple. For example, we’ve seen the mouse and the desktop screen before.

But what I find so impressive is the way that, put together, they present an absolutely consistent face to the user. It behaves the same regardless of which of the programs you are using.

On the top of this the whole system can be controlled by one hand, apparently resting idly on the desktop.

There is the mark here of one mind – a collective mind, maybe – which has imposed an iron discipline upon designers and programmers.

Because of this they have produced a system which is a whole, and not merely a collection of parts. I am consumed with envy of the designers and programmers who had the privilege of being involved in the production of this truly innovatory system. Lisa, I love you.

by Mike Whitney

Technical specifications

Price: About £8,000 (to be confirmed)
Processor: Motorola MC68000 running at 8MHz
RAM memory: 1 Mb
ROM memory: 16K, self-checking routines and bootstrap
Text screen: Up to 86 by 31, depending on typestyle
Graphics screen: 364 by 720 black and white
Keyboard: 77 key detached, All keys programmable
Interfaces: 2×RS232, 1 parallel, 3 ZIF connectors to system bus with DMA and vectored interrupts, memory-mapped.
Storage: 2×5¼ in Twiggy-drives, each 860k, plus 5Mb on ProFile
Other languages: Basic, Pascal, Cobol, Lisa editor development utilities
Distributor: Apple
Software supplied: LisaWrite, LisaDraw, LisaList, LisaGraph, LisaCalc, LisaProject

Page added on 22nd January 2005.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.