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Go backA first look at Lisa

Apple’s electronic desktop could change the way you think about computers

Reprinted from Personal Computing, issue 3/1983, pp. 84-184. Part 1 of the article “New from Apple: Lisa and the IIe.”

Apple Lisa. Photographs by Mike Blake
This image can be zoomed
With the introduction of Lisa, Apple Computer Inc. has significantly advanced the state of the art of personal computers. The maverick Cupertino, California, firm has rethought what a personal computer should be. Simply put, Apple invested $50 million to design a machine that makes computer business applications a snap to learn and use. Sporting major innovations in hardware and software, Lisa is destined to change the course of the microcomputer industry during the next decade.

Priced in the $7000-$10,000 range, Lisa is at the upper end of the personal computer market. Apple has initially aimed Lisa squarely at Fortune 1000 companies, but the firm is also gearing up to support the needs of small-business customers and professional firms. What’s more, Lisa also affects the home computer user in that Apple intends to bring many of Lisa’s features down to new versions of the Apple II and III and to incorporate them in less expensive products.

What is Lisa?

You may put as many different documents on Lisa’s desktop as you wish. Shown here are documents created with Lisa Calc, Lisa Graph, Lisa Word [sic!], and Lisa List
This image can be zoomedYou may put as many different documents on Lisa’s desktop as you wish. Shown here are documents created with Lisa Calc, Lisa Graph, Lisa Word [sic!], and Lisa List
Unlike Apple, the name Lisa has a logical derivation going back to the early stages of the machine’s development. It stands for Local Integrated Software Architecture. That engineering jargon barely describes the finished product, however, and the acronym has little significance. Lisa is just Lisa – a personal office system.

To appreciate Lisa’s innovations, picture your office desk during a busy morning. You’re probably juggling several projects, each with at least one associated document. Perhaps the documents are placed in neat stacks around the edges of your desk with only the active file open in the center. Or, depending on your work style, several files may be spread across the center of your desk, partially overlapping each other. As you move from one project to another, you simply reach for a new file folder. Often, you may be studying information from two or more file folders at once.

Lisa is the electronic equivalent of this often cluttered but nonetheless essential command post. The machine offers features that correspond to all the paper shuffling and accounting activities you’re used to doing manually, but the paper has been replaced by electronically produced images. Before you can appreciate the powerful ideas embodied in Lisa, though, you’ll need at least a rough idea of the physical machine. A more detailed description will follow later, but here is a basic rundown.

Three separate pieces comprise the basic system: the main console containing the screen and two floppy-disk drives, a typewriter-style keyboard, and a palm-sized box called the mouse that is the primary means of controlling Lisa (see Meet the mouse, page 102, for background on this technology). The system is cooled by natural air flow (there is no built-in fan), and the disk-drive motors are off except during disk input/output operations. As a result, Lisa is silent during operation.

The video-display screen is your electronic desktop. Lisa’s software shows you icons (graphic representations) of all documents and tools (programs) to process your work. For example, a report is represented by the image of a sheet of paper and is identified with a title. Floppy-disk drives are portrayed by miniature images of floppy disks. An area for deleted information appears as a trash can.

Many of the icons can be opened into windows, allowing you to view their contents. For example, opening a disk icon gives you a complete view of all the documents and tools stored on that disk. You may open several windows on the screen at once, and you can position the windows as you choose, overlapping them just as you would papers on a desk. You can also enlarge or shrink each window. If a window is too small to permit viewing the entire document, you can scroll through the data in that window.

The mouse lets you move documents around, select menu options, and perform specific operations within various applications such as word processing and generating graphics. As you move the mouse around your desk, a pointer on the screen moves with you. By pointing to documents or menus and pressing the mouse’s button once or twice, you can execute various operations on documents or on the computer itself.

The keyboard is used primarily for entering data – document names, word-processing text, spreadsheet numbers, etc. You never need to type in commands; the mouse-and-menu system is a faster and simpler way to instruct the machine. To minimize the space Lisa occupies on your desk, the keyboard can be partially stowed in a recessed area at the base of the display cabinet. Fully opened, the entire system requires a desk space of about 19 by 21 inches, plus a 5- by 5-inch open surface for moving the mouse. With the keyboard stowed, the system fits into a 19-by 16-inch area.

The Lisa philosophy

The designers of Lisa (see Lisa’s design, page 96) identify three characteristics that set their machine apart from other personal computers today. First, the user interface was designed to be intuitively understood. Rather than feeling lost in a foreign world, the novice computer user should be able to feel confident that the system operates in a predictable and obvious way.

This intuitive quality is exhibited throughout the Lisa system, especially in the revolutionary use of graphics-and-mouse technology. Suppose you want to keep track of several letters. In most personal computer systems, you would append an identifier to the file name of each document (for example, Smith.Letter, Jones.Letter, Johnson.Letter). With Lisa you can take all such documents and use the mouse to put them in a folder labeled Letters. This folder appears on the screen as an icon. When you open it, you see individual document icons corresponding to each letter. Because the analogy to the physical world of correspondence folders is obvious and logical, the filing system is easy to understand.

Lisa, by the way, isn’t really the first computer to offer icons and mouse control. They were first used in research centers at various universities during the 1970s. Xerox pioneered their commercial use a couple of years ago in its 8010 system, more commonly known as the Star. The Star’s $15,000 price and paucity of integrated software, however, have inhibited its widespread use. Expanding and improving on the best features of the Xerox Star, Apple offers in Lisa the first personal computer application of graphics-and-mouse technology.

Lisa’s design allows drives and other components to be easily removed for servicing
This image can be zoomedLisa’s design allows drives and other components to be easily removed for servicing
John Couch, vice-president of Apple’s Personal Office Systems division, compares Lisa’s ease of operation with the demands of other computers. In operating a traditional computer, you must first think about what command you need to use, then try to remember the exact syntax of the command, and finally, type in the command on a keyboard. This sequence is repeated over and over as you perform various operations.

With Lisa, on the other hand, you can see all the options available at any given time and simply point to the one you want. There is no need to negotiate your way through an unknown world of commands or nested menus. At every junction, the graphics-and-mouse technology presents the user with a clearly displayed set of options simple enough to be intuitively grasped by the beginning user.

The second important characteristic of Lisa’s design is consistency. Regardless of whether you are editing text, drawing graphs, entering numbers, or copying files, many of the necessary operations are similar. Consistency dictates that these analogous operations work in the same way, regardless of the particular application.

In Lisa, consistency is the rule. To discard a document, tool, or even a collection of these, you always move it to the waste-basket icon. You don’t need to keep track of commands like Kill, Purge, Erase, and Destroy. To select an object, you always point to it and click the mouse’s button. To view a menu, you move the mouse to point to one of the menu titles always displayed at the top of the screen.

This sort of consistency of operations makes the system quite easy to learn, and it gets easier as you go along. Apple designers call this leveraged learning. Apple extensively tested Lisa with naive users and found that most were able to attain a reasonable facility and sense of confidence with the computer in as little as 15 minutes. By contrast, Apple surveys indicate it takes a novice 20 hours to become comfortable with the Apple II.

The third goal of Lisa’s designers was to build an integrated system. This means that the user does not simply run separate, unrelated applications programs; all the various tools and documents mesh and interact with each other. Furthermore, you do not explicitly run an applications program and then select the base document you want to work on. Instead, you start by selecting the desired document, and Lisa automatically provides the appropriate tool.

Data can be moved back and forth from one document or application to another without the need for intermediate files or conversion programs. You can, for example, take all or part of a spreadsheet, cut and paste it into a report, and do further “massaging” of the information before printing it. Alternatively, you can move the spreadsheet data directly into a business-graphics tool to create charts.

Integration is not unique to Lisa. Packages such as Visifile, Visitrend, and Visiplot allow you to pass data back and forth through standard-format disk files. However, these packages force you to use a multistep procedure for copying data into data-interchange-format files. MBA’s Context and Lotus Software’s 1-2-3 exhibit the integration to a fuller extent but are limited to a few applications.

In the initial release, not quite all of Lisa’s applications are fully integrated; you cannot move graphics into a word-processing document, for example. Total integration should become a reality in the near future, though.

Lisa hardware

Lisa’s rear panel easily opens off for adding memory and other enhancements – no special tools are required
This image can be zoomedLisa’s rear panel easily opens off for adding memory and other enhancements – no special tools are required
Complementing Lisa’s innovative design philosophy is its state-of-the-art hardware. Let’s start at the most basic level, the system’s microprocessor. Lisa uses a Motorola 68000 – the same chip that powers the TRS-80 Model 16, the Fortune 16:32, and the Corvus Concept. This microprocessor communicates with the outside world through a 16-bit-wide data bus, but internally it can handle data in 32-bit chunks or words.

By contrast, the IBM Personal Computer uses an Intel 8088 microprocessor with an 8-bit external data bus and an internal capability for 16-bit words. With some applications – graphics and high-precision computation are two examples – the wider data bus gives the 68000 advantages over the 8088. With other applications, though, it has little significance. Another advantage of the 68000 over the 8088 is its ability to address a larger memory. The 8088 can generate 20-bit addresses, giving it a memory capacity of 1 megabyte. The 68000’s ability to generate 24-bit addresses gives it a capacity of 16 megabytes.

Compared to today’s norm of 64K bytes of memory, 1 megabyte seems like plenty and 16 sounds like overkill, but Wayne Rosing, Apple’s director of engineering, believes that the mammoth memory capacity will stand Lisa in good stead. Based on his observations, Rosing estimates that computers need an additional 3 bits of memory-addressing space (an eightfold increase in actual memory) every two years just to keep up with ever more demanding software. By that reckoning, the IBM Personal Computer and other 8088-based machines will be feeling the memory pinch by the mid-eighties while Lisa and other 68000-based machines will have more than enough memory to keep up with software demands through 1990.

The purpose of all that extra memory is not to hold larger applications programs; it is difficult to imagine any application exceeding a 1- or 2-megabyte memory space. The extra memory’s value is in allowing many applications to be in memory at once, vastly increasing the speed and efficiency of each application. Multitasking (performing more than one application at a time) is also permitted by the exceptionally large memory space.

Initially, Lisa will have 512K bytes of memory on a single board. Adding an additional memory board in the built-in memory-expansion slot doubles the memory. Later, Apple plans to offer high-density memory chips, giving each board a capacity of 1 megabyte and increasing the possible total to 2 megabytes. Further exploitation of the 68000’s memory potential will be reserved for future models of Lisa.

Lisa in kit form? No, but this photo shows how thoroughly the unit can be disassembled without tools for replacement of individual modules
This image can be zoomedLisa in kit form? No, but this photo shows how thoroughly the unit can be disassembled without tools for replacement of individual modules
All of Lisa’s memory is parity-checked; an extra bit is added to each byte to detect memory faults instantly (bits, or binary digits, are the tiny on-off switches on which digital computers are based). The IBM Personal Computer pioneered this parity feature among personal computers, but Lisa takes it one step further. If Lisa detects a parity error in memory, the system can usually lock out the affected memory block and continue normal operation with the rest of its memory. Current software in the IBM Personal Computer causes the system to stop when a parity error is detected, and the computer cannot be used until the defective memory is replaced.

The video display

Now we come to the two most striking features of Lisa – the video-display screen and the mouse. The 12-inch screen displays black characters on a white background, the closest thing to ink on paper. Most personal computers display white characters on a black ground because it allows a less expensive electronic design to be used. On a white background, any flicker or hashing (short black lines appearing at random locations) is very evident and quickly causes eyestrain. The well-designed Lisa video display exhibits virtually no flicker or hashing.

If an unchanging image is projected on the screen of a cathode-ray tube long enough, the image can become burned into the phosphor surface, creating a permanent shadow on the screen. To guard against this, Lisa automatically dims the screen when the system is idle (i.e., when there is no keyboard or mouse activity for a certain time span). Pressing a key instantly restores the screen image to full intensity. Using the Preferences tool (a program that permits the user to customize many of Lisa’s operating characteristics), you can adjust both the timer that activates the dimming feature as well as the degree to which the screen dims. The Preferences tool also lets you set the contrast level that best suits your eyes and your particular office environment.

Screen resolution is 720 by 364 – the highest of any personal computer now on the market. Because Lisa’s screen is bitmapped, that high resolution is used at all times. Every dot on the screen is individually controlled by a corresponding bit (on-off switch) in memory. Whether you are looking at text or graphics, bit mapping is used to create the image. Other personal computers use character generators to create text characters, thus reducing the memory overhead and cutting down on the work load of the central microprocessor. But Lisa has memory to spare, and its 68000 microprocessor is fast enough to handle all the display work without significantly slowing down other operations.

The main advantage of full-time bit mapping is flexibility. Character sets can be extended or redefined simply by loading new tables into a memory bank. Lisa offers 11 typefaces of various styles and sizes, and each typeface can create normal, bold, italic, shadow, and underlined characters. Proportional spacing of characters can create text that resembles professional typesetting. Another benefit of bit mapping is the freedom with which text and graphics can be intermixed on the screen, allowing the creation of illustrated reports and annotated business graphics.

The mouse

The mouse, the basic means of controlling Lisa, is designed and manufactured by Apple. The unit consists of a textured ball suspended inside a case. Two friction rollers placed at a 90-degree angle to each other track the ball’s movements, and a third idler wheel stabilizes the ball. Optical sensors inside the mouse track the relative movements of the friction rollers and convert them into digital signals that are sent through a seven-wire cable to the mouse interface inside Lisa. The mouse works on a variety of surfaces, from Formica to wood. Some other commercially available mice are more particular about what surfaces they will run on.

Lisa’s mouse is also unique in that it has only a single button on top (other mice have as many as three). Lisa designers experimented with various button configurations before deciding that more than one button complicates the use of the mouse. They found that many users have a problem with finger coordination and must look away from the screen to the mouse to be sure they press the correct button. The single button can accommodate many functions; clicking the button once selects an item, clicking it twice opens a window, and so on. Using the Preferences tool, you can change the time value used to distinguish between a double click and two single clicks.

Inside Lisa, a National COPS microprocessor keeps close track of mouse movements and translates them into pointer motions on the screen. The relationship between the mouse’s movement and the movement of the display’s pointer is software-controlled. For example, for ordinary use, the screen can be mapped onto a 3- by 3-inch mouse area; a 3-inch sweep of the mouse takes the pointer from one end of the screen to the other. For more precise applications such as drawing, a larger mouse area can be created so that large movements of the mouse create small movements on the screen. The software that translates mouse movements into, pointer movement responds to the mouse’s speed as well as the direction it moves. Very rapid motions will cause the pointer to move a disproportionate distance, allowing you to skip across the screen with a short, rapid push of the mouse.

The keyboard

The keyboard is used for enterind data; you select commands with the mouse
This image can be zoomedThe keyboard is used for enterind data; you select commands with the mouse
Lisa’s 73-key keyboard is simple compared to the layouts found on computers like the Digital Equipment Corporation Rainbow 100, IBM Personal Computer, and NEC Advanced Personal Computer. For example, Lisa has no function keys. Much of this simplicity is due to the graphics-and-mouse technology for menu selection and program operation. Special key sequences are available, however, by using the Apple and Option keys in combination with ordinary keys. Some of the applications programs give you a choice of using the keyboard or the mouse for executing special functions.

Every key repeats when held down long enough, and a built-in speaker beeps softly when you make an error. Using the Preferences tool, you can change the beep volume, the delay before key repetition starts, and the rate of repetition.

From a programmer’s standpoint, the keyboard is quite sophisticated. It is controlled by a National COPS microprocessor. The keyboard provides N-key rollover, meaning that you need not release one key before typing the next. “Theoretically,” says Wayne Rosing, “you can play the keyboard like a piano.” In fact, you can press any number of keys in sequence without releasing any of them; every key will be recognized properly. With many personal computer keyboards, pressing certain keys together generates spurious key codes. (For example, pressing J, K, and L together might generate the code for A.) Furthermore, two distinct codes are produced when a key is pressed down and released. These features give the programmer almost unlimited flexibility in designing control functions for the keyboard.

Floppy disks

The built-in drives prevent you from swapping disks improperly and losing data
This image can be zoomedThe built-in drives prevent you from swapping disks improperly and losing data
For mass storage, Lisa has two built-in 5¼-inch floppy-disk drives. These devices, manufactured by Apple, incorporate several technological advances. Most important to the user, the drives have no doors. To insert a disk, you just slip it in. Lisa senses that you have presented it with a disk and loads it automatically; a new disk icon appears on the screen to verify loading. To remove a disk, you press a button and Lisa ejects the disk after it has closed all open files and taken care of other essential disk bookkeeping. In accordance with Lisa’s philosophy of foolproof design, this innovation means that you cannot destroy data by inserting or removing a disk at the wrong time (as you might with any other disk-based personal computer on the market today). At first, this system can be a little disconcerting – you can’t have the disk until Lisa says you can. Keep reminding yourself that Lisa knows best (see photo on page 86).

A similar precaution protects against turning the computer off at the wrong time. Lisa has a software-controlled on-off button rather than a physical switch. When you press the button to turn the computer off, Lisa begins clearing the desktop, restoring each document to its appropriate place on floppy or hard disk. Only when everything is in order will Lisa turn itself off. The process of clearing the desktop may take quite a while (depending on how much you have on the desk), but Lisa’s careful filing of all information dispels the fear of losing a day’s work.

Lisa uses high-density, nonstandard floppy disks.
This image can be zoomedLisa uses high-density, nonstandard floppy disks.
Each drive has 860K bytes of formatted storage, as opposed to 320K bytes for most double-sided double-density 5¼-inch drives now available. System programs nearly fill one drive; the other is available for document storage.

To attain this dense storage without sacrificing reliability, Apple has introduced several design novelties. A Synertek 6504 microprocessor (comparable to the 6502 chips that runs the Apple II) controls the disk drives. Disk rotation speed varies with the track being used so that the recording density is fairly uniform across the entire disk surface. With fixed-speed floppy-disk drives, optimum density is achieved only on the innermost tracks, resulting in a loss of efficiency on outer tracks.

Another innovation for personal computers is the redundancy built into Lisa’s disk-storage formats. Each physical record of data (called a sector) contains an extra 24 bytes of self-identifying information. If a disk directory becomes garbled, Lisa can scan through all the sectors and piece the individual files back together again. With most disk systems, the loss of the directory renders the entire disk unreadable. This protective redundancy costs the system only some 9K bytes of overhead per disk, leaving the user with 851K bytes available for data storage.

Lisa does not use standard 5¼-inch double-sided double-density disks. The disk medium used is designed for high-density storage (10K bits and 62.5 tracks per inch). A unique envelope with two read/write windows is used because the two read/write heads in each drive are offset rather than placed directly opposite to each other. Lisa designers introduced this new design to reduce disk wear and provide a more reliable contact between the heads and the disk surface. At this time Apple is the only supplier of these nonstandard Lisa disks.

Considering that Lisa has a physical memory capacity of 2 megabytes, the combined floppy-disk capacity is hardly sufficient for every application. One drive is filled with system programs, leaving only 860K bytes for data storage, not enough to back up the contents of Lisa’s internal memory. Speed of access is another question mark for exclusive floppy-disk operation. Clearing the desktop at the end of the day might take three times longer using a floppy disk than it would using a hard disk. Furthermore, only one or two applications may be present on the desktop in a floppy-disk system because of the storage limitations of the floppy disks. This somewhat defeats the ability to move data freely between many different applications, which is a primary feature of Lisa. As a result, a hard disk will probably be a necessity for many users. Apple has recognized this eventuality in making the 5-megabyte Profile hard disk available for Lisa. The Profile rests neatly atop the display cabinet, and additional hard disks can be added and placed elsewhere.

Other built-in features

Several important input/output (I/O) systems are integral to Lisa: a parallel interface for an optional printer or the Profile hard disk; two RS-232C interfaces, each capable of asynchronous or synchronous operation; a composite-video output for connecting a second display screen (to be used in group presentations); and a speaker.

For additional expansion, three I/O slots are available. Each is capable of providing direct memory access (DMA) to an external device. DMA allows data to be read from or written to memory at high speed without tying up the central microprocessor.

A built-in real-time clock and battery-powered memory keep track of time even while the primary power is off. The battery-powered memory also stores information used to power up the system according to your preset preferences.


Local area networking is the buzzword of corporate management today, and without this capability Lisa would have little appeal to Fortune 1000 companies. The surprise is that Apple chose not to follow one of the existing systems such as Omninet or Ethernet. Instead, it has created A-net.

For those who seek standardization, it’s not so bad as it sounds. A-net is actually compatible with Ethernet on the higher levels and can easily be upgraded to Ethernet via a black-box converter.

According to Ric Tompane, Lisa hardware product manager, no existing communications system could meet Apple’s design goals. The system had to be:
Simple to install. Thin, unshielded Omninet cable should ideally be installed inside conduits for reliable operation. Adding a terminal to Ethernet requires puncturing the cable using special tools and procedures. A-net, on the other hand, uses precut lengths of cable with connectors on each end. Because A-net cable is shielded and somewhat stiff, no conduits are required.
Reliable. Omninet’s unshielded cable is susceptible to interference from lightning and other electrical noise. Apple engineers claim A-net will be even more immune than Ethernet to interference.
Extensible. With some network schemes, only a fixed configuration is possible. A-net can connect any combination of Lisas using up to 32 cluster boxes with as many as four Lisas on each cluster box. The main cable can run up to 2000 feet (see box on page 93). If more nodes are needed, one A-net can be connected through a gateway Lisa to another A-net system.
Inexpensive. Ethernet connections cost about $2000 each, but A-net connections will cost under $500, most of which is for the A-net interface card.

Of course, there’s no free lunch in networking: A-net is 10 times slower than Ethernet. A-net allows communications at up to 1 megabit per second; Ethernet allows 10 megabits per second.

Apple expects to make A-net available sometime this year.


In the business world, striking displays are of little value unless you can get good hard-copy reproductions. Lisa’s designers recognized this fact and have created two printers that fully support the display features.

You can choose either a dot-matrix or a daisy-wheel model, priced at about $700 and about $2100 respectively. Both printers are modified versions of currently available units and include custom firmware (software in preprogrammed memory) that allows for an efficient interface with Lisa’s bitmapped display system. Thanks to this firmware, either printer can accurately reproduce Lisa text and graphics (see box on page 93).

The dot-matrix printer is able to make a dot-for-dot reproduction with stunning results. Some of the outputs of this printer look remarkably similar to those of laser printers. Dot-addressable printers have had this capability for quite a while, but the software to make use of it has been lacking. The printer uses 8½-inch-wide paper, but for printing wider documents you can use the special landscape mode, in which everything is rotated 90 degrees to give you 11 inches or more for each line of text or graphics.

The daisy-wheel printer employs a special wheel with 130 petals. Like the dot-matrix model, this printer can reproduce anything on the screen. Several typewheels are available. When the typeface to be printed is on the daisy wheel, it is printed as an impact character. When the character is not available or when a graphics image is being reproduced, the printer uses dots to approximate the screen image.

Dot-matrix and daisy-wheel printers aren’t the fastest way to get high-resolution graphics reproductions, but they are very cost-effective compared to laser printers costing more than $20,000. To improve the efficiency of Lisa, printing can be done as a background task while you continue to use the computer for other work.


We’re not quite through unwrapping all of Lisa’s surprises. Lisa is entirely a modular machine, and just about every one of its modules can be removed and replaced without any tools at all, not even a screwdriver.

For example, suppose the disk drives are acting up. First you use diagnostic software to confirm that they are at fault. Open a few latches, turn a thumbscrew, and you can pull the disk module out of the cabinet. Pulling off two card-edge connectors frees the module from the computer so a replacement can be installed. The process of swapping drives should take no more than five minutes.

All of the circuit boards – microprocessor, memory, input/output, and expansion – can be installed or replaced with similar ease. The entire cage that holds the circuit boards can be removed and replaced, as can the power supply. Color-coded latches and polarized plugs prevent incorrect installation of any modules.

Maintenance of the system is also simple. The front panel comes off the main cabinet to permit cleaning of the display’s glare screen. A spill shield under the keys protects the key contacts from liquid spills. The Lisa owner’s manual explains how this spill shield may be cleaned with the keyboard held upside down over a sink.

Apple engineers think Lisa’s mouse will be far more reliable than other designs used in the last decade at research institutions. During testing, engineers racked up an estimated 97 miles of travel on a single mouse without any breakdowns.

Mice face a problem when they go from research labs to the workaday world because most desktops are far from being laboratory-clean. Ashes, bits of rubber eraser, and coffee spills are the order of the day. As a mouse rolls across this debris, some of it will be picked up by the ball. Eventually, such dirt will interfere with the mouse’s performance, reducing its sensitivity or causing uneven response.

Apple has faced this problem squarely by designing its mouse to be serviced by the user. All you have to do is turn the mouse over, unscrew a retaining ring around the ball, place your hand over the ball, and turn the mouse right-side up again. The ball drops out into your palm, allowing easy cleaning of the tracking rollers and the inside of the case. (Other mice must be cleaned by service technicians.)

This level of user maintenance breaks new ground for personal computers, but it is clearly the way of the future.

Lisa software

Most personal computer disk systems offer some sort of operating system along with BASIC or another high-level programming language as their core software. Lisa, however, offers the desktop manager, the visual environment in which all applications are run.

The desktop manager creates the electronic desktop that is constantly displayed on the screen, with its icons that correspond to tools, documents, and devices. An application is said to be integrated into the desktop if it can be accessed using the icons, mouse, and windows as described previously.

The only tools included with the desktop system are a clock that features both analog and digital display and a desktop calculator complete with standard calculator buttons that you press via the mouse.

With the first release of Lisa, six integrated applications or tools are available at costs of $300-$500 each. A seventh general-purpose communications tool is also available. These seven tools are described in the following paragraphs and illustrated in the corresponding photographs.

Lisa Write

Lisa Write
This image can be zoomed
This word-processing tool shows off Lisa’s capabilities to the fullest. The bit-mapped display lets you see text exactly as it will be printed, including the typefaces to be used. By using oversized characters, you can create stationery pads complete with graphic letterheads and borders.

Lisa Write’s page-formatting process is extremely simple. Using a graphic ruler (metric or English, take your pick), you set the left and right margins. Turn the ruler vertically to set up the top and bottom margins. (You can’t do that very easily with a manual typewriter!)

During editing, the mouse is usually much more efficient than typical cursor-control keys for selecting text blocks. But if you don’t want to remove your hands from the keys, special key combinations are available to perform many of the mouse’s functions.

Lisa List

Lisa List
This image can be zoomed
As its name suggests, this is a list-oriented database manager. Your data is displayed at all times as a list – actually a table containing one or more columns. Although not an extremely powerful or versatile system, Lisa List is easy to use and quite suitable for maintaining the kinds of data many people use every day, such as telephone lists, employee records, company address files, card files, etc.

Data formatting and querying of the completed database are both done by example rather than by type codes or other nonintuitive methods. To specify a phone-number entry, you type 999-9999. To get information from a complete list, you type the search key into a blank list entry using literal values or descriptive terms such as greater than, less than, between, etc. Lisa List will then find the matching record.

Lisa List has eight data types (text, number, date, money, time, social-security number, phone number, and zip code), each of which has its own sorting system. For example, when times are sorted, 12 a.m. precedes 1 p.m. During data entry, Lisa List checks to see that you type the correct kind of information for each field in the database.

Lisa List’s report generator lets you to print out any or all columns in a list over any range of entries. You can rearrange columns and add new columns any time.

Lisa Calc

Lisa Calc
This image can be zoomed
Lisa’s version of the electronic spreadsheet has a number of distinctive features. Most significantly, spreadsheet data can be moved directly into Lisa Write or Lisa Graph to prepare reports and graphic presentations.

The mouse is perfect for the constant manipulation that spreadsheet work involves; you can even use it to adjust column widths. The ability to display small characters lets you view large sections with lines of up to 150 characters. Spreadsheets may be as large as 256 rows by 256 columns, and they can be split horizontally and/or vertically to view several separate sections at once.

A number of mathematical, financial, and list-processing functions are integral to Lisa Calc, and you can also define your own. Mathematical calculations are displayed to 15 digits of precision, an important feature for business and scientific applications. Numbers are stored internally using 80 bits of information according to IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards.

Lisa Draw

Lisa Draw
This image can be zoomed
“As you can see, I’m not a great artist, but...” This apology echoes through business meetings and presentations across the corporate world, but a program such as Lisa Draw can end all that. With this powerful tool, the average person can produce drawings that look remarkably professional.

Lisa Draw allows you to use a number of basic shapes (boxes, circles, areas, etc.) and free-form lines to construct a rough approximation of the desired drawing. Once you have selected a shape and moved it into the drawing area, you can adjust its size or position instantly. A replication function lets you line up duplicates of anything you have drawn. A wide variety of shading patterns is available, and any of these may be applied individually to any region on the drawing. If you want to center one object inside another, you don’t have to “eyeball” it and hope for the best; a centering function does it instantly.

When you’re finished with the drawing, you can get copies from the printer in a variety of page sizes. In later releases, you will be able to move Lisa Draw creations into word-processing documents.

Lisa Draw is one of the most enjoyable programs I’ve ever used. Its only possible drawback is that managers could become so completely enthralled by it that they might forget about the rest of their jobs.

Lisa Project

Lisa Project
This image can be zoomed
Lisa Project is a project management tool offering visual flowcharts in formats such as PERT (Performance Evaluation and Review Technique), Gantt, and task charts. Using the system requires no prior knowledge of PERT or Gantt systems of project management.

The tool allows you to generate schedules based on a variety of independent and interrelated tasks and resources, early- and late-start days, and varying days to completion. Given all this information, Lisa Project identifies the critical path – that sequence of related tasks that has no slack and cannot fall a day behind without affecting the entire schedule.

The most important feature of Lisa Project is the ability to juggle resources and tasks and then instantly see how the entire project is affected. Ordinarily, this kind of refiguring would take hours. Completed charts can be printed out or moved into Lisa Draw for customization such as highlighting text boxes with shading, enlarging headings, or changing type styles.

Lisa Graph

Lisa Graph
This image can be zoomed
This program takes tabular data from Lisa Calc or from keyboard entries and represents it in any of a variety of graphic forms. Charts are displayed in a split-screen format alongside the tabular data. You can change the data from the keyboard and instantly see how the changes affect the charts. The input data can include up to eight data sets (columns) with up to 2000 data points.

Graph titles, subtitles, axis labels, and footnotes are provided automatically and can be edited and formatted according to your preferences. The resulting chart can be moved into Lisa Draw for further customization or can be printed out directly using one of four available page sizes.

Lisa Term

Lisa Term
This image can be zoomed
A seventh general-purpose tool called Lisa Term allows Lisa to emulate a standard VT100, VT52, or TTY (Teletype) terminal while retaining all of the features inherent in the electronic desktop. Data received via Lisa Term can be moved into Lisa Write documents for word processing.

When connected to the special modem to be offered by Apple, Lisa Term will dial a telephone number you type in on the keyboard or automatically dial pre-stored numbers. Communications-status lights are displayed on the screen to keep you aware of what’s happening on the telephone line. A full selection of communication rates and protocols is available from the menu.

Other software

These initial offerings satisfy the primary needs of the electronic office. Business, science, and other specific applications will come later. Apple will offer standard programming languages including BASIC, Pascal, COBOL, and even the revolutionary Smalltalk development system. These languages will not be integrated into the electronic desktop, at least not initially. When running these program-development systems, Lisa will operate more as a typical text-and-keyboard computer.

Apple plans eventually to introduce a tool kit that will enable programmers to create applications that are integrated into the electronic desktop. Until the toolkit is available, outside programmers will have trouble matching Lisa’s in-house programs.

Several leading software houses have preproduction versions of Lisa and are developing applications for it. Given its graphics capabilities, Lisa is a natural for use in graphics arts and computer-assisted design and manufacturing. Of course, the software would cost far more than Lisa’s applications.


The version of Lisa I used was not quite the final one, so some of my observations and conclusions are tentative. Speed of operation is one example. The system I used was still running diagnostic software underneath the application and thus was slowed down considerably. Lisa programmers said the performance would be vastly improved when the diagnostics are removed. If you’re going to see Lisa demonstrated, pay close attention to how long it takes to get documents from disk, put them back onto the disk, and move information from one application to another. I expect you’ll find the speed quite acceptable.

What about backups? They are automatic in many systems – after a certain time has elapsed, the system automatically copies your work to the disk. This protects you from losing lots of work in a power failure. Lisa designers chose to leave the responsibility for backups to the user. “We wanted the system to be predictable, with no unexpected events occurring,” says Wayne Rosing. It would be uncharacteristic for Lisa to suddenly turn on the disk and copy the workspace to it. For the sake of consistency, automatic backup was not included in the system.

Security is another function not built into Lisa. Many of today’s computers offer password protection for disks, files, and even for fields within files, but Lisa has no password protection at all. Lisa designers decided that passwords are inappropriate in a personal computer. Once again, they opted for consistency in overall design. The individual files in your desk are not protected because the desk itself can be locked. By the same token, Lisa files and information need not be password-protected. Instead, you simply keep the disks locked up when not in use. Security will have to be provided once Lisas are connected in a network because the information will no longer be controlled by one person.

It is difficult to find anything to criticize about Apple’s Lisa – except perhaps that its price puts it beyond the means of the typical individual. However, even that criticism is tempered by the fact that Lisa will very likely redirect the entire personal computer movement and lead to the introduction over the next few years of Lisa-like features on systems under $5000 (perhaps even under $1000).

Features such as the mouse and the icons will be easy to copy; you can expect to see them soon as trappings on traditional personal computer systems. But the essential properties that distinguish Lisa – intuitive ease of operation, consistency, and integration of software – cannot be mimicked. This kind of system can be designed only from the ground up.

by George Stewart

George Stewart is a senior technical editor of Popular Computing.

“Icons for the electronic office”
“At a glance”
“Printers for Lisa”

Page added on 2nd October 2006.

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