A member of the Lisa development team reflects on how the Lisa changed
Reprinted from MacWorld magazine, issue 5/1985. Courtesy Rob Bedeaux.
On April 29 Apple announced that it would cease production of the Macintosh
XL computer, formerly known as the Lisa. As a member of the group that
helped create the Lisa, I couldn’t help but feel a pang when I heard the
news. Yet my overriding feeling is one of gratification. In its brief
product cycle, the Lisa changed people’s expectations of a personal
computer. Among Apple products, the Lisa spawned not only the Macintosh but
also the MouseText option on the Apple II (see “The Lisa’s
influence” below). Even IBM PC products were heavily influenced by the
technology, including VisiCorp’s VisiOn, Microsoft Windows, Digital
Research’s GEM, Ashton Tate’s Framework, and IBM’s Topview.
The user interface was the most publicized characteristic of the Lisa.
It introduced a host of ideas that have been widely emulated, ranging from
how columns are widened in a spreadsheet to how people are notified
of mistakes and problems. When the Lisa development team designed the user
interface, we borrowed good ideas from wherever we could find them. For
example, the Lisa borrowed pop-up menus and overlapping windows from
SmallTalk, status lines from VisiCalc, and automatic removal of extra
spaces after text deletion from Douglas Engelbart’s research at SRI
But the Lisa user interface was not a copy of any that preceded it; it was
distinctive. It was the first to feature the now familiar menu bar, the one
button mouse, the Clipboard, and the Trash can. Although the Xerox Star had
icons, the Lisa was the first product to let you drag them with the mouse,
open them by double clicking, and watch them zoom into overlapping windows.
To minimize the time it would take people to learn to use the Lisa, Apple
technical writers, programmers, and marketers struggled for two years
to find suitable terminology to appear in menus, dialogs, alerts, and
manuals. Our foreign-language translators spent months more choosing the
corresponding terms in English, Italian, German, Spanish, and other
It may come as a surprise that terms like Revert, Plain Text, Align Left,
Clipboard, and Panel were difficult to coin and even more difficult
to agree upon. When we studied VisiCalc, we discovered that people had
trouble interpreting the term General Format, which means that a number
typed into a spreadsheet cell is right justified, while text is left
justified. After extensive brainstorming and testing of LisaCalc, we chose
Words left, numbers right, which was self-explanatory if a bit verbose.
Much has been made of the high cost and five-year development time of the
Lisa. True, the development was expensive, but it did not take five years.
The first Lisa was shipped in May 1983. Five years earlier, in 1978, Apple
had launched a project codenamed “Lisa,” but that project’s goal was quite
different from what the Lisa eventually became. In early 1980, after
Apple’s senior staff visited Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)
to see a demonstration of Smalltalk, the goal was completely redefined.
Only the code name, some of the hardware components, and a few of the staff
members stayed the same.
I was a PARC employee who gave Apple the Smalltalk demonstration. Impressed
by the perspicacity of the visiting Apple staff members, I resolved to join
their company, which I did in July 1980. Rich Page had just built the first
Lisa prototype incorporating a sample 68000 microprocessor from Motorola.
Apple’s small but energetic Lisa development team was debating the relative
merits of one two-, and three-button mice. No software had been designed
except a tiny prototype of LisaWrite written on an Apple II. Some thought
had been given to the user interface, but there was no menu bar, no icons,
and only one scroll bar on the left side of each window.
In the summer of 1980, a group headed by Bill Atkinson and myself defined
the ground rules of the user interface. Today those rules are familiar
to anyone who uses a Macintosh or a Lisa. Bill prototyped pull down menus
and a one-button mouse, along with alternatives to this scheme. I had
a number of people use the prototypes to compare the relative merits
of those designs.
That autumn Bruce Daniels hired most of the Software Group. Although the
majority had never seen a mouse before, they plunged into the design of the
operating system, the Window Manager, QuickDraw, LisaCalc, LisaDraw,
LisaGraph, LisaList, and the Desktop Manager (Finder).
As manager of the 20-person Applications Software Group, I was pressured
constantly for schedules and priorities. My associate, Peggie Stanford,
tried a number of project scheduling programs, bur none were satisfactory
One day, at a meeting of my staff, I described my dream scheduling system.
Steve Young mentioned the concept to his wife, Debbie Willrett. She
promptly quit her job at another computer company and in a few incredible
weeks created the first prototype of LisaProject. We relied heavily on that
program throughout the remainder of the development period. The marketing
department was impressed by its utility and decided to make it a product.
One story that was exaggerated in books and articles was the tension
between the Lisa and Macintosh teams. As in any friendly rivalry, some
individuals took the competition too seriously. By and large, the teams
gave each other both moral and technical support. Half the Macintosh
programmers came from the Lisa group, and most of those were working
on both Lisa and Macintosh tasks at the same time. We were saddened when
the merger of our divisions forced the elimination of many duplicated and
obsolete jobs, but most of the displaced employees found positions
elsewhere in the company and the rest discovered that Lisa developers are
well-regarded in Silicon Valley.
Newspapers and magazines like to feature stars, and as a result a few
members of the Lisa team received the lion’s share of tile publicity and
credit for the product. Everyone who worked on the Lisa knows that it was
a team endeavor. My most lasting memory will be of how much everybody cared
about the quality of the product. Every 80-hour work week, every canceled
vacation, every hot debate, and every wrenching management decision was
motivated by one common driving force – we wanted our product to be the best.
By my reckoning the Lisa engineering effort took three years from product
definition and first prototype to full production. In the end we had
produced the first multitasking windowing system for a personal computer.
In my opinion the Lisa Office System still outclasses its IBM PC imitators
more than two years after its first public demonstration.
I am sure that every former member of the Lisa Development Team is proud
of our accomplishment. We put our hearts, minds, and lives into fulfilling
a dream. Its role in the product line will be filled by the 512K Macintosh
with a 20-megabyte hard disk and integrated applications. The Lisa
manufacturing line may be closed but the accomplishment lives on in the
lower-cost, higher-performance Macintosh.
by Larry Tesler