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Go backArticlesThe Lisa 2: Apple’s Ablest Computer

No other machine in Lisa’s price range approaches its versatility, innovation, and power

Reprinted from Byte, issue 12/1984, pp. A106-A114.

Lisa may be the most underrated machine in the history of the microcomputer industry. The recently introduced Lisa 2 line is more versatile and powerful than any other machine in its under-$7000 price category. In spite of this, the technical press remains preoccupied with Macintosh and the public remains enthralled with IBM.

Photo 1: The Lisa 2 is an aesthetically attractive machine that occupies a minimum of desk space. An internal 10-megabyte hard disk provides plenty of storage. Those needing less storage capacity can purchase the machine with an external 5-megabyte Profile hard disk.
This image can be zoomedPhoto 1: The Lisa 2 is an aesthetically attractive machine that occupies a minimum of desk space. An internal 10-megabyte hard disk provides plenty of storage. Those needing less storage capacity can purchase the machine with an external 5-megabyte Profile hard disk.
Granted, Apple’s marketing efforts on behalf of Lisa 2 have been less then herculean. And a dearth of software support still hobbles the entire Lisa line. Yet I see Lisa as the premier Apple offering. I’ve taken the time to look closely at this innovative, and now cost-effective, computer. There is simply no other machine in Lisa’s price range that approaches its versatility, innovation, and power.

The three Lisa models – Lisa 2, Lisa 2/5, and Lisa 2/10 – differ only in the amount of attached hard-disk storage they offer (none, 5, and 10 megabytes, respectively). The least expensive model, the Lisa 2 ($3495), is akin to a wide-screen Macintosh with half a megabyte of main memory. The unit also sports a single 3½-inch disk drive (400K-byte capacity) for external storage. The only apparent purpose for this stripped-down Lisa is to provide a vehicle that will run Macintosh software with four times the memory capacity of the Macintosh. No other commercially available software will run on the Lisa 2. The Lisa 2/5 ($4495) adds an external 5-megabyte hard disk. The 2/10 ($5495) provides an internal 10-megabyte hard disk.

When it comes to expanding Lisa’s hard-disk capacity, there are many ways to go. The Lisa 2 and 2/5 can be upgraded to 2/10 status for $2795. The Profile drive on an upgraded 2/5 can be connected through a parallel card ($195) for a total of 15 megabytes of storage. A 20-megabyte system can also be configured using all Apple disks for $8680. There is one external parallel port on both the Lisa 2 and the 2/5 that is intended as the connection point for the 5-megabyte Profile drive. This port (the default port) is internal in the 2/10, since the hard-disk drive is internal. Any additional drive must always connect via a parallel card, whether it is augmenting a Profile drive or a 10-megabyte drive. Lisa now supports a 70-megabyte drive manufactured by Priam and distributed by Tecmar. UNIX and XENIX users have the option of attaching drives from Corvus and Sunol in sizes from 20 to 100 megabytes.

All models of Lisa have two serial ports intended for use with printer and modem. Currently, no printers other than the Apple-provided dot-matrix and letter-quality printers run with Apple-developed software. Both the ImageWriter (dot-matrix) printer and the letter-quality printer connect through the serial ports (the Macintosh software expects a dot-matrix printer to be connected to serial port B only). UNIX and XENIX users have other printer options.

Lisa 2 has three expansion slots for peripheral cards. So far, however, only three such cards exist. Apple sells a parallel card providing two ports, and Santa Cruz Operations sells a serial card offering four ports. The Apple card is used primarily for attaching additional Profile drives but was originally used to support the first Lisa dot-matrix printer that required a parallel interface. The serial card is primarily used for supporting terminals under multiuser (UNIX or XENIX) operating systems. The Priam disk is attached through a special-purpose interface card.

Unlike Macintosh, Lisa has both a high-resolution bit-mapped display and a character-generator display that supports a standard 24 by 80 screen. Having a standard screen-display option permits some conventional software to run on Lisa without display output conversion. This feature is critical to XENIX and UNIX users.

Lisa operating environments

The 11 different operating environments available on Lisa fall into three broad categories: those supporting business applications, those supporting business applications and software development, and those used purely for software development.

Three distinct user environments focus on business applications only. These are the Office System with fully integrated applications, the Office System with QuickPort applications, and an application-oriented shell running under the Lisa Operating system.

The original Lisa software consisted only of applications that were fully integrated into the Office System. The QuickPort applications available on Lisa 2 are a new kind of application that share some, but not all, of the Office System facilities. The Lisa operating system also supports multiple shells for the purpose of creating separate user environments.

The Office System contains three elements: Desktop Manager, LisaGuide, and Lisa 7/7, a seven-function integrated program. Desktop Manager is actually a user-oriented operating system placed on top of a conventional operating system. The icons and windows and all of the actions taken to manipulate them are part of the Desktop Manager. LisaGuide is a tutorial program designed to familiarize users with Lisa’s graphic interface. Lisa 7/7 is Apple’s attempt to offer an integrated package like Lotus 1-2-3. Given its greatly reduced price of $695 for all seven functions, 7/7 should be a competitive piece of software. Current owners of Lisa Office System software can upgrade to the new release for $150. The seven functions provided include:
LisaCalc, a 255 by 255 spreadsheet
LisaDraw, presentation-quality graphics drawing
LisaGraph, graphs of discrete functions
LisaList, to display rows of two-dimensional tables
LisaProject, a cost, time, and resource scheduling program
LisaTerminal, a communication utility
the LisaWrite word processor

These applications are called “fully integrated” because they have access to all the Desktop Manager facilities. The seven functions provided in Lisa 7/7 include window support, pull-down menus, keyboard and mouse support, and the transfer of different kinds of data between the various applications.

Apple now considers Lisa 7/7 a complete integrated office application. In fact, Apple has discontinued support for the Toolkit, the development tool required to produce fully integrated applications. That is not a very encouraging outlook for developers or for users who want extensions to the Office System.

Software developers do have an alternative. It is called QuickPort. As the name implies, this utility provides a quick way to transport software into the Office System. QuickPort applications execute in a window on the desktop but do not have pull-down menus and associated mouse interactions. The window may be divided into two panels, one for text and one for graphics. The contents of the graphics panel can be copied onto the clipboard and pasted into any application that can take graphics information from a LisaDraw document. Information from the text panel of the window can be copied to the clipboard and taken to any application that can receive text lines (e.g., LisaTerminal or LisaWrite).

Business applications and software development

Four distinct operating environments support both program development and business applications. Those are MacWorks, the Workshop from Apple Computer, UNIX from UniPress, and XENIX from Santa Cruz Operations under license from Microsoft. MacWorks is simply a program that allows Lisa to run Macintosh software. The Workshop is very similar to the UCSD Pascal system. UNIX and XENIX both use shells to provide a command-driven user interface to an underlying operating system. Users must already have or be willing to develop proficiency in computers before they can readily operate in any of these last three environments.

When you start up Lisa under MacWorks, a portion of the Macintosh operating system adequate to handle disk I/O is loaded into memory. In fact, the equivalent of the 64K-byte operating-system ROM is loaded and made accessible in a manner that is transparent to the Macintosh applications. From this point on, Lisa 2 functions just like a Macintosh, with two major exceptions – the display screen is larger and the central processing unit is slower. Lisa’s display area is physically larger than Mac’s (10½ versus 8 inches diagonally). It also has more pixels in both directions (720 by 364 versus 512 by 342), and the pixels are shaped differently. The pixels in Lisa 2 are 50 percent higher than they are wide. Macintosh pixels are square. These differences combine to provide a larger working area. Unfortunately, Macintosh graphics appear to be stretched in the vertical direction when run on Lisa. Text looks surprisingly good, but circles become ellipses and squares mutate into rectangles. Most nonmathematical shapes are acceptable in appearance, but if you create graphics on Lisa 2 Using MacPaint, you are in for a rude surprise. When you print the results, the printer will show the true form of the object, not what is on the screen.

The central processor on Lisa runs at 5 MHz versus 8 MHz on the Macintosh. The 5 to 8 ratio holds for graphic operations, but the ratio is 5 to 6 for most other operations.

The MacWorks program, first available in April 1984, would not function with Lisa’s hard disk. A version released in September 1984 permits use of the Profile drive, and Mac files will coexist with Lisa Office System and/or Workshop files. (They will not coexist with UNIX or XENIX files.) Attempts by Apple to develop utilities for file transfer between Macintosh and Lisa applications have not been successful. Developing programs using Macintosh BASIC or some other high-level language is practical on Lisa because of the extra available memory. However, these programs must be small enough to run in the Mac’s restricted memory.

The Workshop

Because the Workshop’s user interface is similar to UCSD Pascal’s, Apple II or III Pascal users will feel at home rather quickly. The program contains many features not found in UCSD Pascal, including a mouse-driven editor and sophisticated file-manipulation facilities. The Workshop contains all Lisa and Macintosh software-development tools supported by Apple Computer. Since Pascal is the underlying language of Lisa software, all of the operating-system interfaces are in Pascal form. A 68000 assembler is available that can be used to create programs and procedures to run in the Pascal environment. A C compiler is also available, and procedures written in C can be called from Pascal (or vice versa). Both the Pascal and C compilers have an option to generate code for either Lisa 2 or Macintosh.

In releases 1.0 and 2.0 of the Workshop, Apple offered the BASIC Plus language (compatible with Digital Equipment Corp. BASIC) and Cobol (an extension of ANSI 74). Only BASIC will be offered under release 3.0, but Apple will offer no technical support. COBOL has been dropped due to an insufficient number of buyers.

Using the Workshop with Pascal, C, and the 68000 assembler, you can develop conventional keyboard-oriented applications. Further, by using a multitasking operating system, QuickDraw graphics utilities, and the mouse interaction utilities supplied by Apple Computer, you can create any kind of environment you like. You can duplicate all the visual effects and user-interface features you see in the Office System with the utility software supplied in the various elements of the Workshop.

Extensive documentation of QuickDraw (the comprehensive graphics package used in the Office system) is included, along with some sample programs. The documentation of the operating-system interfaces is also good, and access to low-level information through these interfaces is excellent.


The UniPress Inc. version of UNIX is based on Bell Labs System V UNIX. The operating system is supplied with a C compiler, standard UNIX utilities, and Berkeley enhancements (visual editor, C shell, terminal independent library). The entire package sells for $1495. Hard disks from 20 to 100 megabytes are supported, and Ethernet networking is also available. Corvus and Sunol are the vendors of the hard disks that can be purchased through UniPress as part of a complete package for Lisa. UNIX will also work with hard-disk systems supplied by Apple.

Several applications programs are available from UniPress: the EMACS editor system, the LEX word processor, UNIFY database, /RDB Database Tools, and the Phact ISAM file system. Of course, many other applications are available for UNIX, but not necessarily through UniPress. The UniPress system contains standard UNIX development tools such as a C compiler, text processor, utilities, and the multiuser kernel. By nature UNIX is a multiuser system. A single-user run-time system is also available as an option ($495), however. Additional languages that can be used with the system include FORTRAN, Pascal, BASIC Plus, RM COBOL, SMC BASIC Four, and Irvine Ada.


Photo 2: The four printed-circuit boards that make up Lisa’s electronics are mounted in a sandwich within the card cage. Two memory boards, a CPU board, and an I/O board are included. All assemblies are color-coded and easily removed for servicing.
This image can be zoomedPhoto 2: The four printed-circuit boards that make up Lisa’s electronics are mounted in a sandwich within the card cage. Two memory boards, a CPU board, and an I/O board are included. All assemblies are color-coded and easily removed for servicing.
XENIX for Lisa 2 is based on UNIX System III and is available from the Santa Cruz Operation. The system includes the full set of XENIX utilities, the C shell, the full-screen visual editor, system-administration commands, electronic mail, and support for UNIX networking. XENIX also provides “vsh,” the visual shell that serves as a menu interface.

From one to four Profile drives can be supported by XENIX in addition to the 10-megabyte built-in disk of the Lisa 2/10. Support for other disks is not currently available, but future releases will include support for Priam and Sunol drives. XENIX will support two additional terminals through the two serial ports on Lisa. Santa Cruz Operations provides a four-port serial board to go into the standard Lisa slots. Up to two of these may be used to support as many as eight terminals.

Networking is supported through two separate features, “uucp” and “Micnet.” The uucp feature provides point-to-point communication between predetermined locations. Micnet is a full networking facility for user-to-user communications between a variety of locations. The XENIX Software Development System can be added to the basic operating system described earlier. This package supplies the C compiler and various utilities to support the production of C programs, including an interactive debugger and a source-code control system.

Software development only

Lisa 2 and Macintosh software development done by Apple so far have taken place entirely on Lisa, and the tool development by Apple has been extensive. Pascal Workshop is the host environment for all development work, and there are four separate development tools currently available. QuickPort is used to move conventional applications into the Office System. Macintosh Supplement is used to develop Macintosh software. The Toolkit is an unsupported system used to develop fully integrated applications for the Office System. Pterodactyl Software supplies an IBM BASIC Compiler with utilities that is used to convert BASIC programs written for the IBM PC for use on Lisa.

QuickPort supplies a window on the Desktop in which non-Desktop-integrated applications can execute in a conventional manner while gaining several of the Desktop features. All of the window management and icon manipulations that are part of the Desktop environment are available to users. Inside the application window, there is no support for pull-down menus or mouse functions. Any applications desiring those features will have to provide all the graphics, menu handling, and mouse interaction. All of the utility software to do these things is supplied in the Workshop via Pascal units. This means that each developer will have to produce his own set of logic to create a user interface. It is not even possible to take advantage of existing functions used by the current Desktop applications. (These belong to the Toolkit environment.)

The positive side of QuickPort is that conventional applications that are brought over to Lisa and converted to run under the Workshop can be run on the Desktop with a minimum of changes. QuickPort is actually an application developed with the Toolkit – an application designed to run other applications. QuickPort programs may consist of any combination of Pascal, C, and assembly-language code. Once a program is running in the Workshop, it can then be packaged using a special set of libraries supplied by Apple. This new package is then installed in the Office System.

Each application automatically has a portion of its window devoted to text display, and the ordinary WRITELN and READLN functions of Pascal are routed to the window. You can copy text to or from the clipboard just as with any other desktop application. In addition, you can split the window into scrollable portions, either horizontally or vertically. The application may specify a buffer size to control how much information is kept available for scrolling backwards. Optionally, an application can request a portion of the window to be set up for graphics. Any QuickDraw graphics performed by the application will be displayed in the designated portion of the window. The contents of the graphics panel can be copied out to any other desktop application that is capable of accepting graphics information (e.g., LisaDraw, LisaWrite). Thus, QuickPort is a valuable tool if you want to quickly get an application into a partial Lisa desktop environment. The Toolkit and QuickPort are the only development tools that produce software for the Desktop. Applications created with other tools, excluding those for Macintosh, must run in conventional operating environments like the Lisa Workshop, UNIX, or XENIX.

The Macintosh Supplement to the Workshop consists of additional libraries of routines to support the development of Macintosh software. The standard Pascal compiler, code generator, and linker all have options to support Macintosh development. This supplement, along with documentation called Inside Macintosh, is available to interested parties willing to pay $250.

The development approach involves creating the source code on the Lisa 2, compiling it, and then transferring object code to Macintosh for checkout. This transfer is typically done by creating a Macintosh disk on Lisa. An alternate route is through a direct communication line connected to the serial ports.

IBM BASIC compiler

A BASIC compiler for the Workshop, available from Pterodactyl Software, converts IBM PC BASIC programs to run on Lisa. Compiled into 68000 code, converted programs should run considerably faster on Lisa than on a PC. Given the 1-megabyte Lisa memory, applications could be modified to run substantially larger problems than on a PC. Communication programs are also available from Pterodactyl to transfer code from the PC to the Lisa.


Photo 3: A close-up of the 10-megabyte drive and the Sony Micro-drive on the Lisa 2/10.
This image can be zoomedPhoto 3: A close-up of the 10-megabyte drive and the Sony Micro-drive on the Lisa 2/10.
Lisa has taken hard knocks for performance, and not without justification. The first release of the Office System software was quite slow when doing I/O (input/output). Version 2.0 of the software, which improved the I/O speed quite a bit, was released in January 1984. I have not seen any comprehensive comparisons, but company claims indicated a 60 percent reduction in time for certain operations. My experience is that the average improvement was more like 40 percent.

Table 1 contains some of my own performance figures for the Lisa 2/5 and 2/10. The 10-megabyte disk was 10 to 15 percent faster for most operations. All these tests were run under the Office System, release 2.0. Release 3.0 is not supposed to have any performance improvements, but I have not been able to verify that the performance is unchanged.

When trying to evaluate the performance of the Office System in absolute terms, you should take several things into account. “Opening a document” in Lisa includes more activities than in most systems. The 33 seconds required to open a 37,000-byte LisaWrite document for the first time after system startup made me wonder what exactly was going on. Actually, I discovered, quite a bit. First, the LisaWrite program is being brought into memory and activated. Second, a copy is made of the requested document. In Lisa you never work on the original. Since opening an empty document still takes 29 seconds, initiating LisaWrite accounts for most of the time required by the larger document. Note that opening the same document the second time takes just 7 seconds.

An additional factor affecting performance is the underlying overhead of a fail-safe system. The Lisa Office System is capable of recovering all the data files on the hard disk even if the main catalog is lost or damaged. This is accomplished by redundant storing of enough information to rebuild the entire directory. This fail-safe mechanism adds significantly to I/O times. You might argue that you would rather risk an infrequent loss of data than suffer speed degradation on each and every I/O operation. That, however, is a system design issue and not a valid criticism of system performance.

I also ran some tests on the 2/5 and the 2/10 for 11 different Pascal I/O operations. Here the 10-megabyte disk was never faster than the Profile drive (contrary to the Office System results). Most operations were about 10 percent slower, and one operation was 50 percent slower. Table 2 shows the individual results along with a characterization of the type of Pascal I/O used. I am unable to reconcile these results with those from the Office System tests. I can only assume that the difference is due to a different kind of I/O logic used by the Desktop Manager.


It’s fair to say that Lisa 2 gives its owners the freedom to run a wide variety of operating systems and applications. Its large memory and ability to use several sizes of hard disks are major factors in its versatility. Lisa’s uniqueness as new technology has faded. And though Macintosh has pushed Lisa into the background, it may actually spur interest in Lisa over the long term. Further, until Macintosh is supplied with more memory, Lisa is the only practical way to run even moderately large Macintosh applications.

So far, Apple Computer does not seem inclined to market the Lisa aggressively or to give full support to Lisa software. In spite of this, I continue to think that the technology represented by the Office System is a giant step forward. It may well be that while the industry is not able to embrace it totally, it will end up adopting Lisa technology in small pieces over the next few years.

by David D. Redhed

David D. Redhed is an independent consultant with Clear Skies Consulting. He can be reached at 712 35th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122. He has worked for A.P.P.L.E., an Apple user group in Kent, Washington, among other clients.

“At a glance” – technical details and pricing
“The Lisa Office System”
“Conversion to the Lisa 2”

Page added on 22nd January 2005.

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