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Reprinted from PC Magazine.

The Lisa team
This image can be zoomedThe Lisa team
The rise and fall of the Apple Lisa was a strange tale – one that coincided with numerous industry events and concluded with the ousting of Steve Jobs by John Sculley. Oddly enough, Sculley was lured by Jobs to Apple with a showing of the Lisa prior to its public release in January of 1983.

The roots of the Apple Lisa lie at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center with a historic machine called the Alto. Its underlying technology became the Xerox Star, which was first shown at the May 1991 National Computer Conference. Costing between $15,000 and $50,000, the Star was not for casual desktop computer users. The Lisa, however, was. But its price of $10,000 would still prove too expensive for the market Apple had developed.

When the Apple Lisa was announced, so was the Apple IIe, which kept the company afloat as the Lisa tanked. Lisa officially stood for Logical Integrated Software Architecture, but everyone in the industry knew its moniker was dedicated to a girl named Lisa. The original machine consisted of a 5MHz 68000 processor (0.4 MIPS) with 1MB of RAM, 2MB of ROM, and 720×364 graphics running on a built-in 12-inch monitor.

There were two built-in, proprietary floppy drives. These drives, called “Twiggy” drives, used an odd 5.25-inch disk that sported unusual holes. Using a two-sided, two-head design, the disks could hold 860K. It always mystified people that Apple chose this oddball drive design. It had other unusual characteristics, such as variable-speed and nonopposing read/write heads on opposite sides of the disk. A pad would be on the other side of the head, rather than another head. Originally it was thought that these miracle drives would be incorporated into the Apple II line. They never were, as they turned out to be unreliable.

Because Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak was credited for the unique disk drive design used by the Apple II, I have always suspected that Jobs, wanting to one-up Wozniak, kept trying to do something “creative” with his disk drives. Another drive Apple built under Jobs’ watch was the Widget – a 10MB hard drive. In the Next machine, he incorporated an offbeat optical drive. And in his newest machine, the iMac, he finally rejected the floppy drive altogether.

Living with Lisa – but not for long

The Lisa was the first GUI machine designed for the mass market. Although not priced low enough, it did introduce all the features common in most popular machines today, including a mouse and a desktop metaphor. Historically, it is one of the most important contributions to computing, and the original Lisa 1 is a valuable collector’s item. It even had some visionary features that we have yet to see incorporated in modern machines, including a true instant-on capability and internal serial numbers built into the hardware.

The Lisa was initially announced in January of 1983, but the machine did not ship until June of that year. And even though sales were moribund, Jobs was quoted as saying, “We’re prepared to live with Lisa for the next 10 years.”

By January of 1984, with the Macintosh about to be introduced, the company gave Lisa 1 owners a free upgrade to the Lisa 2 and announced the Lisa 2/5 and Lisa 2/10. The 2/5 had a 5MB hard drive and the 2/10 a whopping 10MB hard drive (the Widget). The Twiggy drive was dropped for a 3.5-inch Sony. Still, few Lisas sold. It was estimated that Apple, which began development in 1979, spent $50 million on the Lisa. Luckily, much of the development was rolled into the Macintosh design.

A year later, the company changed the Lisa’s name to the Macintosh XL (the XL standing for “extra large”) in hopes of squeezing some extra sales from the machine. The software was changed to make the machine Macintosh-compatible, and a Macintosh-format 3.5-inch drive was incorporated.

By April of 1985, the same month that IBM dropped the PCjr, the Lisa was dropped from Apple’s product line. The following month, Jobs was forced out as head of the Macintosh division and resigned from the company altogether. In June, he was “banished” from the company. I wrote a cruel “Inside Track” column, then published in Infoworld, saying good riddance. Jobs hasn’t spoken to me since.

Shortly thereafter, he went off to form Next Computer, which was brought back into Apple a decade later with Jobs, who now rules the roost as CEO, in tow. A strange route to the top.

There are claims that Apple manufactured 100,000 Lisas, but sales figures are hard to confirm. In 1989, Apple dumped thousands of Lisa machines into a nearby landfill. Archaeologists will no doubt unearth them someday and create mystical stories surrounding the importance and origin of these machines.

by John C. Dvorak

Page added on 22nd January 2005.

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