Apple Lisa changed computing 40 years ago, but the world didn’t notice

Steve Jobs with Apple Lisa

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Almost everything the Mac brought to technology had already been there a year earlier with the failed Apple Lisa, launched on January 19, 1983.

It wasn’t a public launch, and it wasn’t anything like the kind of presentation you’d now expect from Apple. The Apple Lisa was unveiled at the Flint Center, and later the Mac, iMac, iPhone 6, and Apple Watch were revealed.

This famous venue closed permanently in 2019 – although according to Apple Maps and Google Maps in January 2023, the planned demolition has yet to happen. Part of the College de Anza in Cupertino, its closure has been marked by many tributes, practically none of which mention Apple Lisa.

Perhaps mainly due to Lisa forgetting, and the ensuing Mac overwhelmed. But it may also be because that launch 40 years ago was practically a private launch.

The major launch of the Apple Lisa

Don't bother reading Apple's marketing plan, there's a transcript below.

Don’t bother reading Apple’s marketing plan, there’s a transcript below.

This is from the January 14, 1983 internal product introduction plan, and perhaps proves why we need computers like the Lisa and Mac, or at least their legible printers.

The marketing plan for 1983-1985 was written by David T. Craig and approved by Apple executives. Significantly, these executives included John Koch, one of the key people behind Lisa, but did not include Steve Jobs.

“January 19, 1983 marks the end of a long development effort to bring Lisa to market, but also the beginning of a new era in personal computing,” the plan says. On that date at the annual meeting of shareholders, Lisa will be officially announced with simultaneous announcements in another apple [sic] countries all over the world.”

There is no record of simultaneous announcements worldwide, and not much about the major announcement at a shareholder meeting.

Today, these meetings are often heated and controversial. At the time, Apple believed that the best place to introduce a business computer was to a business audience.

There was apparently no filming and we can’t even be sure who showed Lisa at the time. Steve Jobs participated in some promotions, but he had already been removed from the project and was taking over the Mac.

But you can still get a sense of what was on display, and how new and different Lisa looked in 1983. Because there is video of Lisa’s first public performance at the Boston Computer Society, just one week later on January 26, 1983.

This link begins with the Lisa demo, but the entire video first shows the launch of the Apple IIe for a half hour, and then an Apple Lisa promotional video featuring Steve Jobs.

It’s a strangely heavy video, and its soundtrack is just the side of Ultravox’s “Vienna” transgression that hardly features Jobs—or anyone else.

Although it includes many audio commentaries from Jobs and others, it only features still images from videotaped interviews.

Pictures of Jobs show him with a mustache. He has a mustache, and doesn’t speak on camera, later it’s like he’s turning away from Lisa.

Pictures of Steve Jobs for the Lisa video

Pictures of Steve Jobs for the Lisa video

He’s also eager to lead with praise not for the computer, but for Apple and its employees.

Jobs says, “If you kind of dig under the surface, one of the real successes of the Lisa program was creating an environment where all these crazy people can be very, very successful, and I think that’s one of the things Apple does better.”

Apple’s big risk

Jobs was a major factor in Lisa’s development, so much so that she was named after his daughter. Although he did not recognize Lisa Brennan-Jobs at the time, Apple instead claimed that “LISA” stands for “Local System Integrated Architecture”.

We’re not sure we think Apple’s reasoning behind the name, but Apple’s been working on this computer since 1978, so by the time it launched, it apparently had five years to come up with a better name.

Five years is a long time to develop a machine, especially when much of what I did was taken from Xerox PARC’s Palo Alto Research Center.

It was a huge investment. It was needed because Apple’s huge success, the Apple II, can’t go on forever, and the company already knows that.

“This is by far the most ambitious technical undertaking Apple has ever attempted,” Jobs said in the same promotional video. “It’s really the biggest huge dollar investment in human resources and really risky since we did the Apple II.”

He continued, “With the Apple II, we had $1,300 to lose.” “I think what we’ve done is again, really put all of our chips back on the table and said we’re willing to bet the company on this.”

Apple certainly puts money and effort into every aspect of Lisa, including her advertising. In addition to the weighty promo, there was one video that will make you glad you’re not working in ’80s corporate America.

Then there was one that still focused on dynamic business people, but doubled down on the importance that the Lisa was the first computer that “works the way you do.”

Apple didn’t expect everyone to sit through 10-minute and 15-minute videos. She also did a 70-second commercial – featuring a very young Kevin Costner.

Apple’s big failure

Apple bet the company on the Apple Lisa — and lost enough to hurt, but not enough to kill the company. In hindsight, it seems strange that Apple could take this hit and still survive, but this survival is really a testament to the strength of the Apple II.

In fact, 1983, when all these expectations [of bankruptcy] It was a tremendously successful year for Apple,” Steve Jobs said in a 1985 interview in — of all places — Playboy magazine. The original content is not online, and the date may never have been set, but an archive of the full interview is available.

“We almost doubled in size in 1983,” Jobs continued. “We went from $583,000,000 in 1982 to almost $980,000,000 in sales. Almost everything was about the Apple II.”

It’s amazing to see Jobs acknowledge the importance of the Apple II. He famously refused to promote it at the launch of the Mac, and, according to the 1984 book “Fire in the Valley”, said the Apple II team was the “dull, boring department” of Apple.

He also tells the people working on Lisa, to their faces, that they are losers and “c-players”.

But the most amazing thing about Lisa’s failure is that everyone saw it coming.

“Rumours and leaks about Lisa have been circulating widely,” The New York Times said on the day of the launch. “But the details have only now been announced… At least one of those details—the price—is a potential flaw: Lisa, which will be available this spring, will sell for $10,000, at the high end of industry expectations.”

A basic specification Apple Lisa in 1983 would cost close to $30,000 today.

“I think it’s fair to say that everyone works [the] In the weighty video, Jobs said the Lisa program and everyone who’s seen the product out there wants it. “He wants at least one.”

Maybe. The BBC certainly bought at least one, and used it – for that time – to revolutionize its weather forecasting.

There were other issues, though.

Superior graphics come at a cost

“We believed that 32-bit Lisa technology would usher in a second generation of personal computers and establish Apple as a strong competitor in an important business market,” John Sculley wrote in his autobiography “Odyssey”.

Sculley became CEO of Apple after the Lisa was launched but before it shipped, and instead he emphasized this fact in his book, some of what he did between advertising and shipping was not much that sounds like bad advertising, but it wasn’t. Lisa’s marketing needs it badly.

“After it started charging, its weak points were slowly revealed,” Scully continued. “It was not as fast as the IBM PC because the Lisa’s superior graphics capability took up a lot of the machine’s higher processing power.”

“But we think users will be willing to sacrifice speed for better graphics and ease of use,” he said.

Apple is said to have built a 100-strong corporate sales force, but they were paid on commission — and not getting enough companies to buy them.

By early September [1983]We figured we’d probably only sell 6,400 Lyssas, instead of the 11,000 we knew we could build,” Scully wrote.

He continued, “We have publicly disclosed that our backlog has diminished and that our outlook for the fourth quarter was discouraging.” “These disclosures … caused Apple’s stock to drop eight points in one day.”

Exit Lisa, and enter Macintosh

It is said that Steve Jobs walked out on Project Lisa because he was leading everyone with his demands that became like the Xerox PARC demos he had been given. Then he took a seemingly quiet little Macintosh project from its creator Jef Raskin – and made it like demos for Xerox PARC.

There was a huge amount of making a fully graphic computer like the Lisa, and then the Mac. But wonderfully, every step of this development has been documented.

According to the Folklore.org history of the Mac, the development of the Lisa took from 1978 to 1982. Among the people who worked on it was Bill Atkinson, and he took Polaroids of every important step in the work.

It’s a historical collection of Lisa details, but it’s also the birth of the Mac.

Gone and almost forgotten

With Lisa dead and the Mac starting to take on an urgency at Apple, Steve Jobs was reportedly his old brutish self. According to Owen W. Linzmayer’s 2004 book, “Apple Confidential 2.0,” Jobs united the Lisa and Mac teams.

But then he said to Lisa’s people, “You guys are really cool. I’m going to have to get rid of a lot of you.”

It’s not like the Macintosh was launched to glory, or at least not to glory and sales, but it was better than the Lisa and of course the machine has survived to this day, at least in name.

The Mac was also more successful enough that the Lisa was renamed “Macintosh XL”, and reformulated to be able to run Mac software.

Didn’t help. The final Lisa rolled off the production line on May 15, 1985.

For once, you could even argue that this was a bit of a hit as all 5,000 unsold lyssas, plus apparently several thousand, were bought by a company called Sun Remarketing.

An unknown number of them were resold by Sun Remarketing, modified to run Mac software using the MacWorks emulator, and later MacWorks XL which included support for the 128KB ROM that was in the Mac Plus. It is not clear how successful this effort was, but one Camel The employee recalls that they were underselling the Mac Plus in 1988.

That company did various upgrades to the machines and it is said that the machines were selling well. But again, their sales weren’t good enough — at least for Apple.

In order to get a tax write-off, Apple buried the last 2,700 Lysas it owned in a dump in Logan, Utah. Use of the land cost Apple $1,716 — about $4,500 today — and the burial took place under armed guard.

It was a miserable end for a machine that was completely overshadowed by the Mac, yet it really was the root of everything we know about modern computers.

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