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Poor Little Lisa

Summer 1999 | Volume 15 |  Issue 1

One September day in 1989 about 2,700 Apple Lisa computers were unceremoniously buried in a landfill in Logan, Utah. In an industry where rapid obsolescence is not only the norm but a goal, the mass burial elicited few tears from anyone except insiders. Yet this prosaic event put an end to perhaps the greatest and most revolutionary failure in the history of computing.

Apple Computer had been founded in Los Altos, California, in 1976. By 1978 it was enjoying tremendous growth and vying for dominance in the nascent home-computer market. The company’s newest project, code-named Lisa (supposedly after the daughter of Steve Jobs, one of Apple’s cofounders), was meant to be the successor to the extremely popular Apple II. After Jobs visited the Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) twice in late 1979, however, those plans changed radically.

Many essentials of modern computing, including networking and laser printers, were developed at PARC. What caught Jobs’s fancy was a prototype machine named Alto that had an array of features never before seen on a computer. Its heart was the Graphical User Interface (GUI). At the time, most users communicated with their computers by means of arcane instructions entered through the keyboard. Alto was much more inviting. Files were identified and manipulated not with alphanumeric strings but with little pictures, or “icons.” Instead of being confined to a specific portion of the screen, they could be edited in movable windows. The device that controlled all this was the now-familiar mouse.

Jobs thought Alto was the future of computing, and he reportedly ran around the PARC research room saying so. Xerox’s brass, however, did not share his enthusiasm. Since it would have sold for an estimated $40,000 per unit, Alto was never meant to be mass-produced. Xerox considered it an unmarketable, if fascinating, anomaly.

Undeterred, Jobs and his team set about incorporating the spirit of Alto’s GUI—along with its rodent accessory- into Lisa. After nearly 200 man-years of work and $50 million, Lisa made her debut on January 19, 1983. She was a marvel. Directories were represented with line drawings of a manila folder, and there was even a little wastebasket for disposing of unwanted ones. Bundled with Lisa was a suite of sophisticated software, including a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a paint program, which could be accessed simply by pointing and clicking—things that computer users now take for granted but at the time were superhuman feats of engineering.

Apple had high hopes for Lisa, but there were problems. First of all, there was the price: nearly $10,000. Also, because of the technological sophistication and memory requirements of the GUI and the other features Apple stuffed into her, the 48-pound Lisa was not only chubby but awkward and slow. Faced with mounting competition from cheaper, zippier machines, she quickly fell behind. Even the machine’s friendly moniker worked against it; corporate managers balked at purchasing a computer with a little girl’s name when they could have a much more impressive-sounding PDPl 1/45. Jobs had estimated that Apple would sell 50,000 Lisas in the first year, but it took nearly two years to reach that goal.

After re-engineering and improvements, a Lisa II was introduced. The name was later changed to XL, which insiders joked stood for “Xtra Lisas” in the company’s inventory. Jobs, meanwhile, was working on a secret new machine, one that was rumored to be smaller, faster, and less than half as expensive as Lisa. The rumors only hastened Lisa’s demise. Unwanted and unappreciated, Lisa was abandoned in the spring of 1985 in favor of Jobs’s new computer, which was called Macintosh.

Apple consigned its remaining inventory to Sun Remarketing of Utah, which had some success refurbishing and modernizing the Lisas with up-to-date technology. But eventually this, too, came to a halt when Apple decided to take a tax write-off on its unsold inventory. In September 1989, almost exactly a decade after Jobs had first witnessed the Alto in action, the last 2,700 Lisas were ignominiously buried in an unmarked grave, closing the book on the first mass-marketed computer to use the standard on which virtually all computers would run.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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