Chm Blog Curatorial Insights

The Lisa: Apple's Most Influential Failure

By Hansen Hsu | January 19, 2023

Happy 40th Birthday to Lisa! The Apple Lisa computer, that is. In celebration of this milestone, CHM has received permission from Apple to release the source code to the Lisa software, including its system and applications software.

Access the code here.

What is the Apple Lisa computer, and why was its release on January 19, 1983, an important date in computer history? Apple’s Macintosh line of computers today, known for bringing mouse-driven graphical user interfaces (GUIs) to the masses and transforming the way we use our computers, owes its existence to its immediate predecessor at Apple, the Lisa. Without the Lisa, there would have been no Macintosh—at least in the form we have it today—and perhaps there would have been no Microsoft Windows either.

From DOS to GUI

Before the 1970s and even into the early 1990s, a majority of personal computer users interacted with their machines via command-line interfaces, text-based operating systems such as CP/M and MS/DOS in which users had to type arcane commands to control their computers.

Apple II ProDOS Command-line interface. The catalog command shown lists the files on the current disk. Public domain.

The invention of the GUI, especially in the form of windows, icons, menus, and pointer (WIMP), controlled by a mouse, occurred at Xerox PARC in the 1970s, on the Alto, a computer with a bitmapped graphics display designed to be used by a single person, i.e. a “personal computer,” despite the research prototype’s high cost. Key elements of the WIMP GUI paradigm, especially overlapping windows and popup menus, were invented by Alan Kay’s Learning Research Group for their children’s software development environment, Smalltalk.

Screenshot of Smalltalk-78 emulation running at Shown is a demo given by Dan Ingalls to Steve Jobs at PARC in 1979. Overlapping windows were a key new feature of Smalltalk, which was a development environment. Note the lack of icons, buttons, or an ever-present menu bar. Commands, including window resizing, were executed by right-clicking the mouse and selecting from a popup menu.

In 1979, a delegation from Apple Computer, led by Steve Jobs, visited PARC and received a demonstration of Smalltalk on the Alto. Upon seeing the GUI, Jobs instinctively grasped the potential of this new way of interacting with a computer and didn’t understand why Xerox wasn’t marketing this technology to the public. Jobs could see that all computers should work this way, and he wanted Apple to lead the way by bringing this technology out from the research lab to the masses.

From Apple II to Lisa

Apple had already been working on a computer in its own R&D labs to leapfrog the company’s best-selling, but command-line-based, Apple II personal computer. It was code-named “Lisa” after Lisa Brennan (now Brennan-Jobs), Steve Jobs’ child with a former high school girlfriend, whom he initially refused to acknowledge as his own. The code-name stuck, and a backronym, Local Integrated Systems Architecture, was invented to obfuscate the connection to Jobs’ daughter.(1) Unlike the Apple II, which was aimed at the home computer market, the Lisa would be targeted at the business market, would use the powerful Motorola 68000 microprocessor, and would be paired with a hard drive.

After the PARC visit, Jobs and many of Lisa’s engineers, including Bill Atkinson, worked to incorporate the ideas of the GUI from PARC into the Lisa. Atkinson developed the QuickDraw graphics library for the Lisa, and collaborated with Larry Tesler, who left PARC to join Apple, on developing the Lisa’s user interface. Tesler created an object-oriented variant of Pascal, called “Clascal,” that would be used for the Lisa Toolkit application programming interfaces. Later, by working with Pascal creator Niklaus Wirth, Clascal would evolve into the official Object Pascal.

Apple Lisa 2 screenshot. Icons on the desktop and the menu bar with pulldown menus at the top of the screen have made their appearance. This interface is very similar to that of the original Macintosh. Photo Courtesy of David T. Craig. CHM Object ID 500004666.

A reorganization of the company in 1982, however, removed Jobs from having any direct influence on the Lisa project, which was subsequently managed by John Couch. Jobs then discovered the Macintosh project started by Jef Raskin. Jobs took over that project and moved it away from Raskin’s original appliance-like vision to one more like Lisa—a mouse-driven GUI-based computer but more affordable than the Lisa.

Steve Jobs with John Couch, VP and General Manager of the Lisa division, showing off the original Lisa, 1983. Photo courtesy of John Couch.

Competition and Collaboration

For a few years, both the Lisa and Macintosh teams competed internally, although there was collaboration as well. Bill Atkinson’s QuickDraw graphics became part of the Macintosh, and Atkinson thus contributed to both projects. Lisa software manager Bruce Daniels actually left the Lisa project to work on the Macintosh for a period of time, greatly influencing the direction of the Mac towards the Lisa’s GUI. Larry Tesler’s work on the object-oriented Lisa Toolkit application frameworks would later evolve into the MacApp frameworks, which used Object Pascal. Owen Densmore, who had been at Xerox, worked on Printing on both the Lisa and the Macintosh.

Bill Atkinson’s Apple ID badge. Atkinson was an important figure in the creation of the Lisa, developing key aspects of the user interface. Credit:

Managers in the Lisa development group. From left to right: Wayne Rosing (hardware, later all of Lisa engineering), Larry Tesler (applications software and libraries, user interface design and testing), Bruce Daniels (software, systems architecture). Photo by John Blaustein. Scan of page 97 of Personal Computing Magazine, March 1983, CHM #102661078.

The Lisa’s user interface design underwent many different versions before finally arriving at the icon-based desktop metaphor familiar to us from the Macintosh.(2) Nevertheless, the final Lisa Desktop Manager still has a few key differences from the Mac. One was a document-centric rather than application-centric model. Each program on the Lisa featured a “stationery pad” that resided on the desktop, separate from the application icon. Users tore off a sheet from the stationery pad to create a new document. Users rarely interacted with the application’s icon itself, but rather with these stationery pads.(3) The idea of centering the user’s world around documents rather than applications would reemerge in the 1990s with technologies such as Apple’s OpenDoc and Microsoft’s OLE.

The Cost of Innovation

Lisa was released to the public on January 19, 1983, at a cost of $9,995. This was two years after Xerox had released its own commercial GUI-based workstation, the Star, for $16,595, which was similarly targeted towards office workers. The high price of both machines compared to the IBM PC, a command-line based PC which retailed for $1,565, doomed them both to failure. But there were other significant problems too. The Lisa’s sophisticated operating system, which allowed multiple programs to run at the same time (“multitasking”) was too powerful even for its 68000 processor, and thus ran sluggishly. The Lisa shipped with a suite of applications, including word processing and charts, bundled with the system, which discouraged third party developers from writing their own software for it. The original Lisa shipped with a floppy drive (“Twiggy”), designed in-house, that was unreliable. 

Brochure showing Lisa 1 screen and Twiggy floppy drives. Brochure text lists the original specs, a 32-bit Motorola 68000 processor (16-bit data bus), 1 MB RAM, and 364 x 720 resolution bitmap display. External ProFile hard disk is not shown. CHM #102634506

From Lisa to the Mac

Announced in the famous Superbowl ad, the Apple Macintosh shipped in January 1984 for $2,495. Eliminating a hard drive, multitasking, and other advanced features, and a greatly reduced memory made it much more affordable than the Lisa. An innovative marketing program created by Dan’l Lewin (today CHM’s CEO) that sold Macintoshes at reduced prices to college students contributed significantly to the Mac’s installed base. The advent of Postscript-driven laser printers like the Apple LaserWriter in 1985, combined with the page layout application PageMaker from 3rd party software company Aldus, created a brand-new killer application—desktop publishing—for the Macintosh.(4) This new market would grow to a billion dollars by 1988, and the Macintosh became the first commercially successful computer with a graphical user interface and a product-line that continues to this day.

The Lisa 2 series, consisting of two models, Lisa 2/5 and 2/10, priced at $3,495 and $5,495, respectively, was announced alongside the Macintosh in January 1984. Lisa 2 replaced the original Lisa’s twin Twiggy floppy drives with a single Sony 3.5” floppy drive, the same drive that was in the Mac. In January 1985, the Lisa 2/10 was rebranded as the Macintosh XL with MacWorks, an emulator that allowed it to run Mac software, but despite improved sales this product was killed off in April 1985 to focus on the Mac.(5)

The Lisa 2 series was announced in January 1984, with the Macintosh, as part of the Apple 32 SuperMicro series. Note that the twin Twiggy drives have been replaced by the Mac’s Sony 3.5” floppy drive. Not only did this improve reliability, but also improved compatibility with the Mac, allowing them to use the same floppy disks. CHM #102689034

The release of the GUI-based Lisa and its successor the Macintosh inspired several PC software companies to create software “shells” that would install GUI environments on top of MS-DOS command-line based IBM PCs. The first of these was VisiOn, released in late 1983 by VisiCorp, the publisher of the first spreadsheet program VisiCalc. This was followed in 1985 by GEM from Digital Research, the company behind the command-line based CP/M operating system. Microsoft followed with Windows the same year.

The Influence of Innovation

Both GEM and Windows were released after the Macintosh and were influenced by user interface elements from the Mac. Though Windows was first released in 1985 it was not widely used by most PC users until 1990’s Windows 3.0. Between Windows and the Macintosh, GUIs have become the primary user interface paradigm on personal computers.

Lisa in use by John Couch’s son, with Couch looking on. The image illustrates “What You See Is What You Get,” with Couch holding a printout that mirrors the drawing on the screen. Despite this marketing image, the Lisa, at $9,995, was not aimed at the home computer market, but rather at office professionals. But, used to selling retail, Apple lacked experience in direct sales, which was how computers were sold to businesses, a strategy IBM had perfected. Businesses also required IBM mainframe compatibility, which the Lisa did not have. Corporate customers preferred the IBM PC, which cost only $1,565. Photo Courtesy of John Couch.

Despite the Lisa’s failure in the marketplace, it holds a key place in the history of the GUI and PCs more generally as the first GUI-based computer to be released by a personal computer company. Though the Xerox Star 8010 beat the Lisa to market in 1981, the Star was competing with other workstations from Apollo and Sun. Perhaps more importantly, without the Lisa and its incorporation of the PARC-inspired GUI, the Macintosh itself would not have been based on the GUI. Both computers shared key technologies, such as the mouse and the QuickDraw graphics library. The Lisa was a key steppingstone to the Macintosh, and an important milestone in the history of graphical user interfaces and personal computers more generally.



(2) Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith Keller, and Frank Ludolph, “Inventing the Lisa User Interface,” Interactions 4, no. 1 (January 1, 1997): 40–53, See also 


(4) John Scull and Hansen Hsu, “The Killer App That Saved the Macintosh,” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 41, no. 3 (July 2019): 42–52,

(5) Owen Linzmayer, Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company, Rev. 2nd ed. (San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, 2004), 79–80.


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About The Author

Hansen Hsu is a historian and sociologist of technology, and curator of the CHM Software History Center. He works at the intersection of the histories of personal computing, graphical user interfaces, object-oriented programming, and software engineering.

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