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30 years of the Apple Lisa and the Apple IIe

Benj Edwards | Jan. 21, 2013
In 1983, two products played a pivotal role in the future of the company. Benj Edwards takes a look at the history behind the Apple Lisa and the Apple IIe.

At its annual shareholders' meeting on January 19, 1983, Apple announced two new products that would play a pivotal role in the future of the company: the Apple Lisa, Apple's original GUI-based computer and the precursor to the Macintosh; and the Apple IIe, which represented a natural evolution to the highly successful Apple II computer line.

One of these platforms met an early end, leaving behind technology that shaped the entire industry. The other, built on proven technology from an engineering genius, remained a reliable breadwinner during uncertain times in the early life of the Macintosh and carried Apple's most popular 8-bit computer line to its natural conclusion.

Remembering the Lisa

The Lisa introduced a completely new paradigm--the mouse-driven graphical user interface--to the world of mainstream personal computers. (Note that the release of the Xerox Star workstation in 1981 marked the commercial debut of the mouse-driven GUI.) The Lisa's elevated retail price of $9995 at launch (about $23,103 in today's dollars), slow processor speed (5MHz), and problematic custom disk drives hobbled the groundbreaking machine as soon as it reached the market.

Despite those drawbacks, the Lisa made a huge splash in the industry in 1983 thanks to a bitmapped graphical operating system that utilized icons, pull-down menus, and overlapping windows to represent and manipulate information instead of the then-familiar convention of typing text-based commands. The interface launched a revolution in the way consumers interacted with personal computers.

The impact of the Lisa's GUI was so profound that dozens of companies jumped on board with imitative and catch-up products in the mouse-driven GUI space--not the least of which was Microsoft, which first announced its Microsoft Windows operating environment in November 1983, ten months after the Lisa's debut.

Perhaps even more profound was the effect the Lisa had on Apple itself. While the Lisa's development initially began under Steve Jobs's guidance, the Apple cofounder was later ousted from the project. This prompted Jobs to take charge of another computer project within Apple, Jef Raskin's low-cost appliance computer--the Macintosh.

Under Jobs's feverish and singular guidance, the Macintosh, released just one year later, flowered into a low-cost competitor to the Lisa, sealing the fate of the awkward, overpriced computer.

The rest of that branch of history should be at least somewhat familiar to readers. A few of the Lisa's achievements that the Macintosh emulated include the mouse and the bitmapped display, the desktop paradigm, representational icons, proportional fonts, pull-down menus along the top of the screen, and overlapping windows (something Microsoft Windows didn't offer until version 2.03 in 1987).

But the Lisa had a few more tricks up its sleeve that remained unique to the system for years. For example, it offered cooperative multitasking (which the Macintosh OS did not feature until 1987 as an optional part of System Software 5); protected memory (which did not appear until Mac OS X in 2001); a built-in screensaver; and the ability to utilize plug-in expansion cards, hard disks, and up to 2MB of RAM (the first Mac was limited to 128KB).


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