Apple’s Lisa project might be the most loaded chapter in the company’s lore, and thanks to the Computer History Museum, you’ll soon be able to play around with one of the first graphical user interfaces in history right there on your shiny state of the art screen. And you won’t have to pay $10,000 that the original Lisa computer cost in 1983.
Al Kossow, a Software Curator at the museum, recently announced that source code for Lisa’s operating system and applications has been recovered and a conversion of the code is currently under review by Apple. He wrote that after the review is done, the museum will release a text on the significance of the Lisa project and make the code available for all in 2018.
In an incident that would kick off a feud between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the Apple team visited the Xerox PARC lab to check out its work on graphical interfaces. As the story goes, Xerox had essentially figured out the key to the modern PC but sat on the technology. Apple was riding high on the success of the Apple II and Jobs offered Xerox the option to buy 100,000 shares in his company at the pre-IPO price of $10 apiece in exchange for allowing his engineers to play around with Xerox’s tech for three days. The engineers took what they learned from Xerox and created the Lisa.
Lisa was a cutting-edge machine and one of the first to offer consumers a GUI, mouse, and file system, but it was prohibitively expensive and didn’t catch on. Adjusted for inflation, it cost almost $25,000 at the time. And while the Steve Jobs legend paints him as a marketing genius, check out this sleepy commercial for the Lisa starring Kevin Costner. The message of the ad boils down to pay us 25 grand and you’ll be so productive, you’ll have time to eat breakfast. It’s a far cry from Ridley Scott’s clip for the Macintosh that would blow the world away one year later.
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Walter Isaacson later chronicled the feud between Bill Gates and Jobs that would arise when Microsoft moved forward with Windows. Jobs accused Gates of stealing from Apple, but Gates had seen the work at the Xerox PARC lab as well. He told Isaacson that his reply to Jobs’ tantrum was, “I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”
Isaacson would also use the origin of the Lisa name as a way of humanizing the often monstrous Apple founder. The official explanation for the name was that it was an acronym for “Local Integrated System Architecture,” but Jobs later admitted that it was named after his oldest daughter Lisa Nicole Brennan. That narrative device would go on to be put to particularly saccharin use in the film adaptation of Isaacson’s biography.
In the Apple narrative, Lisa’s failure and internal squabbles between Jobs and his handpicked CEO John Sculley led to Sculley removing Jobs from the project and putting him on the Mac team. Though the Macintosh was a hit, the groundwork for Jobs’ ouster from the company had already been paved.
Anyways, that’s some good background to have in mind when the Computer History Museum finally releases the code for Lisa’s OS next year. In the meantime, you can play around with a bunch of emulators from the golden age of the Macintosh collected by the Internet Archive. And watch another weird-ass commercial for the Lisa below.