Today in Apple history: Apple launches ill-fated Lisa project

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Take a sneak peek at upcoming Apple Lisa documentary
The Lisa was one of Apple's first flops.
Photo: Auction Team Breker

July 30: Today in Apple history: Apple launches ill-fated Lisa computer project July 30, 1979: Apple engineers begin work on the Lisa computer, the company’s first to come with a graphical user interface and mouse.

Incorporating technology Steve Jobs saw at Xerox PARC, the Lisa looks like a surefire hit for Apple. Things don’t turn out exactly like that, however.

Lisa project: Apple’s first attempt at a business computer

The roots of the Lisa project go back slightly further than Jobs’ visit to PARC, which took place in 1979. Apple originally planned to develop a business computer as a more serious alternative to the Apple II.

In July 1979, Apple installed Ken Rothmuller as project manager for the Lisa. At the time, the company hoped to release the finished computer in March 1981.

The original Lisa plans, however, looked nothing like the computer Cupertino wound up shipping.

Apple originally imagined a more traditional user interface. This changed when Jobs saw the in-development graphical user interface at Xerox’s research lab in Silicon Valley. (Jobs got his peek behind the curtain in exchange for Apple allowing Xerox to invest $1 million ahead of the company’s IPO.)

Armed with inspiration from Xerox, Jobs set about reimagining the Lisa project as the world’s first mainstream commercial computer to come with a GUI and mouse. (See also: Treasure hunters find Steve Jobs’ long-lost Lisa mouse.)

Lisa computer becomes high-profile Apple flop

Despite this innovation, the Lisa project failed. Rothmuller complained that the suggestions for new features would push the computer way past its original budget. Apple aimed at a price target of $2,000, the equivalent of $7,000 today. Apple fired Rothmuller from the project when he voiced his concerns.

Even more notable was the departure of Jobs, who got booted off the Lisa team in September 1980 for being difficult to work with. He wound up joining another skunkworks project at Apple, developing what turned out to be the first Macintosh.

The Apple Lisa ultimately launched in January 1983. Apple charged $9,995, the equivalent of $24,600 today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the computer flopped in the marketplace, despite this wonderful advert featuring a pre-fame Kevin Costner as a proud Lisa owner:

Apple canceled the Lisa product line in 1986.

The Apple Lisa: A computer by any other name…

For Apple fans, the best-remembered anecdote about the Lisa concerns its name. Lisa was also the name of Jobs’ daughter, whose paternity he shamefully denied at the time.

Because he was in the middle of a lawsuit, Jobs claimed that “Lisa” stood for “Local Integrated System Architecture.” Some Apple engineers joked that it should stand for “Let’s Invent Some Acronym” instead.

Eventually, Jobs admitted that the computer was named after his firstborn child. In Jobs’ official biography, he told Walter Isaacson, “Obviously it was named for my daughter.”

Here in 2019, only 30 to 100 of the original Lisa computers exist. They still go for good money at auction.

Do you own a Lisa computer? Have you ever seen one in action? Let us know in the comments below.

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