Some time in 2018, the Computer History Museum (CHS) plans to release the source code for Apple’s Lisa, one of the first personal computers to feature a graphical user interface. The 1983 Lisa was a commercial failure, but it blazed the drag-and-drop trail that the Apple Macintosh would follow to ubiquity just one year later. It also kicked off one of the tensest skirmishes in Apple’s decades-long battle with Microsoft.
Ars Technica relayed the news from one of the CHS’s curators. The code had to be carefully recovered from old disks, and should be released after Apple reviews it.
Prior to the Lisa, Apple desktops worked much like IBM PCs based on Microsoft’s DOS system, which required users to laboriously enter specific commands into a single-line prompt. Apple got the idea for the Lisa’s graphical interface, complete with now-familiar drop-down menus, file folders, and windowed applications accessed with input from a mouse, from research at Xerox’s legendary PARC lab.
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But the Lisa didn’t take off, despite offering a huge leap in usability. That likely came down to price – the Lisa retailed for $9,995, or a whopping $25,209.17 in inflation-adjusted 2017 dollars. But it laid the groundwork for the Macintosh, the first PC to truly reach a mass market.
Jobs wasn’t alone in seeing the future, though – Microsoft’s Bill Gates was also well aware of the Xerox interface research. The announcement that Microsoft would launch Windows just after the Mac triggered a legendary confrontation between the two founders, chronicled in this excerpt from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs.
It remains to be seen exactly how users will be able to explore the Lisa OS once it’s released next year, but it should be a fantastic opportunity to get hands-on with the history of the future.