Apple Lisa: The ‘OK’ Computer

Apple Lisa: The 'OK' Computer
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The surface of a secretary’s desk is not the only, or necessarily the best, possible metaphor for computers. Engelbart’s early 1960s demo introduced many of the central ideas of visual interfaces without it. The Alto itself was built on a concept called the Dynabook, whose creator, Alan Kay, envisioned it as an educational computer designed for children who may never have seen the inside of an office. During the development of Lisa, interface designer Bill Atkinson was inspired by MIT’s Spatial Data Management System, a custom computing environment known as “Dataland” with a map that users could fly over with a joystick. In the 1980s, the Amiga released an operating system based on the metaphor of a utility workbench.

But by then, the major computer players were pitching their products to an audience of administrative assistants and other office workers. “Engelbart’s idea was that the computer was a tool to augment the human mind, allowing us to solve the big problems of the world, of society,” says Hansen Hsu, a historian at the Computer History Museum. He introduced the idea that knowledge workers could greatly expand their capabilities with a better interface. At Xerox and then Apple, that idea was translated into the creation of the desktop of the future.

The benefits were not just practical, but cultural. In computer havens like MIT, typing was an accepted part of coding. But in the business world, it became associated with secretarial work, or women’s work, something executives shouldn’t have to worry about. When PARC organized demos for Xerox executives, Alto’s graphics enabled him to compose a visual application called “SimKit” that would allow them to simulate running a business without even touching the keyboard. “It was all about pointing and clicking the mouse,” recalled PARC researcher Adele Goldberg. lightning dealers. “We knew these guys wouldn’t write. In those days, that was not macho.”

Even without Lisa or Xerox Star, the idea might have ended up seeming like a no-brainer. As Lisa’s team worked to nail down their design, they stumbled across a 1980 IBM research concept called Pictureworld, which envisioned a then-non-existent powerful computer that was as close to a desktop computer as possible: It wouldn’t just hit Send in an email: I would put it inside a virtual envelope and leave it in an outbox. But the IBM report portrayed Pictureworld as theoretical and, publicly, made computers look nice by describing their behind-the-scenes value for banking or booking flights. “If living with computers makes you nervous, consider another disconcerting possibility. Living without them,” warns an early 1980s ad over an image of a man hiding from a bank of mainframe computers.

And without proof, Apple’s vision of a “desktop” might not have been anything like what users expect today. Lisa’s original design, for example, did not use the now-ubiquitous file and folder system. He considered the idea and dismissed it as inefficient, settling on a text-based file cabinet that asked increasingly specific questions about how and where to create, save, move, or delete a file.

The filing cabinet was considered the best system on paper, but as the team watched how people used it, they realized it wasn’t fun at all. The constant prompts, designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith Keller, and Frank Ludolph wrote in a 1997 retrospective, “made users feel like they were playing a game of twenty questions.” They raised their concerns with Atkinson, and the group formulated an alternative based on Dataland and Pictureworld, then presented it to Lisa’s engineering manager, Wayne Rosing.

But there was a problem: Twenty Questions had already been blocked on the Lisa, and the deadline for submission was looming. Rosing didn’t want other teams to start adding new systems and according to HerzfeldHe also had a bigger fear: If Apple co-founder Steve Jobs found out about the idea before it actually worked, he could push back the entire timeline for solving it.

The result was a subterfuge that wouldn’t sound out of place. stop and catch fire. Atkinson and the interface team spent two weeks building a prototype in secret, rushing out whenever they heard Jobs approaching. Jobs realized they were hiding something, made them show it, and quickly fell in love with him, but luckily for Rosing, he only after they had solved most of the problems.

The team learned that icons and folders didn’t make creating or moving files more efficient. But users universally preferred them for playing Twenty Questions. They invited people to explore the interface with the kind of familiarity they would bring to a physical space. “The screen became, in a sense, real,” Lisa’s creators later wrote. “The interface started to disappear.”

To look at Lisa now is to see a system that is still discovering the limits of its metaphor. One of its unique quirks, for example, is its disregard for application logic. It doesn’t open an application to start writing or composing a spreadsheet; you look at a set of pads with different types of documents and tear off a sheet of paper.

But the office metaphor also had more concrete technical limits. One of Lisa’s core tenets was that she should allow users to multitask in the same way an assistant would, allowing for constant distractions as people move between windows. It was a sophisticated idea that is taken for granted in modern machines, but at the time it pushed Apple’s engineering limits and dramatically raised the price of the Lisa. And while Apple was finishing the Lisa, it was already working on another machine: the cheaper and simpler Macintosh.

“The problem that both Xerox and Apple faced with a $10,000 machine is that the users end up being secretaries, and no company is going to want to buy a $10,000 machine for a secretary,” Hsu says. “I really needed the Macintosh to bring that cost down to a quarter of that.”

And after all that, Hsu says, the real breakthrough for graphical interfaces wasn’t that it made the virtual world more familiar, but that it was easier to input things into it. physical one. “It wasn’t until desktop publishing became available, with PageMaker, PostScript, and the laser printer, that [you got] a compelling use case for a GUI-based computer, something you couldn’t do with a command line-based computer.”

Non-graphical interfaces never completely disappeared. At Apple, modes have been resurrected in the form of keyboard shortcuts, a system that’s enormously powerful yet mysterious enough that even the most experienced users are periodically shocked. Sure, engineers are regularly dipping into the command line 40 years after Lisa’s release. But for most people, a graphical system is all they’ve ever known.

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