[SIGCIS-Members] Some responses re Lisa/Mac

Thomas Haigh thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Wed Apr 26 20:37:37 PDT 2017

What an interesting set of replies. Good job SIGCIS! I'll respond to many of
these points, but group them into a single message to avoid spamming you.
(People who like clean inboxes: remember there is a digest mode available!).


First off, this whole question would probably amount to one or two
paragraphs in the project I'm working on. Like many aspects of personal
computer history, it seems like there ought to be a rich secondary
literature to draw on by now, but instead we're still reliant on classic
journalistic accounts like Mortiz, Cringely, and Levy.


Paul is right: of course I meant Macintosh II, not Apple II. Even the most
contrarian historian would have to admit that the Apple II was good for
Apple, at least initially. 


Jobs as industrial designer/emulator of Land. Interest points. As Mahoney
liked to say, including his article on the importance of historical metaphor
to the rhetoric of software engineering, nothing is unprecedented. But the
actor's choice of precedent has very important implications for their
actions. Industrial design is important here, and perhaps he'd rather have a
box that captures his ideas and doesn't sell than a clunky one that does
sell. OTOH, he was a patron and abuser of industrial designers rather than a
designer in his own right.


Some of the responses remind me that there were many other 68000 based
machines in the mid-1980s, beyond the Mac and Lisa. Early Sun and Apollo
workstations created a viable niche for graphics workstations. They, IIRC,
had similar specs to the Lisa and were if anything more expensive - but
targeted technical computing niches. This also points out the importance of
expectations and business models. Lisa is called a failure because it only
sold 100,000 units in two years, as Apple was expected to sell large volumes
for mainstream business use. If a workstation startup had sold 100,000 units
it would have been seen as hugely successful. For example, in 3Q 1985
Apollo, then the leading workstation firm, had revenues of about $55
million. That would be about 5,500 Lisas at the $10K launch price. So I
suspect that in 1983, $10K is what it a powerful 32-bit networked graphics
workstation had to sell for, and the problem was that Apple (and Xerox with
the Star) were targeting the markets that couldn't yet support that price
tag. Also, in the case of Apple at least, it didn't have the culture or
sales machine to effectively target the market it chose.


Some companies made comparable hardware more cheaply - most notably Atari in
the "power without the price" days of the Atari ST (launched 1985, as
Mac-like hardware was getting cheaper to build). This was cheaper than the
Mac, added color graphics, and even had the hard drive port that the Mac was
missing. It didn't sell at all well in the US, except to musicians who liked
the midi ports, but was fairly popular in Britain, particularly with
enthusiasts. I had one, and as Morten pointed out Apple was just too
expensive for personal users in Europe. In Germany it was widely used by
small businesses. The biggest problem was probably the cheap and dirty
operating system - a Mac knockoff called GEM with a version of CPM


This points to the importance and difficulty of OS development. The
workstations tended to use UNIX-derived systems, which reduced the burden of
development. In terms of hardware, the Lisa was as I understand basically a
Mac with a bigger screen, networking, and a hard drive. It's the focus of
the OS on personal interaction that makes them more profoundly different.
Also, as Hansen mentions, the success of Apple in gaining third party
application support, including PageMaker, which Cringely used to define the
concept of a "killer app" (i.e. something you'd buy a Mac Plus, a hard
drive, and a LaserWriter just to run). Although that particular combo must
have cost as much as a Lisa, and surely a successful Lisa would have been at
least as well placed to win adoption for desktop publishing. It is, however,
an example of an application that couldn't run effectively on a DOS PC.
Another 68000 machine, the Amiga, found success in video production.


That leads us to the importance, as Kimon suggested, of taking the "fan"
side of Apple seriously, in as much as something in the design and
personality of the Mac did inspire a loyal following. That's borne out by
Justin's memory of the students loving the underpowered little Macs. So
maybe Jobs deserves credit for that - hard to separate out the perversity
and the brilliance of the original Mac.


In the big picture it's clear that all these 68000 based GUI machines of the
mid-1980s were looking for viable niches, in part because straight forward
spreadsheet and word-processing still ran faster and more cheaply on IBM
compatibles. The GUI added a lot of overhead. So maybe it's inevitable that
the mainstream standard of the 1980s would be something like the PC. OTOH,
people in the industry at the time expected GUIs and multitasking OSes to
become mainstream sooner or later. If Apple could have successfully
established the Lisa as a high end business platform and moved it
down-market later that would probably have given it a better shot at taking
on the dominance of the PC in the late 1980s than its actual course of
establishing the Mac as with enthusiasts and education markets and trying to
move it upwards into the business mainstream.


Best wishes,






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