[SIGCIS-Members] Counterfactual history: Did the Mac cost Apple a shot at market leadership?

Hansen Hsu hansnhsu at gmail.com
Wed Apr 26 18:24:06 PDT 2017

Hi Tom,

I think the Lisa is really the wrong machine to imagine this counterfactual. Yes, Jobs did pooh-pooh the Lisa in favor of the Mac after he got kicked off Lisa and joined the Mac. But it’s highly doubtful that the Lisa could have been successful anyway. Because a machine with similar characteristics, price point, and target market was also released by Xerox, the Star 8010, and it also failed in the market vis-a-vis a much more rudimentary, but cheaper alternative, the IBM PC.

The Lisa, despite being more capable and more modern in software architecture than the Mac, shared these characteristics of the Star.
It was too expensive, around $10,000.
It was pitched to businesses, but would have targeted secretaries, and corporations weren’t going to spend $10,000 on a glorified typewriter for their secretaries.
The Lisa, being designed for businesses, and being managed in a more traditional manner, did not have the fun personality that the Mac had due to people like Andy Herzfeld putting in little easter eggs.
The Lisa was supposed to ship with all of the applications you needed, without the need to buy third party applications. The word processor and spreadsheet and other software would have been bundled, and written by Apple. This, again, was like the Star. Yes, third party applications would have come later, but there was not a large push out of the gate to have them. This would have doomed the Lisa as a platform.

Also, Apple simply didn’t have the kind of culture to market a machine successfully to business during that era. The Apple III was a notorious failure, and it was supposed to be Apple’s answer to the IBM PC and business. It also suffered from Steve Jobs perfectionist mismanagement. 

The Mac was not an overnight success, as the 128K Mac was too limited initially. But neither was it an unmitigated failure, as Apple was able to remedy its immediate shortcomings by coming out with the 512K version and the Plus, SE, and Mac II later on, under Sculley. Yes, Jobs bares the blame for a lot of the original Mac’s shortcomings.
But its limited operating system, which became a big headache by the mid 1990s, was, because it was much more resource efficient than Lisa’s, key to the Mac’s early success.
The Mac was a case where being of limited capability was important to hit its price point and thus gain adoption. The Lisa and the Star had both been too ambitious with their software systems and thus were probably just too ahead of the curve to be successful. The Mac managed to hit a sweet spot between capability and price to gain just enough traction that it could survive its initial shortcomings and build a platform, with third party developer support. 
The collaboration with Microsoft to make Word and Excel was key.
More important was Aldus Pagemaker, which in combination with the Apple Laserwriter and Adobe Postscript, set off the desktop publishing boom and became the Mac’s killer app.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Lisa’s failings can be solely chalked up to Steve Jobs wanting to kill it in favor of the Mac, it had its own problems.

In terms of sources, while it’s not great, Steven Levy’s Insanely Great is a journalistic account that covers both the story of Lisa and Mac development. Unfortunately it’s very highly biased in favor of the Mac, your mileage may vary. 

Owen Linzmayer’s Apple Confidential might be better. It covers a wide range of Apple history in quickly digestible form. 
Michael Moritz’s Little Kingdom had journalistic access inside Apple during the development of the Mac, and was a key source for early Apple history that later accounts, including Isaacson’s, drew upon. Jobs was really upset with Moritz after edited excerpts from Moritz’s reporting came out in Time’s Man of the Year issue with the Computer on the cover instead of Steve Jobs.

Andy Herzfeld’s Revolution in the Valley is really a collection of anecdotes from his website, folklore.org, which recount stories from the development of the Mac and some from the Lisa, mostly from Herzfeld but with contributions from Steve Capps, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn, and Susan Kare.

I haven’t read Cringely’s Accidental Empires but I have seen his documentary “Triumph of the Nerds” and I don’t fully agree with his general take on Apple, especially as both of those works were written in the 1990s from the perspective of MIcrosoft’s ascendance and Apple’s downward spiral.

At CHM, we’ve conducted a few oral histories in the last year that might be very helpful.
We’ve done three sessions with Larry Tesler, and two sessions with Bob Belleville.
However these are still being processed and haven’t been posted publicly yet.

> On Apr 26, 2017, at 5:27 PM, Kimon Keramidas <kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu> wrote:
> I do doubt that Lisa would have been the answer. It was a business computer without the feel of a personal experience, and the “feel” of the Macintosh was very important and was part of its branding. The fact that so few Macintoshes sold but there were so many dedicated fans who used them for years is an interesting representation of how Jobs saw the industry being about consumer identity, communities, and passion about interface experience in a way that few others have. He was a far better marketer than an innovator after all and that is really what his legacy should be. 

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