June of 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the release of Apple’s iPhone, a device that not only revolutionized the way the world communicates, but also helped catapult Apple into a global economic and technological powerhouse. At a time when an estimated 700 million users around the world currently enjoy the fruits of Steve Jobs’ greatest triumph, here’s a look at one of his less successful ventures: the Apple Lisa.
What Was the Apple Lisa?
The year 1978 was a very different time for Steve Jobs and Apple. Coming off the success of the Apple II—one of the first personal computers to be mass-produced, and Apple’s greatest commercial success at the time—the company decided its next challenge would be to conquer the desktop business computer market.
Five years and $50 million later, the Apple Lisa made its debut on January 19, 1983. A hulking beige box with a built-in monitor alongside two floppy-disk drives, the machine boasted several major innovations never before marketed to the masses. Among them, Jobs decided the Lisa would operate with a Graphical User Interface (GUI), which would let users point and click on visual icons instead of typing in text commands—and allowed them to store files on a virtual desktop for easy access. Its other “first”: the inclusion of a computer mouse, which enabled the pointing and clicking. The Lisa was named after his daughter—although Jobs wouldn’t acknowledge this, or his daughter, until much later in his life.
Unlike later product unveilings, where Jobs was the star attraction, he wasn’t on hand at the Lisa debut. He had been removed from the mostly finished project by CEO John Sculley in 1982 and reassigned to work on the Macintosh.
What Doomed the Apple Lisa?
Despite all of its advancements and innovations, the Lisa was a widely panned failure, only selling 10,000 units during its three-year production run, before being discontinued in 1986. Many factors can be blamed for its shortcomings. First, the staggering $9,995 retail price (roughly $24,000 in today’s money), was simply too high for most businesses. It was also clunky and heavy, and the components under its hood, so to speak, were underpowered and unreliable.
HISTORY spoke with Rick Tetzel, co-author with Brent Schlender, of Becoming Steve Jobs, who offered another theory about why the Lisa failed.
According to Tetzel, the project was doomed from the beginning. “Apple was a consumer company and didn’t have the DNA to produce a great business computer,” he said, noting that Jobs himself was more fixated on the personal computer market. “He tried to give the Lisa the kind of easy-to-use-features that would eventually make the Mac a success, but he was too early and focused on the wrong market.”
Unfortunately, the Lisa didn’t just cost Apple a few million dollars and some wasted development time. According to Tetzel, the Lisa’s failure helped marginalize Apple for many years: “Once IBM and Microsoft established themselves in the market for personal computers for business, Apple was rendered a minor player… The Lisa’s failure was one part of what led to Apple’s decline.”
Interestingly, when the Lisa was rendered obsolete by newer, cheaper, more powerful machines, Apple buried several thousand units in a Logan, Utah landfill—in part, reportedly, to take a tax write-off on their depreciation rather than donate or try and sell them at a deep discount.
Is There A Silver Lining to the Apple Lisa?
Yes and no. On one hand, the company found itself out of the business PC market, and in a financial decline. On the other, Jobs was moved to another project—the Macintosh. Incorporating many of the innovations developed for the Lisa project, the Macintosh hit the market one year later to much fanfare (remember that iconic “1984”-themed Super Bowl ad?) as the world’s first affordable graphical-user-interface computer. It would profoundly change personal computing, just as the iPhone would revolutionize mobile devices 23 years later. While a dud itself, the Lisa played an important supporting role in those triumphs to come.