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Apple Macintosh vs Lisa

A coworker asked me what the difference was between the Apple Macintosh and the Lisa. Admittedly, it’s hard to compare and contrast the two. But the Lisa was more than just an expensive Macintosh. Let’s take a look at the Apple Macintosh vs Lisa.

What was the Apple Lisa?

Apple Macintosh vs Lisa

The Apple Lisa looks a lot like a Mac, and the similarity is more than skin deep. But the Lisa flopped while the Mac eventually became successful.

The Apple Lisa was Steve Jobs’s pre-Macintosh project at Apple. Tellingly, Jobs took over the Macintosh project after the board of directors took the Lisa project away from him. The Mac was Jobs’ attempt to get it right a second time. Sort of.

The Lisa looks like part of the Mac family. It shares the same design language and a similar design with a monitor integrated with the CPU with a separate keyboard and external hard disk. It also shares the same Motorola 68K CPU and had a similar memory capacity. Like the Mac and unlike any other computer available outside of Xerox at the time, it used a mouse and a graphical user interface.
The Lisa also came out earlier, in 1983.

But despite its similarities with the Mac, the Lisa generally gets lumped in with the Apple 3 among Apple’s greatest failures, not with the Mac, which needless to say, ultimately succeeded.

Why the Lisa failed

So why did the Lisa flop, when the Mac succeeded? It’s not terribly complicated.

The Lisa was too expensive, too complicated, too ambitious, and too far ahead of its time, and not in a good way like the Amiga from the same time period.

Even though the Lisa had the same CPU as the Mac, because it came out a year earlier, it had an older, slower version of it. The Lisa ran at five megahertz when the Mac ran at eight. That 37.5% difference was huge in the early 1980s. Neither machine had any power to spare.

And yet, even though the Mac had a a faster CPU, the Lisa operating system was more demanding. The Mac had a modern user interface, but it only ran one program at a time. The Lisa had multitasking. It wasn’t modern multitasking like OSX or Windows NT, but it was cooperative multitasking like system 7 or Windows 3 had. It also had memory protection, which was a very advanced feature for 1983. Unix had that, and Windows wouldn’t get it until Windows NT came out nearly 10 years later.

The problem was to do memory protection correctly on a 5 MHz CPU, you really needed some extra hardware called an MMU. Apple left out the MMU to save costs. Why Apple couldn’t include an MMU in a $10,000 computer is beyond me, but the result was doing the memory protection entirely in software, which increased overhead and made the Lisa feel even more under powered.

So the Lisa was priced like a $10,000 Unix workstation, but it didn’t perform like one.

The Mac was much less ambitious, but it felt more responsive. It seemed like the more powerful computer, and it cost half as much.

Apple Macintosh vs Lisa

It also helps that the Mac was less weird than the Lisa. The Lisa had weird non-standard disk drives that quickly proved unreliable. The Mac used three and a half inch drives that were very new at the time, but not proprietary to Apple. The lack of an eject button makes the early Mac drives unreliable today, but that problem took decades to emerge. Compared to the weird twiggy drives in the Lisa, the Mac drives seemed like Hondas.

The lesson of the Lisa

The modern Mac of course resembles the Lisa more than it resembles the original Mac. A modern Mac can multitask, has memory protection, and does everything Lisa did, but it does it well, and makes that original Mac feel like a toy. When it comes to Macintosh vs Lisa, some of those differences have faded over time.

But the modern Mac runs an operating system that was originally designed to run on much more powerful hardware than the Lisa.

1983 was an interesting time for computing. The industry was still very young, but it was possible to see the future. Not only that, the future was for sale. It was expensive, so the overwhelming majority of consumers opted to buy the much cheaper computers available at the time, even though they seemed antiquated by comparison. The Lisa, The Mac, and their competitors gave a glimpse of the ’90s in the early ’80s. But as someone who was alive at the time, I can say we read about them, talked about them, and saw them at Computerland and similar high-end computer stores, much more than we bought them.

I’ve seen a Lisa, but only once since the 1980s. Only about 10,000 units sold, which is a remarkably small number for a Steve Jobs-designed Apple product.

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