Geek Trivia: Last but not Lisa

How did Apple unload its final unsold inventory of the original Lisa computer?

One of the most colossal blunders in personal computing history hit the market with a painful thud 23 years ago this week. On Jan. 19, 1983, Apple Computer's much-ballyhooed and wildly unsuccessful Lisa PC debuted, earning renown both for its remarkable technical innovations and its notorious commercial failings.

The Apple Lisa was the first commercially available stand-alone PC to employ both a graphic user interface (GUI) and a mouse. Developed under the direct supervision of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, Apple intended the Lisa to revolutionize office computing as an all-in-one technical solution.

And before you start quibbling just yet, keep this in mind: While the Xerox Alto was the first PC to include both technologies, it was never commercially available. And while the Xerox Star also included both a mouse and a GUI, it was part of a larger computerized office system that incorporated multiple workstations and file servers connected via Ethernet.

Beyond the GUI and the mouse, the original Lisa boasted several hardware and software features that were well ahead of their time. First and foremost, the Lisa came standard with nearly one megabyte of RAM, far in excess of other personal computers in the early 1980s. Similarly, the Lisa was one of the first microcomputers to employ virtual memory, and it was among the first to offer multitasking.

And, for all those DOS-purists-still-angry-that-Windows-hides-the-command-line folks out there, the Lisa had two operating modes: the GUI-based Lisa Office System and the text-based Workshop development environment. (Still, this was an Apple product, so even the Workshop had a GUI text editor.)

Too bad the Lisa cost almost $10,000 per unit and suffered woeful performance lags. The exorbitant amount of RAM and other high-end features made it significantly more expensive than IBM PCs and Apple's own Macintosh, which itself ran a faster, leaner GUI.

These drawbacks helped ensure that the Lisa never gained any significant market traction or adoption. After six years of frustrations and failures, Apple finally took a drastic and somewhat poignant measure to rid itself of the last 2,700 Lisa PCs it had in stock in 1989.


What drastic and somewhat poignant measure did Apple Computer employ to rid itself of the final 2,700 units of its failed Lisa personal computers in 1989?

Much like Atari did with its surplus video game cartridges in 1982, Apple simply bulldozed its remaining Lisa PCs into a landfill. The tax write-off from renting the landfill space in Logan, Utah made this extreme measure more financially appealing than trying to reclaim or sell the unwanted merchandise.

It was a harsh fiscal reality that illustrated just how badly the $10,000 computer had underachieved. A small plot of a garbage dump was worth more than a shipment of computers that should have retailed for roughly $27 million.

Despite its inauspicious demise, some computer historians laud the Lisa for breaking new ground and for paving the way for future, more successful personal computers. While the Lisa itself was far too costly to deploy as a universal typewriter replacement in most businesses, several companies purchased a handful of units as trial balloons for integrating personal computers into business processes.

Some suggest that the eventual success of the faster and cheaper Macintosh computer lines was due to the groundwork laid by the Lisa, which familiarized office personnel with graphic user interfaces and their associated applications. Apple was probably aware of this, which may explain why it called the third iteration of the Lisa—yes, they actually pursued the model line for a few years—the Macintosh XL instead of the Lisa 3.

No one knows exactly why Apple named it the Lisa in the first place. Theories abound that Steve Jobs named the computer after his daughter Lisa, but no one can confirm this.

Other sources suggest that Lisa stood for Local Integrated Software Architecture. Apple fans, always quick to react to such peripheral issues with Apple products, responded to this uncertainty with the mock Lisa etymology, Let's Invent Some Acronym.

Today, the surviving Lisa PCs enjoy roles as valued collector's items, exhibits in computing history museums and, of course, footnotes in the ever-expanding annals of Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble isn't actually a quibble; rather, it's a pun so cleverly painful that it deserves some further publication. In response to the January 4 edition of Geek Trivia, "A trial of the Spirit," TechRepublic member CIOandManager tossed out this humorous tidbit:

"Apparently coined by one of the technical staff in briefing a group on the problem: 'The Spirit was willing, but the flash was weak!'"

If you don't get it, you obviously need to reread the previous column and—above all—keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.


Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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