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Apple to open source its first graphical OS from the Lisa

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Apple had a number of massive hits in the early 80s as the personal computer revolution was picking up steam. However, the Apple Lisa was not one of them. This computer was an undeniable flop, but it’s an important part of technology history. It was one of the first systems to run a graphical user interface (GUI), and included much more advanced hardware than competing systems. You may soon be able to relive the age of Lisa now that the source code has been recovered. Apple is checking over the code and could give the green light to release it in a few months.

The code was recovered thanks to the diligence of the Computer History Museum. The museum’s software curator Al Kossow announced the find on a Lisa mailing list a few days ago. According to Kossow, the code has been handed off to Apple, which is reviewing it in advance of release. Considering the age of the software, there’s not likely to be any sensitive information in there.

It’s not often a computer that performed so poorly in the marketplace has such historic significance, but the Lisa came at an unusual time. Apple was still riding high on the success of the Apple II series, but more competitors were appearing every quarter. Co-founder Steve Jobs was famously excited by the demos of a GUI he saw at Xerox in the late 1970s, and the Lisa was the first machine to leverage that technology. It even had a mouse! Apple spent upward of $ 50 million developing the first Lisa, which hit the market with a starting price of $ 9,995 in 1983. Apple only sold about 100,000 units of the Lisa, but the lessons learned from Lisa led Apple to develop the very successful Macintosh a year later. Despite predating the original Macintosh, the Lisa was significantly more powerful, with support for up to 2MB of RAM (the Mac topped out at 512KB and initially shipped with just 128KB). While the Mac’s CPU is clocked nominally faster, at 7.8MHz instead of 5MHz, the 6800K CPU and video controller can’t simultaneously communicate with system RAM. This reduced the Mac’s overall performance relative to its earlier and vastly more expensive counterpart.

Even the name “Lisa” comes with a lot of historic baggage. At the time, Apple said the name was an acronym for Local Integrated System Architecture. However, many suspected the name was a reference to Jobs’ first daughter Lisa Nicole Brennan, who he denied fathering for years. In his later years, Jobs admitted the computer was named after his daughter.

Fans of classic computing should keep an eye on the Computer History Museum’s website for the Lisa source code, as well as information about the historic importance of the Lisa. According to Kossow, the only thing included in the code dump that likely won’t make it into the final release is part of the LisaWrite word processor. That application shipped with an embedded version of the American Heritage dictionary for the spell checker. Apple doesn’t own that, so it can’t unilaterally choose to release it.

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