On the Apple Lisa & Macintosh XL

Mac Observer points out that this Saturday is the 25th anniversary of the Macintosh XL/Lisa project being scrapped:

Apple officially discontinued the Macintosh XL, née Lisa, on April 29, 1985, and the last Lisa rolled off the assembly line at the Carrollton, Texas, factory on May 15. Despite its lack of market acceptance during its initial availability, the Lisa now enjoys strong demand among vintage computer collectors on eBay who recognize its importance as the forerunner to the Macintosh.

Released in 1983, the Lisa was a game-changing machine. The GUI-driven experience — driven by a mouse — was unlike anything the public had seen before. However, the machine was plagued with problems. The custom-built floppy drives failed easily, there was very little software available for the platform and the cost was very high — at $9,995 price tag, the machines sold quite poorly.

The biggest problem for the Lisa was Apple itself. In January 1984, the Macintosh was released at a much lower $2,500 pricetag. The Mac had many more features than the Lisa and a larger software library. The Macintosh outsold the Lisa very quickly, and was soon the system of choice for Apple customers.

Four short months later — April 1984 — Apple released MacWorks, which allowed the Lisa to emulate the Macintosh ROM. This solution was based entirely on the floppy drives — it could not use a hard disk drive for storage. To call it rough is an understatement.

One year later, Apple released the Macintosh XL. In reality, the XL was just re-badged a Lisa that ran Macintosh System 5 in emulation (via MacWorks XL) in a much smoother fashion than the Lisa machines, including hard drive support.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Macintosh XL did fairly well, at least in comparison to the Lisa, which sold only 10,000 units in two years.

The XL was discontinued in September 1985 due to a lack of parts to repair existing machines — their factories had all been retooled to build new Macintosh systems. The Lisa was officially discontinued in August 1986, but the model hadn’t actually been for sale for some time by that point.

In 1986, Apple offered customers the chance to trade in their Lisa or XL systems for $2600 off a new Mac Plus and Hard Disk 20 system. All remaining inventory was destroyed thee years later. Tim Hall of American Heritage:

One September day in 1989 about 2,700 Apple Lisa computers were unceremoniously buried in a landfill in Logan, Utah. In an industry where rapid obsolescence is not only the norm but a goal, the mass burial elicited few tears from anyone except insiders. Yet this prosaic event put an end to perhaps the greatest and most revolutionary failure in the history of computing.

The most interesting thing to me about the Lisa and Macintosh XL era is the fact that Apple had three competing product lines — in 1984, Apple was selling the Apple II line, the Macintosh and the Lisa. In short, Apple’s public offerings were scattered and the company was stretched too thin internally.

Steve Jobs handpicked the best engineers from the II and Lisa teams, crippling their development for the sake of the Macintosh project. He had been kicked off the Lisa project in 1982, and was determined to release a computer that could outsell both the Apple II and the Lisa.

In doing so, he simultaneously changed the PC industry forever and almost tore Apple apart. The chain of events that started in 1982 led to his ousting from the company in May 1985.

It’s pretty easy to see that the XL was a quick and dirty fix to the problem, but considering it was for sale for only 9 months, it’s hard to believe Apple thought it was a viable solution. Simply killing the Lisa would have solved Apple’s problems, but rebadging it as the Macintosh XL muddied the product lines and put sub-par hardware and software on desks of thousand of customers.

That type of decision making is what led Apple into the Dark Ages of the 1990s with several competing and overlapping product lines; the Performa, Quadra, Centris, LC and the Power Macintosh all stem from the Lisa and Macintosh XL philosophy. This table shows just how complicated things became.

Some say that the Apple of today is repeating those mistakes. Leopard was delayed because of the iPhone, the AppleTV continues to languish and there is no news in site about OS X 10.7. Even though there is some overlap in the current product line, it is no where near is confusing as it once was. Time will tell if the lessons of the Macintosh XL have been forgotten. I hope they haven’t, for everyone’s sake.