Milestones in the History of Technology: Week of January 18, 2016


January 19, 1983

Apple introduces Lisa, a $9,995 PC for business users. Many of its innovations such as the graphical user interface, a mouse, and document-centric computing, were taken from the Alto computer developed at Xerox PARC, introduced as the $16,595 Xerox Star in 1981.

Jobs recalled that he and the Lisa team were very relieved when they saw the Xerox Star: “We knew they hadn’t done it right and that we could–at a fraction of the price.” Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs: “The Apple raid on Xerox PARC is sometimes described as one of the biggest heists in the chronicles of industry.” Isaacson quotes Jobs on the subject: “Picasso had a saying–‘good artists copy, great artists steal’–and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas–and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas… They [Xerox management] were copier-heads who had no clue about what a computer could do… Xerox could have owned the entire computer industry.”

Says Isaacson: “…there is more to it than that… In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important.” True, but given that Lisa didn’t become a commercial success, “execution” obviously means much more than “getting the product right.”

Byte magazine called the Lisa “the most important development in computers in the last five years, easily outpacing [the IBM PC].” But the intended business customers were reluctant to purchase the Lisa because of its high launch price of $9,995, making it largely unable to compete with the less expensive IBM PCs. Steve Jobs’ announcement that Apple will release a superior system in the future which would not be compatible with the Lisa didn’t help.

The release of the Apple Macintosh in January 1984, which was faster and much less expensive, was the most significant factor in the demise of the Lisa.

Apple_Macintosh-128kJanuary 24, 1984

The Apple Macintosh is launched, together with two applications, MacWrite and MacPaint, designed to show off its interface. It was the first mass-market personal computer featuring an integral graphical user interface and mouse. By April 1984, 50,000 Macintoshes were sold.

Rolling Stones announced that “This the future of computing” and the magazine’s 1984 article is full of quotable quotes:

Steve Jobs: “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I know this thing is going to be the next great milestone in this industry. Every bone in my body says it’s going to be great, and people are going to realize that and buy it.”

Bill Gates: “People concentrate on finding Jobs’ flaws, but there’s no way this group could have done any of this stuff without Jobs. They really have worked miracles.”

Mitch Kapor, developer of Lotus 1-2-3, a best-selling program for the IBM PC: “The IBM PC is a machine you can respect. The Macintosh is a machine you can love.”

Here’s Steve Jobs introducing the Macintosh at the Apple shareholders meeting on January 24, 1984. And the Mac said: “Never trust a computer you cannot lift.”

In January 1984, I started working for NORC, a social science research center at the University of Chicago. Over the next 12 months or so, I’ve experienced the shift from large, centralized computers to personal ones and the shift from a command-line to a graphical user interface.

I was responsible, among other things, for managing $2.5 million in survey research budgets. At first, I used the budget management application running on the University’s VAX mini-computer (“mini,” as opposed to “mainframe”). I would logon using a remote terminal, type some commands and enter the new numbers I needed to record. Then, after an hour or two of hard work, I pressed a key on the terminal, telling the VAX to re-calculate the budget with the new data I’ve entered. To this day I remember my great frustration and dismay when the VAX came back telling me something was wrong in the data I entered. Telling me what exactly was wrong was beyond what the VAX—or any other computer of the time—could do.

So I basically had to start the work from the beginning and hope that on the second or third try I will get everything right and the new budget spreadsheet will be created.  This, by the way, was no different from my experience working for a bank a few years before, where I totaled by hand on an accounting machine the transactions for the day. Quite often I would get to the end of the pile of checks only to find out that the accounts didn’t balance because somewhere I entered a wrong number.

This linear approach to accounting and finance changed in 1979 when Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented Visicalc, the first electronic spreadsheet and the first killer app for personal computers.

Steven Levy describes the way financial calculations were done at the time (on paper!) and Brickiln’s epiphany in 1978 when he was a student at the Harvard Business School:

The problem with ledger sheets was that if one monthly expense went up or down, everything – everything – had to be recalculated. It was a tedious task, and few people who earned their MBAs at Harvard expected to work with spreadsheets very much. Making spreadsheets, however necessary, was a dull chore best left to accountants, junior analysts, or secretaries. As for sophisticated “modeling” tasks – which, among other things, enable executives to project costs for their companies – these tasks could be done only on big mainframe computers by the data-processing people who worked for the companies Harvard MBAs managed.

Bricklin knew all this, but he also knew that spreadsheets were needed for the exercise; he wanted an easier way to do them. It occurred to him: why not create the spreadsheets on a microcomputer?

At NORC, I experienced first-hand the power of that idea when I started managing budgets with Visicalc, running on an Osborne laptop. Soon thereafter I migrated to the first IBM PC at NORC which ran the invention of another HBS student, Mitch Kapor, who was also frustrated with re-calculation and other delights of paper or electronic spreadsheets running on large computers.

Lotus 1-2-3 was an efficient tool for managing budgets that managers could use themselves without wasting time on redundant work. You had complete control of the numbers and the processing of the data, you didn’t have to wait for a remote computer to do the calculations only to find out you need to enter the data again.  To say nothing, of course, about modeling, what-if scenarios, the entire range of functions at your fingertips.

But in many respects, the IBM PC (and other PCs) was a mainframe on a desk. Steve Jobs and the Lisa and Macintosh teams changed that by giving us an interface that made computing easy, intuitive, and fun. NORC got 80 Macs that year, mostly used for computer-assisted interviewing. I don’t think there was any financial software available for the Mac at the time and I continued to use Lotus 1-2-3 on the IBM PC. But I played with the Mac any opportunity I got. Indeed, there was nothing like it at the time. There was no doubt in my mind that it represented the future of computing.

It took sometime before the software running on most PCs adapted to the new personal approach to computing, but eventually Windows came along and icons and folders ruled the day. Microsoft also crushed all other electronic spreadsheets with Excel and did the same to competing word-processing and presentation tools.

But Steve Jobs triumphed at the end with yet another series of magic tricks. At the introduction of the iPhone, he should have said (or let the iPhone say): “Never trust a computer you cannot put it in your pocket.”



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One Response to Milestones in the History of Technology: Week of January 18, 2016

  1. I also have many story of relevance for th evolution of Computing since I started my career onCDC 6400.

    You need to add at the end the iWatch, it is FAR more exciting even that the iPhone.

    I enjoy reading you

    Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN Director & Founder Leaders in Pharmaceutical Business Intelligence, Boston @pharma_BI Co-Founder, GDE Enterprises , Boston, USA and Lausanne, Switzerland e-Mail: SkypeID: HarpPlayer83

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