Apple Lisa: the ‘OK’ Computer
The surface of a secretary’s desk isn’t the only — or necessarily the best — possible metaphor for computers. Engelbart’s early ’60s demo introduced many of the core ideas of visual interfaces without it. The Alto itself was built on a concept called the Dynabook, whose creator, Alan Kay, imagined it as an educational computer designed for children who might have never seen the inside of an office. During the Lisa’s development, interface designer Bill Atkinson took inspiration from the MIT Spatial Data Management System, a personalized computing environment known as “Dataland” with a map that users could fly over using a joystick. In the ’80s, Amiga released an operating system built on the metaphor of a utility workbench.
But by then, the major computing players were pitching their wares to an audience of administrative assistants and other office workers. “Engelbart’s idea was that the computer was a tool for augmenting the human mind, allowing us to solve the big problems in the world, in society,” says Hansen Hsu, historian at the Computer History Museum. It introduced the idea that knowledge workers could vastly amplify their capabilities with a better interface. At Xerox and then Apple, that idea was translated into creating the desktop of the future.
The benefits weren’t just practical — they were cultural. At computing havens like MIT, typing was an accepted part of coding. But in the business world, it was associated with secretarial — or women’s — work, not something executives should bother with. When PARC arranged demos for Xerox executives, the Alto’s graphics let it compose a visual application called “SimKit” that would let them simulate running a business without ever touching the keyboard. “It was all mouse-pointing and mouse-clicking,” recalled PARC researcher Adele Goldberg in Dealers of Lightning. “We knew these guys wouldn’t type. In those days, that wasn’t macho.”
Even without the Lisa or the Xerox Star, the idea could have ended up seeming obvious. As the Lisa team worked to nail down its design, they stumbled across a 1980 IBM research concept called Pictureworld, which imagined a then-nonexistent…