A doomed-but-revolutionary operating system spearheaded by Steve Jobs will be free to download in 2018

The Apple Lisa, one of the very first commercial computers with a graphical user interface.

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The Apple Lisa, one of the very first commercial computers with a graphical user interface.
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Flickr/Frank Fujimoto

  • Next year, the Computer History Museum plans to release the Apple Lisa operating system for free, as open source.
  • Apple Lisa was a famous Apple flop, selling only 10,000 units on a $150 million R&D investment.
  • Former Apple CEO John Sculley forced Jobs out of the Lisa project, leading to a conflict between the two that would end with Jobs leaving Apple.

Nearly 35 years ago, in January 1983, Apple released the Lisa, the first computer for the workplace with a graphical user interface. The Lisa was a famous flop, but it’s still an important moment in Apple history – it set the stage for a conflict between cofounder Steve Jobs and CEO John Sculley that ultimately led to Jobs leaving Apple.

Soon, you’ll be able to try Lisa’s pioneering operating system for yourself: In 2018, the Computer History Museum will release the code behind the Apple Lisa operating system for free as open source, for anyone to try and tinker with. The news was announced via the LisaList mailing list for Lisa enthusiasts.

While Steve Jobs didn’t create the Lisa, he was instrumental in its development. It was Jobs who convinced the legendary Xerox PARC lab to let the Apple Lisa team visit and play with its prototypes for graphical user interfaces. And while Apple at the time said that Lisa stood for “Local Integrated System Architecture,” Jobs would later claim to biographer Walter Isaacson that the machine was actually named for his oldest daughter, Lisa Nicole Brennan-Jobs.

The Lisa pushed the boundaries for what was possible on the PC at the time: It had windows and icons, and you could sort individual documents into folders. It also required a mouse to operate. In 1983, this was cutting-edge stuff. Apple spent a reported $150 million developing the Lisa.

But the Lisa was doomed from the get-go. It cost about $10,000 in 1983, which, adjusted for inflation, would be about $24,000 today. Meanwhile, IBM offered far cheaper, albeit lower-tech, machines. Apple pulled the plug on Lisa three years after launch, with only about 10,000 units sold. The first Macintosh famously launched in 1984, carrying the torch.

Then-Apple CEO John Sculley had Jobs removed from the Lisa project, which kicked off years-long animosity between the two. Ultimately, a boardroom brawl would result in Jobs quitting in a huff to start his own company, NeXT Computer. Apple would go on to buy NeXT in 1996, bringing Jobs back into the fold. By 1997, Jobs had become CEO of Apple, leading the company to its present status as the most valuable in the world.

There are also a few interesting postscripts to the Lisa legacy.

First, Apple actually sued Microsoft over the very first version of Windows, with Jobs personally claiming that Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates had just swiped the Lisa’s proprietary technology. Gates is famously said to have retorted that he and Jobs had both visited the same Xerox PARC lab: “I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox, and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

Second, a young Kevin Costner appeared in the first TV commercial for the Lisa, which you can see here:

Either way, if you’re interested in the Apple Lisa legacy, you can look forward to the full release of the operating system and its source code in 2018.