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The Unreliable LISA


I missed the earliest Apples, having bought a NEC PC-8001 in 1981 and then a Convergent Technologies/Burroughs B20 in 1985. Both were clients of my ad agency; neither were bad machines, with color monitors and some graphics capabilities. The B20 drove a Qume daisywheel printer at about 20 characters/second.

I was a victim of Apple's drive toward dominance with creative types. While today's G5 is highly regarded by creative professionals, this reputation was not established in 1987. When I joined Prime Computer in mid-1987 as a speechwriter, I inherited one of the first Lisas, with one 10 Mbyte hard drive, one floppy and a black-and-white display that was bit-mapped. I also had an alphanumeric terminal for a Prime system and a PC/AT with an Intel 80286 processor, a bit-mapped color display, and a link to a color printer. Soon I had a fourth computer, a Macintosh 4/40. Apple was not that special in 1987.

The Lisa was a miserable machine, prone to crashes and some rather weird results on laser printers. A single page of text or graphics could be translated into a hundred pages of gibberish. I worked many 70-hour weeks due to Lisa crashes, and nearly got fired when one crash destroyed my boss's presentation a few hours before a board meeting. Yes, I saved regularly, but a Lisa crash usually destroyed everything, including the ability to read backup copies. The only way to reboot a Lisa was to pull the plug, wait a few minutes, and try again. It was that unstable.

The Lisa died when I spilled a cup of coffee onto its keyboard at 8 PM, trying to finish a speech for the next day. I was holding the keyboard vertically over a trash can, trying to drain the coffee out, when the president walked in. He asked when he would see his speech.

I shook the keyboard to get the last of the coffee out, and held it out to him. "Your speech is in here somewhere."

I rewrote the speech on Prime's crude text editor, finishing at 2 A.M.

Prime decided to acquire Computervision during the fall of 1987. The presentation for the board of directors was authored on a Macintosh, with MacPaint. I didn't understand MacPaint, and the original author didn't understand MacPaint. I sometimes wonder if anyone really understood MacPaint.

Unfortunately, a computer support guy found a new keyboard for the Lisa. My workdays went from 12 hours to 16 hours, trying to undo/redo/edit the presentation. I loved the WYSIWYG bit-mapped text, which was revolutionary. I could bring a Prime minicomputer to its knees composing a four-page newsletter for output on a laser printer. If I made the tiniest mistake, I had to do it again. That meant the game Tetris slowed to a crawl: the highest previous score was about 6500; I gave up at about 65,000 playing Tetris while my newsletter was being processed. The Mac 4/40 ended that escapade.

My boss and I considered throwing the Lisa out of his third-story corner office into the parking lot, except we knew the glass was too strong. So one day it went out of my office on a cart, destination unknown.

The Mac 4/40, for 4 megabytes of memory and 40 mbytes of disk, lasted for many years. In spare time, I designed my house on it, with MacPaint, which evolved into Canvas. I used Canvas to design, and illustrate, my model railroad. I'm now on an original dual-processor G5, with a newer MacBook Pro when I travel. Apple's philosophy has won my heart, but it took quite a few years before I could say it was correct.

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