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Apple releases Lisa source code on landmark machine's 40th birthday

26 megabytes of history are yours for the downloading

Retro Tech Week Apple has given its blessing to the release of source code for its first mouse-powered marvel – the Lisa – to mark its 40th birthday.

The Computer History Museum scored the code and released it here along with a written celebration of the machine.

As The Register wrote when lighting candles for Lisa's 30th birthday and, oddly enough, its 36th birthday, the Lisa cost as much as a small car and gave the world its first look at a personal computer driven by a WIMP interface – an '80s acronym for windows, icons, menus and a pointer, the latter driven by a mouse.

Note that we say the Lisa was a personal computer: Xerox, the origins of the WIMP interface and mouse, had built a business computer that became known as the Star Workstation*, which offered a mouse and graphical interface. Apple's Steve Jobs saw Xerox's work and – ahem – paid homage to it in an Apple device that would succeed the command line-driven computers it already offered, and give his company a product that made the IBM PC look ancient.

The Lisa hummed along at 5MHz thanks to a 32-bit Motorola MC68000 processor, and packed a whole megabyte of memory. It offered a 5MB hard drive and a pair of 5.25-inch floppy drives – double-sided floppy drives at that. Who could need more?

Your correspondent encountered a Lisa at a computer fair in Canberra, Australia, and it was immediately obvious my Sinclair ZX Spectrum did not represent the future.

Nor, as it happens, did the Lisa. At $9,995 for a basic system (around $28,000 adjusted for inflation), its sales were not exactly comparable to hotcakes. It's worth noting that a Xerox Star system of the same era cost $75,000 (nearly $250,000 with inflation) – so at 10 grand, Lisa was only slightly terrifyingly priced.

Even so, Apple was already working on a cheaper and more reliable GUI-based computer, the Macintosh. After a short period in which Apple competed with itself, the Lisa was retired.

But by bringing the mouse and WIMPiness to mainstream attention, it set the scene for decades of computing history.

The machine's source code has been released under Apple's Academic License. That allows use and modification of the code, but not redistribution or – curiously – publishing benchmark results describing the long-moribund code's performance. The download is just 7MB, and expands to 26MB. Fonts and applications are included.

Sadly, there are no instructions on how to whip up a Lisa VM. If you really want to try the ancient machine, an enthusiast has created an emulator you can find here. If you like to watch, not touch, this vid should suffice. ®

*Pedantically speaking, Xerox's machine was called the 8010 Information System and the business automation software bundled with it was called Star – history doesn't care for such details, but we do.

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