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 powerful computer that hewed as close to a desktop as possible: you wouldn’t just hit send on an email — you’d put it inside a virtual envelope and drop it in an outbox. But the IBM report portrayed Pictureworld as theoretical, and publicly, it made computers sound personable by describing their behind-the-scenes value for banking or flight-booking. “If living with computers makes you nervous, consider another unnerving possibility. Living without them,” warns one early ’80s ad above some clipart of a man hiding from a bank of mainframes.
And without testing, Apple’s vision of a “desktop” might have looked almost nothing like the one users expect today. The original Lisa design, for instance, didn’t use the now-ubiquitous system of files and folders. It considered the idea and discarded it as inefficient, settling instead on a text-based filer that asked increasingly specific questions about how and where to create, save, move, or delete a file.
The filer was considered the best system on paper, but as the team watched people use it, they realized it wasn’t any fun. The constant prompting, wrote designers Roderick Perkins, Dan Smith Keller, and Frank Ludolph in a 1997 retrospective, “made users feel that they were playing a game of Twenty Questions.” They raised their concerns with Atkinson, and the group workshopped an alternative that drew from Dataland and Pictureworld, then brought it to Lisa engineering manager Wayne Rosing.
But there was a problem: Twenty Questions had already been locked into the Lisa, and the deadline to ship was looming. Rosing didn’t want other teams to start adding new systems, and according to Herzfeld, he also had a bigger fear: if Apple co-founder Steve Jobs learned about the idea before it actually functioned, he might delay the entire schedule to work it out.
The result was a subterfuge that wouldn’t sound out of place in Halt and Catch Fire. Atkinson and the interface team spent two weeks building a prototype in secret, hastily quitting whenever they heard Jobs approaching. Jobs realized they were hiding something, made them show it off, and promptly fell in love with it — but, fortunately for Rosing, only after they’d hammered out most of the kinks.
Icons and folders didn’t, the team learned, make creating or moving files around more efficient. But users universally preferred them to playing Twenty Questions. They invited people to explore the interface with the kind of familiarity they might grant a physical space. “The screen became, in some sense, real,” the Lisa’s creators wrote later. “The interface began to disappear.”
To look at the Lisa now is to see a system still figuring out the limits of its metaphor. One of its unique quirks, for instance, is a disregard for the logic of applications. You don’t open an app to start writing or composing a spreadsheet; you look at a set of pads with different types of documents and tear off a sheet of paper.
But the office metaphor had more concrete technical limits, too. One of the Lisa’s core principles was that it should let users multitask the way an assistant might, allowing for constant distractions as people moved between windows. It was a sophisticated idea that’s taken for granted on modern machines, but at the time, it pushed Apple’s engineering limits — and pushed the Lisa’s price dramatically upward. And as Apple was wrapping up the Lisa, it was already working on another machine: the cheaper, simpler Macintosh.
“The problem that both Xerox and Apple ran into with a $10,000 machine is that the users end up being secretaries, and no company is going to want to buy a $10,000 machine for a secretary,” says Hsu. “It really needed the Macintosh to bring that cost down to a quarter of that.”
And after all that, says Hsu, the real breakthrough for graphical interfaces wasn’t that it made the virtual world more familiar — it was that you could more easily push things into the physical one. “It wasn’t really until desktop publishing became available, with PageMaker and PostScript and the laser printer, that [you got] a compelling use case for a graphical user interface-based computer — something that you could not do with a command-line-based computer.”
Non-graphical interfaces never completely went away. At Apple, modes were resurrected in the form of keyboard shortcuts, a system that’s hugely powerful but mysterious enough that even the most experienced users will periodically find themselves surprised. Sure, engineers regularly dip into the command line 40 years after Lisa’s launch. But for most people, a graphical system is all they’ve ever known.