John Couch on Lisa’s software revolution and the perils of market research

Filed under: People,Software

On January 26 1983 two executives from Apple, David Larson and John Couch, presented the Apple IIe and the Apple Lisa to the Boston Computer Society.

While Larson’s part was devoted to the newest evolution of the Apple II line, the Apple IIe, for Couch it was the first public presentation of a big project he had worked on for roughly four years. At the time John Couch had the role of Vice President of the Personal Office Systems Division, a “Division” created ad hoc for the Lisa by Apple CEO Michael Scott in 1980, when he reorganized Apple along product lines.

Couch’s speech is available online: it starts at 32:57 and incorporates a short video slideshow. The first part is about the work done with the Lisa and the reasoning behind it. I found it very significant so I’ve done a rough transcription, followed by some notes and commentary to provide a bit more context.

I’d like to share with you a bit of the history of the [Lisa] product […]
I joined Apple in mid-1978 when, for the first time, we were attempting to prove to the world that the personal computer market really existed. That market grew out of hardware technologies, as all of you know.
I tell the story that when I left Grad School in Berkeley (?) in 1972 I bought a home in the Valley there for 27’000 US dollars and a computer of the power of today’s Apple IIe was selling for about 200’000 dollars.
You can’t find a house in the Valley for 200’000 dollars now. [laughter]
It’s a very visual way of seeing what hardware technology has done over the last ten years and we’re going to talk about tonight is the software technology and software technology that has been developed over the last couple of years, in particular taking advantage of some of the evolving hardware technology.

So I joined Apple in ’78 and Steve [Jobs] and I sort of did some blue skying (?) in the last part of 1978, saying “Look, we know that this personal computer market is growing, it’s going to emerge out of the hardware technology, we know that we’re going to have 16 and 32 bit machines, we know that we’re going to have megabytes of memory, two megabytes of memory, you know, what are we going to do in 1980s? Are we going to run the same damn software that we ran on maxis and minis and then on micros? Or are we going to, you know, to really attempt to solve some problems?”

And so we started talking about systems that were easy to use, systems that were integrated. And to kind of help you get into the way of thinking I brought a film tonight. It’s only seven minutes. It’s a sort of video slideshow that we did for the Sales people. We did it for internal reasons. We wanted to be able to communicate to our own internal sales people last october [1982, nda] in Acapulco (?)

[The video has] Steve mentioning that you can find a sort of common theme throughout Apple and we sort of build products that we ourselves want, as individuals.

I’ve been involved in products in the past that [were] similar to this. […] The first product where I was getting sort of the feeling of history repeating itself, the first product that I was associated with was the HP 35. If you go back by the early 1970s you will remember this 399 USD calculator. The president of HP at the time spent a ton of money going out and doing marketing research whether or not the market was ready for this new technology called the four function (?) calculator and the marketing research group came back and said “Don’t build it because nobody wants it.” And Bill Hewlett said “Hey, I want it and in fact i want it to fit into my pockets, so we’re going ahead with the product.” [laughter] Needles to say I think we all look back at the impact that product had in society in the 1970s, in fact I think the largest slide rule company at the time when the HP 35 was introduced was out of business 18 months later, ‘cause they didn’t see that particular technology coming.

Something similar with the original Apple II [the Apple I, actually, nda] when Steve [Jobs] and Woz wanted to build that. They wanted the product for themselves. If they hadn’t been a garage operation they probably would have gone and commissioned a marketing research group, and I’m convinced that that group would’ve come back in 1976 and said “Don’t build the personal computer because nobody wants it.”
You know, I admit I may even have been one of those people in 1976, “What I’m going to do with a personal computer?”, not really understanding the technology at the time.

This product [the Lisa] exhibits all of the same type of reactions […] a hundred people through different companies with these sneak programs… I, for the last 18 months I’ve been trying to describe something to people without showing to them and that’s been a very difficult process. We would bring these people in, we would talk about the technology and how the personal computer market has grown out of a hardware technology and we would talk about this new market called “Personal Office System”, and their reaction at first would be always be the same: “What is a ‘Personal Office System’ and why do I need a ‘Personal Office System’? And really what is this software technology that you’re talking about?”

The reaction would turn around 180 degrees after they had the opportunity to sit down and use the machine. I think that was best demonstrated last week when Steve and I were in New York for press tours and one of the fellas we were giving a presentation to didn’t really understand what this software technology was and didn’t quite understand what we were talking about until he actually sat down and used the machine and he said “You know, I think I came here thinking I knew everything there was to know about this Lisa system and obviously I knew nothing.” He said “You guys realize what you’ve done?” […] He said “You just built the first manual transmission computer!” and I said “What do you mean?” and he said “Well my grandmother never could drive until manual transmission came. You’ve just built the first computer that my grandmother can use!”

There are some aspects which I think deserve a bit of detail and explanations.

The first thing is the reiterated use of the term “Software technologies”, which was an important concept at Apple at the time. One thing cannot be stressed enough, and that is that the GUI revolution of the Lisa (and then of the Mac) was all about the software. It was a “software thing”, made possible by powerful enough hardware such as the Motorola 68000 and less and less expensive RAM.
Couch speaks about “Personal Office System” because, as I wrote at the beginning, his role at Apple was that of head of the “Personal Office Systems Division”, not of the “Lisa division”.

Couch and Jobs

Another interesting thing is the fruitful relationship between Couch and Jobs.
While Couch speaks a lot about Jobs and the conclusion they came up together, it is important to remember that in 1983 they were in total competition. After being denied the reins of the Lisa, Jobs took possession of the Macintosh project from Jef Raskin and for a while the two teams were opponents. Jobs even bet (and lost) 5000 USD with Couch that the Mac would beat the Lisa to the market.
And yet, regardless of any competition or animosity at the time, it is evident that during the early years they came up with and shared a lot of important ideas and opinions.

One very important opinion that both Jobs and Couch definitely held is that sometimes market research isn’t helpful at all. In fact, when there’s a new game-changing product, market research should be ignored, and Jobs demonstrated this again and again in the following decades of Apple products.

In 1987 Apple engineer (and Macintosh II cocreator) Mike Dhuey stated that “Steve Jobs thought that he was right and didn’t care what the market wanted.”

More than twenty years later former Apple retail head Ron Johnson recalled how Steve Jobs’ “ability to incisively critique a creative endeavor was second to none” and most importantly that “[…] his intuition, his understanding of what customers would respond to was unparalleled. It was a gift for me to work with him because you’re always in business when you’re inventing things you’ve got to balance the dream with the data. [For] most people the data overtakes the decision making and then you don’t have a dream. Steve always stayed focused on the prize.”

Note: the first picture is a still capture of the video recording of the Boston event, while the second, showing Couch with Jobs and a third, unidentified man, is taken from the website. Both images are dated 1983.

Saturday 15 February 2020, 12:18 pm
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“Revolution In The Valley”

Filed under: Books

This post was written and published on Patreon. Please consider supporting Stories of Apple to help the research and production of new content.

“Revolution In The Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made”
Authors: Andy Hertzfeld & VVAA
Publisher: O’Reilly
Other info: 320 pages of text with pictures; also available in ebook form

“Revolution In The Valley” is the most authoritative text on the origins of the Macintosh: it is fundamental reading, and also a funny one. This can sound as excessive praise but the fact that Andy Hertzfeld and the other authors were all Apple employees and part of the original Mac development team, is the first clue that this is probably a must-read book if you are an Apple historian, fan or long-time user.

The textual contents of the book have been originally published online, since 2003, on the website. The project started with Hertzfeld’s recollections, written in mid-90s, about working at Apple on the Macintosh project, and was later expanded.

Unlike other journalistic works about Apple, and its printed version, “Revolution In The Valley”, are basically an attempt at choral storytelling, penned firsthand by many of the people who created the hardware and software of “computer for the rest of us”.

Alongside Hertzfeld (who wrote the bulk of the material) you will also discover contributions by (among others) Steve Capps, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn, Bill Atkinson, Susan Kare, Daniel Kottke and Caroline Rose, all adding to a mesmerizing and vivid patchwork of tales and tidbits about groundbreaking hardware decisions, managerial dead-ends, personality clashes, crazy jokes, cool hacks, eureka moments and days and nights of heavy work under impossible deadlines by a group of insanely talented people.

Among my favorite stories are two that offer a mix of behind-the-scenes insight and humor: “I Still Remember Regions”, where after a serious accident Bill Atkinson’s strives to assure Steve Jobs that he still remembers a key programming solution he devised, and “Quick, Hide In This Closet!”, a group effort to go behind Jobs’ back and make sure a new (and better) technology will work with the Macintosh.

The book, of course, has a conventional table of contents and lacks the hypertextual nature of the website (which is very handy) and leaves to the reader the task of putting the whole picture together after reading the many stories. On the other hand “Revolution In The Valley” is a beautifully designed object and also offers some extra content, most of all an expanded iconographic component. In its pages, alongside the texts, you will find sketches, pixel-art, ads, screenshots, Susan Kare’s internal flyers done with MacPaint, nice full-resolution pictures of the authors and some rare and eye-opening images such as a series of Polaroids chronicling the evolution of the graphical interface of the Lisa.

Wednesday 20 November 2019, 12:30 pm
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Steve’s motorcycle

This post was originally written and published on Patreon. Please consider supporting Stories of Apple to help the research and production of new content.

After starting out in the early Eighties in Apple’s first offices, after a couple of years the development of the Macintosh picked up steam. Needing more room it was moved to the much spacious Bandley 3 building in Apple’s Campus.

As related by early Mac developer Andy Hertzfeld in the spring of 1984, the Bandley 3 lobby began to fill up with various items and artefacts. Among them were “a couple of stand-up video games, a fancy stereo system with the first CD player I ever saw, and, incongruously, a grand piano and a motorcycle, placed there by Steve Jobs as examples of great product design.”

The first items weren’t that out of place, in particular video games, which were a staple of Apple culture. Both Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and Mac hardware developer Burrell Smith were very avid arcade players and there are pictures of a grinning Woz in front of what is probably one of the Bandley 3 cabinets.

Much stranger was indeed the presence in the atrium of a piano and of a motorcycle. Made respectively by Bösendorfer and BMW, they were undoubtedly very beautiful products but it was rumored that the real reason Jobs put there the expensive, german-made items was another. More than to inspire his employees, Jobs wanted to impress Hartmut Esslinger of Frogdesign, the german industrial designer that he was wooing at the time, and who would help propel Apple products to international stardom.

While the Bösendorfer was probably bought just for its symbolic and aesthetic value (Jobs couldn’t play the piano) the motorcycle was another matter entirely and has a more interesting story. (more…)

Tuesday 30 April 2019, 2:00 pm
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Larry Tesler on PARC and Apple

Filed under: People

On the 9th of November 2011 a group of engineers and other notable people who worked with Steve Jobs talked publicly about the Apple and Pixar founder during an evening organized by The Churchill Club, a Silicon Valley non-profit business and technology forum.


Among them was Larry Tesler, who started as an engineer at Xerox’s famed PARC center, where (among other things) he invented the technique we now use to copy and paste on a computer and then worked for 17 years at Apple as VP of Advanced Tech and Chief Scientist.

I’ve taken the liberty to transcribe (and edit a bit) the very interesting six minutes of the video recording (start at 30:45, or see a clip) where Tesler tells about Apple’s involvement with PARC, its technologies and people.

“Xerox was facing a lot of competition from Asian companies in copiers when their patents expired and one thing they found was that they had a very high manufacturing cost and they were really having trouble competing with these new forces in the market.
At the same time they had Xerox PARC, developing very exciting technologies including the Ethernet, GUIs with windows and improved mice from what existed before. (more…)

Tuesday 08 November 2016, 2:00 pm
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The Apple III, Steve Jobs and Jerry Manock

Filed under: Hardware,People

Apple’s first computer designed for the enterprise market, the first not engineered by Steve Wozniak. And Infinite Loop’s first major failure

The Apple III went down as a costly and embarrassing failure. It tarnished Apple’s image and contributed to lose a good chunk of the precious market lead the Cupertino company had conquered with the Apple II.

Announced in May 1980, but made available only several months later, the Apple III was sold at prices ranging from 4000 to 7000 USD, depending on the configuration. It was a professional machine partially compatible with the Apple II, an 8 bit computer also powered by the same 6502 CPU, but with a higher clock. It also had more RAM, a higher screen resolution, built-in disk drives and a keyboard featuring upper and lowercase keys and a numeric keypad.

The often quoted story about the Apple III goes that it was a failure because of Steve Jobs’ unreasonable demands, most of all his dislike for fans, whose addition he forbade. This design choice supposedly caused such overheating and malfunctions that Apple was forced to replace 14000 units, even after having users perform odd procedures to try and fix the computer.

It’s undeniable that the Apple III hardware had some kind of serious problem, but in 2007 the original case co-designer, Jerry Manock, refuted the case design flaw charges and set the record straight, partially absolving Steve Jobs. (more…)

Tuesday 02 February 2016, 1:00 pm
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