Lisa: Steve Jobs’ sabotage and Apple’s secret burial | FULL DOCUMENTARY
- [Narrator] There's an old story that Apple doesn't go out of its way to tell. In September of 1989, the company quietly buried about 2,700 computers known as Lisas in a landfill in Logan, Utah. We only know about it because of an old newspaper article we found on a defunct tech blog. There are a few details there, a used computer store, an unusual business deal. But today, more than 30 years later, it all has the vibe of an urban legend.
So we set out for Utah. - Get a shovel and start digging. - [Narrator] To see what was really true. - That is so wild to see.
- [Narrator] What we found was a far stranger incident. - Well, I thought that they were henchmen. - It seemed like the mob had come to town, you know. - [Narrator] And a new spin on the tale of the Lisa itself, it's invention, which changed the course of computing forever.
- Our thing was not to build a computer. It was to build a new kind of technology. - [Narrator] It's premature end at the hands of its co-creator. - Well, there definitely was an element of revenge. - [Narrator] And its brief afterlife, thanks to a man who staked his future on a flop. - It's a very difficult day that all those computers were being loaded up.
- [Narrator] This is the story of how Apple became the behemoth it is today by burying its past, literally. The story brought us to two valleys, Silicon Valley, California, and Cache Valley, Utah. We were looking for anyone who might still remember what happened to the Lisa's. - Seems like a cool spot.
- [Narrator] Not easy for a 40-year-old story, but we found a few key players. - Proudly showing the Personal Office System division there, POS, that's us. - We didn't get many exciting tips like that, this was something different. - You know, that was my life, basically. That was my life's work.
- [Narrator] So let's start in Silicon Valley. At the end of the '70s, the personal computer market was blowing up, thanks largely to Apple Computer and it's two Steve's, Wozniak and Jobs. - [Reporter] Overnight, manufacturing personal computers has become a half billion dollar business.
- [Reporter] A boom to one company in particular, it has become the Big Apple in this land of high technology. - [Narrator] The company was soaring and its engine was the Apple II, a green-screened little marvel designed by Wozniak. It's primitive by today's standards, but it was cheap and useful enough to nudge computers into the mainstream. And it was bankrolling a growing team of engineers out to change the world. - Well, it was really exciting.
I mean, everyone there really, you know, cared about what they were doing 'cause this was the new foundation, the new frontier. - We all had also heard all of the Apple religion, you know, wheels for the mind and all of those things. Those are all things that we all believe. - This is a 21st century bicycle that amplifies a certain intellectual ability that man has. We're building tools that amplify a human ability. - [Narrator] Steve Jobs was 25 in 1980, already a multimillionaire and a force of nature.
- He was fearless and he was presumptuous and he could be intolerable sometimes. What was going on in his head was the way the world really was. - Steve would show up late for meetings and sort of declare what he thought was supposed to happen and you just wouldn't like know, what are we supposed to do with this? He had run of the company, he could do whatever he wanted. - [Narrator] Apple was riding high, but it knew it had to stay ahead of the competition.
- So while the home market was really promising, the business market was gonna be much, much bigger, much, much sooner. And it was no secret that IBM was working on its own personal computer that would be a little more powerful, a little more business-friendly than the Apple II. So Apple had to respond.
- [Narrator] Its first business computer was a safe iterative update called the Apple III. But Steve Jobs was not a safe, iterative kind of guy. A year before, he'd gotten a glimpse of the future at Xerox, a prototype of something called a graphical user interface. And he wanted to do big things with it.
- I mean, everyone knew we were building a new kind of computer that had never been seen before. There was kind of a feeling that we want it to be... In fact, Steve Jobs term was insanely great. We wanted this to be at the start of something real and permanent. - [Narrator] But this isn't just about Apple lore.
While Steve Jobs was putting a dent in the universe, a man named Bob Cook was getting his own start in the business. - Okay. So I was going to Utah State University and my brother owned a store downtown that sold calculators.
I was reading in the computer magazines and there was an advertisement that said, "Become an Apple dealer, "fill in this form and mail it in." And I did that. - [Narrator] We met Bob at his home in Logan, Utah. He sat for a long interview with us, showed us some memorabilia. - I used this pen to sign one of my contracts. - [Narrator] And gave us stacks of old documents to dig through.
- [Bob] Here's some sales figures. - [Narrator] He took us back to the very beginning of his life with Apple. - I had to buy six Apple II's to start with and they were so leading edge and brand new that we had a real rough time selling those six. I mean, I think it took me, you know, maybe nine months to sell those six computers. They were so unreliable and it was really a chore to be a pioneer on this stuff. I can remember my wife coming out of the bedroom saying, "It's one o'clock in the morning, you know."
- [Narrator] Bob made himself an expert in all things Apple and lept into the world of resellers. - Well, I remember I went to the Apple Expo and I can remember seeing all these Apple executives that had Levi's and beards and ponytails and you know, it was a hippie fest. - [Narrator] Bob found himself rubbing elbows with some major dealers.
- The guy who owned ComputerLand and the guy who owned the Byte Shop, and seems like there was even some Tandy dealerships. - [Narrator] For Bob, it wasn't about pushing the envelope with the newest tech. It was a living. - I think overall it was fairly profitable. We weren't making a killing, but you know, we were paying the bills.
- [Narrator] But the tech of the future came calling for him anyway. - Alright, let's see if this system is gonna cooperate a little bit more now. - [Narrator] What connects these two stories, California and Utah, Steve and Bob, is Apple's next big thing. It's complete reimagining of the personal computer, Lisa.
- The Lisa was the first computer that you didn't have to struggle with a big computer manual or even hire a consultant to use. You could understand it out of the box. - [Narrator] Lisa had a bright screen, a virtual desktop full of icons and documents and a pointing device called a mouse. It was a revelation. - It's a much easier way to do computing than the previous paradigm, which had these glowing green characters on a screen and everything you do was based on these esoteric commands.
- [Narrator] On a Lisa, you could drag windows around, play with different fonts, you could draw. - We could all get that dopamine hit now with our iPhones and everything else then, but no one knew what that was at the time. We wanted to make sure people had fun when they used the computer. - [Narrator] Lisa wasn't the first to do all those things. Xerox had released a computer called the Star based on the same prototypes that inspired Steve Jobs, but the Lisa was more polished. It was the little things like drag and drop or the single button mouse.
Even deleting files felt new. - You could take the picture, a little icon of it, document, take it over, drag it and drop it in a garbage can. And that's a natural way of deleting things. Just go. (imitates popping sound)
- [Narrator] The Lisa was Steve's passion. He named it after his own daughter. But to the Lisa team, he was a menace. - As a manager, he was terrible. He would lash out at people, he played favorites.
He would sabotage projects he didn't like or he felt were competitive. He would call people bozos. - And I remember specifically Steve coming into my office. Before that meeting, my manager said, "You know, Steve's gonna come over and talk to you. "Just listen, but don't get fired." - [Narrator] Steve's meddling got him booted from the Lisa team in 1980.
- You know, Steve was really hurt when he was removed from the project. - In a lot of ways that was his computer. He had the ideas for it, he was passionate about it. I mean, this is why he was at Apple and I'm sure he was disappointed that, you know, it had gotten taken away from him. - [Narrator] Despite the drama, the Lisa launched to great fanfare in 1983. - Apple beat the drums for it pretty hard during the splashiest release in the PC industry to date.
You know, they had a huge ad campaign. - [Announcer] Lisa from Apple. - They had spent I think $50 million to develop this computer. Steve actually, despite his feelings about the Lisa promoted it, you know, like a pretty good soldier. - [Narrator] Reviewers were impressed and the team got a hero's welcome on the road show. - Definitely a rockstar vibe.
People came up to you with genuine excitement about wanting to see this 'cause they had been hyped and hyped and hyped in the press about what this was going to look like and so forth. A lot of people enjoyed just playing with the mouse, manipulating things on the screen, and when you can actually get that eye-hand coordination thing down and actually do something useful within a couple of minutes. It just was incredible.
- [Narrator] So what went wrong? Why didn't the Lisa change everything for Apple? Because it never got the chance. There were issues from jump. The computer was slow and could be flaky. Also, IBM beat Lisa to the business market by a year and a half. It made a big push for its PC, which sold for around $1,600.
- [Announcer] Today a new IBM computer has reached a personal scale. A person can afford it. - [Narrator] Where as the Lisa. - [Interviewer] And what was the price tag of the Lisa when it came out? - $10,000, which shocked a lot of us. - That was a big gulp. - [Narrator] But there was a bigger problem.
Apple itself was undermining its star attraction. It was leaking that something newer and cheaper was on the way. - Is this the ultimate office computer? Today. - Today, it is. - [Narrator] That Lisa killer.
(computer beeping) After leaving Lisa, Steve commandeered the Macintosh team. The original vision for the Mac was basic and cheap, but under Steve it became very Lisa-like. Steve championed the Mac and tried to bury the Lisa. - Several times there would be customers brought in to look at the Lisa and Steve would come running across the street and say, "Come, you have to see the Mac." And it's kind of difficult to compete against the chairman of the board say, "Don't buy this and buy this, buy my thing."
- There definitely was an element of revenge in Steve wanting to make Macintosh, not only a success, but the success in Apple's future. - [Narrator] In 1984, the finished Mac hit the scene with a $2,500 price tag and a Blockbuster Super Bowl ad by Ridley Scott. - [Announcer] On January 24th, Apple computer will introduce Macintosh.
- [Narrator] The Lisa meanwhile limped along with a price cut and a few hardware tweaks. Apple even rebranded it the Macintosh XL and erased everything Lisa about it. - It's kind of a lobotomy in some ways. You put the boot disc in and you'd boot up as Macintosh versus you boot up as a Lisa.
- [Narrator] In 1985, after just two years and maybe 80,000 units sold, the Lisa was discontinued. The man who pulled the plug, Steve Jobs. By then, he'd regained control of the Lisa team and he made his choice.
- Both Lisa and the Mac had nose dives in sales after they came out and which one got canceled? Not Steve's project, the Macintosh. He wanted to cancel the Lisa. So I think some of that factored in there is that, you'd have to feel a little bit vindictive to have that project taken away from you by headquarters. There was some personal feelings there.
- [Narrator] Steve Jobs himself didn't last much longer at Apple. He got into a big feud with then CEO John Sculley and was forced out of his own company in 1985. But the future of Apple was locked in, Macintosh. Lisa was forgotten.
But as they say, one man's trash is another man's treasure. - Brought back to life. - "Sun Remarketing breathes fresh air "into a sleeping beauty," getting real poetic there. - How's that of poetry? - [Narrator] Around the same time Steve was flaming out at Apple, Bob was struggling as an Apple dealer. - I was looking for a new way to make a business.
- [Narrator] But one day he hit on a new idea, old computers. He called Apple with a pitch. - And so I heard that they were gathering all the Apple III's off of employees desks. And so I made a telephone call to say, "What you doing with them?" - [Narrator] The III remember was Apple's first crack at a business computer, and it was a flop just like the Lisa.
Apple discontinued the III in 1984, but it still had piles of them lying around and Bob bought them all, essentially on consignment. - [Interviewer] How many III's was that? - About 3,500 of them. And I could never afford 'em, but if they're gonna send them to me for free and allow me to make monthly payments, that's a great blessing. - [Narrator] It was a win-win.
Apple got a little more value out of a failure and Bob spun up a new business selling older hardware at a discount. He even offered repairs and a tech support hotline so that Apple could wash its hands of the III. It went well.
And one day Bob says he got a call from Bill Campbell, VP of Marketing at Apple. - One of the things they buttered me up with was that we have people calling us about Apple III's, we give him your phone number and you must be doing a good job because they never call us back. And so then he sprung the Lisas on me after that. - Right. - [Narrator] Apple had 7,000 leftover Lisa's and it wanted Bob to make them go away. - We did this whole deal off of paper saying if we agree to these prices, then ship 'em to me. And it was after they shipped them to us that we got all of our surprises.
- [Narrator] The Lisa's were a mess, lots were broken or missing components and they were all outdated. Bob talked Apple down on price and invested a couple hundred thousand dollars to make them marketable again. - We came up with a new operating system for it that emulated a Macintosh Plus. And then we also had interface cards so that you could put larger hard drives on it. We had an upgrade so that you could put an 800K floppy.
We had screen modification ROMs to look more like a Macintosh. - [Interviewer] It must have felt like you were kind of creating your own product line is what it sounds like. - Yeah, we definitely were. It was something different. So we called it the Lisa Professional.
- [Narrator] Thanks to the Lisa, 1988 was a big year for Bob. The warehouse was full of inventory, the phones were ringing. - Sun Remarketing, this is Jan, may I help you? - [Narrator] Bob had re-lit the Lisa's torch and he was getting noticed for it.
His display at a Mac World Expo caught the eye of a tech TV show. - [Announcer] Finally, in a worthy demonstration of the value of recycling, Sun Remarketing brought out a wall full of the Mac's precursor, the Lisa. - [Narrator] A local news station did a profile. - [Reporter] He's using the relics to single-handedly create a whole new computer market. - [Narrator] He even landed National magazine coverage.
- They wrote a story about us in Newsweek. - [Reporter] And after the article hit the streets, sales skyrocketed. - There was a lot of people that saw the Newsweek article. I mean, that was huge. We probably have twice as many incoming phone calls as we had before the Newsweek article and twice as many sales.
We were unique. There was a lot of people that were selling brand new equipment. Computers are supposed to be leading edge. Nobody was thinking about selling the trailing edge of high technology, you know. It was really satisfying. You know, I felt really good about myself to come up with something like that.
- [Narrator] Bob showed us some feedback he received from customers. They emphasized the gaps that Bob filled between Apple and its user base. - "Apple was lucky to have you support its orphans. "It takes some of the sting "out of an expensive investment on my part." - [Interviewer] And what feedback did you get from Apple as this was happening? - Well, just, I heard once in a while that they were appreciative that their customers were taken care of.
They were appreciative that they didn't have to handle obsolete equipment. It seemed to be a good relationship and they were glad for what we were doing. We were kind of hoping that we could just graduate from obsolescence to obsolescence to obsolescence and do this for a long time to come. That was our hope. - [Narrator] Bob was the patron saint of the trailing edge and it seemed he'd found some stability.
- So here's a picture of me in the warehouse and over here in this corner you can see a stack of Lisas. - [Interviewer] Any advice for the guy in that photo. - Run. (laughs) - [Narrator] So how do we get from the Lisa's new heyday to an all but forgotten burial in a dump, pretty abruptly. - What looks like an office to you? - [Narrator] We got Bob's account of what happened next, and we dug up the original article and photos at the Utah State University archives. - Yeah, it was the 24th.
Oh, "Obsolete computers junked at dump." - [Narrator] They came from a local paper called "The Herald Journal." We also found two more eyewitnesses. The reporter who wrote the story and the paper's photo editor. - Haven't done too many of these. - [Narrator] And we went to the scene of the crime.
- We're looking for 1989. - I know, that's low. - Way down. - [Narrator] So here's what went down. - [Interviewer] So 1989 you get this phone call. - It was like an attorney that called me. It wasn't my normal people that called me.
He said, "We've decided that we want to exercise our clause "in the contract to pick up the computers that we own." - [Narrator] Apple outta the blue was taking the Lisa's back. - If my memory serves, it was one of the people from the landfill that I knew who said, "You need to come down and see this." - [Interviewer] After you heard from the attorney, did you call any of your other contacts and say, "What's going on?" - I did. And they didn't know a thing about it. - [Interviewer] They didn't know anything.
- No, they didn't know a thing about it. And then these guys came and they started loading up trucks. - We ended up getting an anonymous call at the paper from a landfill worker who said that we needed to come out because they were destroying hundreds if not thousands of brand new computers.
- [Interviewer] You talked to 'em at the warehouse and you said you went with them to the dump at some point. - Followed them. Yeah. - Followed 'em. - [Narrator] This is where things get really weird. - And the first people that we ran into, they were hired, I guess by Apple to make sure that the disposal took place as as quietly as possible. - They were ex-marines. They're all six foot six, you know, they're just these muscle men.
- They kind of came off that way. Yeah, they were toughies. There was no doubt they were trying to be as an intimidating as they could be.
We stood our ground and said, "We're going to see what's going on." - [Bob] The trucks are being tilted up. All these computers are dropped down into a hole.
- Hundreds of brand new computers being run over with the dozers. - Bulldozers are running over 'em, making sure that they're not whole anymore. And the guards are on the edge of the hill filming the whole thing. - I remember being shocked at it and just thinking, "Oh, I want one of these computers.
"Why can't I have one?" Because I wanted one. - There was a bunch of people dumping their own trash. They were going, 'What's going on?" - Definitely stuck in our collective minds about just how odd it was and that it seemed like the mob had come to town. You know, so it was a very strange day.
- [Narrator] And just like that it was over. Bob still had some computers left to sell, but that was really the day the Lisa died, again. - [Interviewer] What was it like standing there at the landfill watching them all get run over by bulldozers? - Well, I knew that there was a bunch of profits that was just drying up in front of my very eyes and it was hard to see. You know, didn't like it at all. I felt like, you know, we were in a pretty good spot because we had all of these improvements to the computers. I felt like we were finally in a position where we could start moving them at a faster clip, and that all just dried up.
It's a very difficult day that all those computers were being loaded up. - [Narrator] In the years since, the incident has passed into tech legend. - I mean, I think there'd been rumors I'd heard about that they were gonna dispose of the machines in some way. I thought it was in some landfill that built 101 down to Gilroy. But no, I didn't have any real inkling of what was going on with that. - Years and years later I heard rumors about it.
It was rather shocking to see that they did that. I don't know why they did that. They were beautiful things and someone could have gotten some use out of them, but I don't know. - [Narrator] So why this ending for Lisa? Well, we got in touch with Apple. We wanted to know why they destroyed the Lisa's and why they were so sketchy about it. Apple's response was one line.
"We are declining to participate." So here's what we do know. Back in 1989, Apple gave "The Herald Journal" a simple rationale. "Destroying the Lisa's was better for business." It was off the hook for service parts and it could probably claim a tax write off.
Bob doesn't buy it. - I think that it was designed for the press. - [Narrator] In fact, he has a simpler theory. - But I think that they just wanted to get that bad chapter behind him.
They didn't want anybody thinking about the computer that failed. - [Narrator] That's not so farfetched, especially given the state of affairs at the end of the '80s. _ Well, if you wanna look for symbolism, Apple is struggling and you know, we're in danger becoming a niche. - [Narrator] Apple had done well selling flashy, expensive computers, but it was quickly losing market share to IBM compatibles. The New York Times warned that Apple was, "straying from mass appeal."
It needed to bring new cheaper Macs to market. So maybe the expensive, flopped not quite dead Lisa felt like a distraction or worse. - I think the last thing you wanna publicize is that you have a failure so huge that you know, you have to literally throw 'em into the ground.
You know, that's embarrassing. So you could see where Apple isn't going to put out a press release or invite the press to witness the dumping of Lisa's into a landfill. I would've gone, but, you know, they didn't invite me.
- [Narrator] Again, this is all speculation. We couldn't reach anyone who was at Apple and involved in the decision to bury the Lisa's. Maybe it was just about a tax break. Maybe there was more to it.
Those answers might be buried too. - Right up on the crest there to the right of the, somewhere in there Bob drew this little box around where he remembers going in the landfill. This is where the Lisa computers are buried right here under 30 plus years of garbage. - [Narrator] The reason we jumped at this story in the first place is that Apple is almost unrecognizable in it. All the missteps, pettiness, politics, reverse decisions. It's hard to imagine modern Apple flailing like that.
- [Announcer] We also got this guy named Steve Jobs. - [Narrator] The Apple we know really started in 1997 when Steve Jobs came back. - Thank you very much. Let's chat for a few minutes about what we're trying to do here. - [Narrator] Steve 2.0 was older and more savvy, but just as driven.
He focused Apple on fewer products and delivered a series of big hits. - You look back on the moment that Steve returns now, and it is one of the great turning points in the history of the computer industry. I mean, he took a company that was on the ropes, on the verge of bankruptcy and makes it into, you know, one of the world's most valuable companies.
- [Narrator] Under Steve, Apple became famous for a tight control over its work and an obsession with the future. - We're working on the next iPhone, we're working on the one after that. We're thinking about the one after that.
- Steve was focused on building what was next for Apple. He was not sentimental. He would always be saying, "What's the best I can do for my customer now," even if it meant not maintaining a piece of technology. - [Narrator] In the end, Bob and his trailing edge ran a foul of the new Apple. He continued to sell used computers through the '90s, but in 2000, Apple threatened to sue him for selling their system software.
Something he'd been doing since the Lisa days. He says he avoided a suit by agreeing to one last deal. But that was it for Bob and Apple. - I thought that was purely designed to take my legs out from under me. You know, they tried once before with the Lisa's to get me out of business and I stayed and now they wanted me gone.
You know, I truly felt like they just wanted me out. - [Narrator] Again, Apple declined to comment on any of this. That deal with Bob for the old Lisa's, it belongs to another era, notably one without Steve. - The kind of deal that Apple might have had with Sun Remarketing was just not the kind of thing that would've interested Steve Jobs.
He wasn't interested in making, you know, these skeevy little side deals. - [Interviewer] So that's the kind of thing that just wouldn't be worthy of Steve's attention. - I think it would be kind of challenging to get Steve Jobs to take a meeting with a person like that. - [Interviewer] Do you feel like your business was possible because Steve was not there? - Most definitely. And you know, the whole idea of them giving me inventory was because it was a rough and tumble place without Steve Jobs there.
I can remember going to trade shows and I'd tell a story about how Apple gave me the inventory and there was executives that were listening to me going, "They did what?" It was, you know, the last frontier. - [Narrator] Today, we're all left with Steve's Apple. Clearly it worked out.
The company went on to sell billions of computers, phones, tablets, and watches. Apple is now one of the largest companies in the world. The Lisa's buried here are nothing compared to the mountains of old Apple products thrown away every year.
Lisa and everyone who banked on Lisa lost, but Apple won. - [Interviewer] Looking back, do you feel like you sort of got what you could out of that period of time? - If I could get into time machine and do it all over again, I don't know that I would want to do that. I would've been better off to buy a whole bunch of stock.
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