When Apple Computer Inc. finally decided to drop the wraps from Lisa, its new computer, after several guarded years, vice-president John Couch proclaimed that he hoped the competition's reaction would be to exclaim, "Oh, [shoot]!" There is little doubt that such sentiments did indeed echo from Palo Alto, Calif., to Cambridge, Mass., after the January unveiling. And among the exclaimers, quite likely, were the purveyors of the just-emerging integrated spreadsheet/data-base/graphics software such as Context MBA and 1-2-3 -- through whose very field Lisa and her renowned "mouse" romp almost effortlessly.

Lisa has one obvious advantage over its software competitors: It is very easy to use. It comes with a calculator-size vehicle -- the "mouse" -- that the user rolls around a desktop like a toy truck to maneuver the screen's cursor. Apple claims that, with this device, even a computer illiterate can learn to run one of Lisa's six amply menued programs in well under an hour. To run Context MBA, on the other hand an executive must either wade step-by-step through the contents of a more-than-400-page manual on his or her own, or take a three-day course offered by National Training Systems Inc. of Santa Monica, Calif. The manual for 1-2-3 -- an integrated management program published by Lotus Development Corp. of Cambridge -- exceeds 300 pages.

In premier showings around the country, observers found Lisa's simplicity enthralling; in Boston, for example, Lisa's well-orchestrated show played to an overflow crowd that called for encores. But not all the competitors were impressed. "The demos. . . might have been enticing, but a demo is only a demo," observed Stacy Plemmons of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Desktop Computer Division, in Fort Collins, Colo., which has chosen Context MBA to run on its new 16-bit line of micros. Two months after the demonstration, HP had yet to "play with" Lisa, and "I'm sure Apple is not about to send us one," Plemmons observed, no doubt correctly. "Apple announces, but then it doesn't ship. A lot of things could change. They're going to run into some things they'll have to correct. We're already a year ahead, and we welcome them to the marketplace."

After an early view of Lisa, 1-2-3 developer and Lotus president Mitchell Kapor complained that Apple "tends to overstate the case. It's close to arrogance." Nonetheless, he was unabashedly impressed. "Apple has demonstrated a major generational step forward in user interaction. I've nothing but unqualified praise." Well, nearly so: "Lisa does no have the all-in-one advantage of 1-2-3," he quickly pointed out, and Lotus was not about to modify its one product. But, Kapor conceded, "the best of all possible worlds would be to see 1-2-3 running on Lisa. What a magnificent combination!"

Kapor's enthusiasm, however, was not shared by G. H. Hoxie, president of MBA's publisher, Context Management Systems of Torrance, Calif. "What I see is a $10,000 Star," he said, referring to a mouse-driven system developed years before by Xerox Corp. "It sure as heck isn't revolutionary. It's nifty to suggest that with a mouse you can do everything, but I just don't think that's true. If you make the assumption that an executive knows how to type, the question is, What is the mouse accomplishing? If your fingers know where the 'E' key is for 'edit,' who cares about the mouse? But they're making a big deal of it. In many of the Lisa functions, you have to use the mouse to do something. You do not have a keyboard alternative. The mouse is okay to get the first-timer up and running, but once you become familiar with it, you want to be able to let your fingers fly on the keyboard."

"It's fair to say," Hoxie grudgingly admits, "that Lisa is influencing the timing of some of the things we were planning to do anyway. Software is an extremely dynamic industry. We have to stay flexible and learn from competitors. We're not going to say our way's the only way." Clearly not. Context, too, hopes to run its integrated program on Lisa. But, promises Hoxie, it will ignore the mouse. altogether.

In any case, it appears certain that, under Lisa's influence, business software is in for rapid change, and the competitive skirmishes ahead will undoubtedly benefit decision-making managers. But perhaps Lotus vice-president Chris Morgan put a finger on Apple's toughest battle, which will not be fought over software. "A lot of executives want three initials on the front of their hardware," he noted, and MBA run on an IBM.