To call Alan Kay brilliant is an understatement.
Kay, in case you’re unfamiliar with his work, is a Turing Award winner who played an integral role in the development of object oriented programming. A highly respected computer scientist, Kay worked for many years at Xerox’s famed Palo Alto Research Center and also did a stint as an Apple fellow in the company’s Advanced Technology Group during the 80s and 90s.
The full extent of Kay’s visionary prowess can be found in a 1972 research paper he wrote titled, “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages.”
The research paper describes a device Kay dubbed the Dynabook, a notebook sized device with functionality remarkably similar to what the iPad would eventually go onto become.
To that end, Kay’s vision for the Dynabook can in many ways be viewed as the not-so-ancient blueprint for modern day tablet computing. The device envisioned by Kay back in 1972 featured a display capable of displaying text and graphics, along with the ability to play several hours of audio files.
Kay also envisioned, back in 1972 mind you, that the Dynabook would be able to connect to high bandwidth networks, download remote content, and even offer a virtual keyboard if need be.
Suppose the display panel covers the full extent of the notebook surface. Any keyboard arrangement one might wish can then be displayed anywhere on the surface.
Steve Jobs made that same exact point when he unveiled the original iPhone back in 2007.
[Pictured below: an illustration from Kay’s research paper depicting kids playing with Dynabooks]
Kay was probably one of the few people whose opinion Jobs deeply valued, and some of Jobs’ favorite quotes are attributable to Kay.
“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware” and “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” are two that come to mind.
All that said, one would imagine that Kay would be particularly thrilled with Apple’s iPad, a device that eerily embodies many of his predictions almost 40 years later. In a recent interview with Time Magazine’s David Greelish, Kay levied a few harsh criticisms on Apple’s wildly popular tablet.
According to Kay, Apple’s iPad not only fails to live up to the promise outlined in his ridiculously ahead-of-his-time research paper, but betrays it to a certain extent.
For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”. Isn’t it crystal clear that this last and most important service is quite lacking in today’s computing for the general public? Apple with the iPad and iPhone goes even further and does not allow children to download an Etoy made by another child somewhere in the world. This could not be farther from the original intentions of the entire ARPA-IPTO/PARC community in the ’60s and ’70s. Apple’s reasons for this are mostly bogus, and to the extent that security is an issue, what is insecure are the OSes supplied by the vendors (and the insecurities are the result of their own bad practices – they are not necessary).
I’m not quite sure where Kay is coming from here. For instance, there are no shortage of stories of individuals who are sometimes as young as 12 (if not younger) who learn how to program and subsequently release an app on iTunes, instantly making their work accessible to millions of iOS users across the world. There are also apps like Minecraft, Woodcraft and Eden which allow sharing of created objects and worlds.
Kay also took issue with the iPad’s user interface, calling it “very poor in a myriad of ways.”
With Scott Forstall now out of the Apple mix, perhaps that leaves the door open for Kay to return to Apple and really spice things up.
All kidding aside, Kay’s entire interview with Time is worth a thorough read. Kay is incredibly sharp and insightful, and while he has a few bones to pick with the iPad, he shares a number of interesting perspectives on computing, education, and business leadership. He also talks about what it was like to work at Xerox, Apple, HP, and Disney.
Alan Kay has some choice criticisms about the iPad originally appeared on TUAW – The Unofficial Apple Weblog on Thu, 04 Apr 2013 18:30:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.