Alan Kay’s Dynabook

Alan Kay’s Dynabook, in 1968:

Kay worked at Xerox PARC and Apple and is the mind behind the GUI and object-oriented programming. The Apple Lisa and the Macintosh were the result of the research by Kay and his colleagues at Apple. Kay become an Apple Fellow in 1984 and intended to build his Dynabook and came close: Apple’s Newton:

The Newton was one such project and it was a shame that the Apple marketing people messed up the design of it.

In 1972, while at Xerox PARC, Kay published a research paper titled “A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages” (you can also download the original in PDF). Wolfgang Gruener at Tom’s Hardware puts it nicely as to what Kay was envisioning as a future personal computer for children:

Kay describes a plasma screen with a contrast ratio approaching that of a book; a keyboard with no moving parts; a network connection with the ability to purchase, transfer, and download “instantiate” files; global information connectivity, such as libraries; media connectivity; and a target price of $500.

Replace plasma with LCD and you’ve got yourself an iPad. Kay’s Dynabook was a vision for what the eventual personal computer could have been and included both hardware and software. One major aspect of the Dynabook was easy development of applications via an effective GUI that even children could use. In an interview with Tom’s Hardware, Steve Jobs has known about Kay’s vision (Dynabook) for several decades.

When Steve showed me the iPhone at its introduction a few years ago and asked me if “it was good enough to criticize,” which is what I said about the Mac in 1984, I held up my Moleskin notebook and said “make the screen at least 5″x8” and you will rule the world.

I’m fairly sure the iPad was already in Steve’s mind at the time but it sure is interesting to see how two great minds think alike. If you do the math the iPad’s 9.7-inch LCD has almost the exact dimensions that Kay suggested: 5.38 x 8.07 inches. The iPad has sold more than 500,000 units, just in the US, and it seems is on its way toward, a delayed but eventual, world domination.

When I talk to Steve, I try to get him interested again in doing big things for education—this was a central theme for him in the early days—partly as a route to sell computers, but also as a civilization booster. The “big things” would include funding both internal and external research to make better learning environments for children, especially for hard-to-learn ideas like math and science.

Enter Squeak, Etoys and Scratch. Squeak is an open source version of Smalltalk, an object oriented programming language. Etoys and Scratch are software development platforms that work on top of Squeak that have been used by children the world over to develop scripts and applications. Kay isn’t a fan of the way the iPad isolates the user from its internals. He also has some suggestions for how the App Store can boost educating children:

The app-centric way of looking at computing is not a good one in the end for the users. The apps can be individually very good and lots of them are on the iPad, but they needlessly stovepipe and isolate functionality that really should be integratible. An alternative way to do this would be to “sell objects, not apps” and let the different objects all exist and be usable together in a kind of extended desktop publishing Hypercard document structure. This would allow very useful mashups to be done without any mashing. For example, one of the drawing programs on the iPad is superb, but it doesn’t integrate with the word processor program other than extremely awkwardly. Object-level integration was in the original PARC systems and was more like what we intended for how integration would be done.

A software developer by the name of John Mcintosh ported Scratch to the iPhone (iPad compatible) called Scratch Viewer 1.4. Unfortunately it was pulled from the App Store on April 14th. Here’s John Gruber on the matter:

Scratch is a well-regarded runtime geared toward allowing kids to create their own simple games and animators. They had a player app in the App Store, but it’s been removed. This is unfortunate, because it seems pretty cool, but, this is not the least bit surprising. It’s only surprising that it ever made it into the App Store in the first place.

The reason why Scratch was pulled is due to Apple’s new rule that limits code interpreters to WebKit’s JavaScript engine. In the iPhone developer agreement, clause 3.3.2. explicitly limits iPhone (and iPad) apps from code interpreters other than Apple’s. Maybe Mcintosh can retool Scratch Viewer and use WebKit as the interpreter.

I find it ironic that the iPad is mostly Kay’s vision in the flesh, but due to a larger battle Apple is waging a small part of Kay’s software vision becomes collateral damage.