Alan Kay

The Dynabook of Alan Kay

Alan Kay is an American computer scientist, known for his early pioneering work on computers, object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design.

Alan Curtis Kay was born on May 17, 1940, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics and Molecular Biology in the University of Colorado at Boulder. Before and during this time, he worked as a professional jazz guitarist.

In 1966, he began graduate school at the University of Utah College of Engineering, earning a Master's degree and a Ph.D. degree in 1969. There, he worked with Ivan Sutherland, who had done pioneering graphics programs including Sketchpad. This greatly inspired Kay's evolving views on objects and programming.

In 1967 Kay started his first attempt at designing a metamedium (the FLEX machine), focused on children as the future “user community.”

In 1968, Kay met Seymour Papert and learned of the Logo programming language, a dialect of Lisp optimized for educational use. Papert, a great influence on Kay, was creating computer systems for children to use creatively on the other side of the United States, at MIT. There, he developed LOGO. Kay’s previous work on FLEX had sought to create a computer that users could program themselves. This work led to the definition of object-oriented programming (inspired, in part, by Sutherland’s “Sketchpad”. From Papert’s work, Kay saw how far this idea could be carried, and refined his notion of why it was important. The next stage of Kay’s work in this area culminated in Smalltalk.

In 1970, Kay joined Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center, PARC. In the 1970s he was one of the key members there to develop prototypes of networked workstations using the programming language Smalltalk. Kay was later a research fellow at Apple and then at Disney. Before these, and after his work at PARC, he directed Atari’s sizeable but short-lived research lab, which was the victim of the collapse of the U.S. videogame industry in the mid-1980s.

In 1968 Kay created a very interesting concept—the Dynabook. He wanted to make A Personal Computer For Children Of All Ages—a thin portable computer, highly dynamic device that weighed no more than two pounds The ideas led to the development of the Xerox Alto prototype, which was originally called the interim Dynabook. It embodied all the elements of a graphical user interface, or GUI, as early as 1972. The software component of this research was Smalltalk, which went on to have a life of its own independent of the Dynabook concept.

DynabookThe Dynabook concept described what is now known as a netbook computer or, (in some of its other incarnations) a tablet PC or slate computer with nearly eternal battery life and software aimed at giving children access to digital media. Adults could also use a Dynabook, but the target audience was children.

The Dynabook was never built, simply because it was too far ahead of technologies in the 1960s and 1970s. Kay and his group however continued to develop the concept. The first working prototype of Dynabook was built almost 20 years after creating the concept (see the nearby image). But it largely inspired not only the development of the first desktop personal and portable computers (e.g. Xerox NoteTaker drew heavily on Dynabook), graphical user interface, multimedia, as well as the devices we now call laptops, although it’s taken four decades to slim the tech down to the point where usable computers actually weigh is bellow 1 kg.

When later Kay accepted a position in Xerox's PARC, he tried to interest Xerox execs in his project. His thoughts about an intimate personal computer were mostly of a service nature—that is, how could and should it act as an amplifier for human, especially child, endeavors? This is what led to quite a bit of UI, language and media design, some of which made it out to the commercial worlds in the 1980s.

DynabookThe concept of Dynabook is described in a 1972 article of Kay A personal computer for children of all ages, presented at the ACM National Conference in Boston.

In the abovementioned paper is specified:
Although it (i.e. Dynabook) can be used to communicate with others through the “knowledge utilities” (or business information system), we think that a large fraction of its use will involve reflexive communication of the owner with himself through this personal medium, much as paper and notebooks are currently used...
What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both medium for containing and expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire... “Personal” also means owned by its user (needs to cost no more than a TV) and portable (which to me means that the user can easily carry the device and other things at the same time). Need we add that it be usable in the woods?
The size should be no larger than a notebook; weight less that 4 lbs.; the visual display should be able to present at least 400 printing quality characters with contrast ratios approaching that of a book; dynamic graphics of reasonable quality should be possible; there should be removable local file storage of at least one million characters traded off against several hours of audio files.
Kay and DynabookThe active interface should be a language whish uses linguistics concepts not far removed from the owner of the device. The owner will be able to maintain and edit his own files and programs when and where he chooses. He can use his Dynabook as a terminal when at work (or as a connection to the library system when in school). When he is done perusing and has discovered information that he wishes to abstract and take with him, it can rapidly be transferred to his local file storage...
A combination of this “carry anywhere” device and a global information utility such as ARPA network or two-way cable TV, will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) of the world to the home. One can imagine one of the first programs an owner will write is a filter to eliminate advertising!

Sounds good, isn't it?! Personal notebook computer with easy rechargeable battery and local drive memory, price some 500 USD, multimedia capabilities, wireless network access, Internet, etc. Let's remind, this concept was created as early as the end of 1960s and beginning of 1970s, when under "personal computer", people recognize something like DEC PDP-8 machine (see the photo bellow), wardrobe-size box, which cost 18000 USD, and didn't have any of the abovementioned features.

PDP-8