Leni Mayo

aussie startups and stuff

Alan Kay, Computing Pioneer

Alan Kay is a pioneer of computing in the true sense of the word:

a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.

I attended a talk Kay gave some years ago at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (long-time home of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club) and I was inspired by the breadth of his vision. Alan Kay sees further than most people.

Here are some examples from a recent interview.

What computers can do

be able to simulate all existing media in an editable/authorable form in a highly portable networked form

Examples: iPod, smartphone, Kindle and IP TV.

But what about the editable/authoring part? Kay is emphatic:

For all media, the original intent was “symmetric authoring and consuming”.

Consume vs create-and-share

Kay wants computers to extend the human capacity for creation and sharing.

Kay (once an Apple fellow) has this to say about Apple iPad/iPhone:

Apple with the iPad and iPhone … 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.

On computers in education

The education establishment in the U.S. has … has not ventured into what is special about computing with reference to modeling ideas and helping to think about them.

I’ve used the analogy of what would happen if you put a piano in every classroom. If there is no other context, you will get a “chopsticks” culture, and maybe even a pop culture. And this is pretty much what is happening.

In other words, “the music is not in the piano”.

Reading and writing vs oral communcation

electronic media over the last 100+ years have actually removed some of day to day needs for reading and writing, and have allowed much of the civilized world to lapse back into oral societal forms (and this is not a good thing at all for systems that require most of the citizenry to think in modern forms).

What “systems” require most of the citizenry to read? Democracy?

What UI ideas are likely to stick?

Many ideas in today’s UIs derive from the PARC-GUI developed in the 1970s by Kay and his colleagues at Xerox PARC.

There are some elements of the PARC-style GUI that are likely to stick:

  • view and edit more than one kind of scene at the same time

  • pointing and dragging are likely to stick, because they are simple extensions of hands and fingers.

  • “modeless”

  • “Undo”

The visual field of the human eye

Part of the motivation for the PARC GUI came from our desire to have a universal display screen which could display anything — this led to the bitmap screen.

One drawback is that the visual angle of the display (about 40°) is much narrower than the human visual field (which is about 135° vertically and 160° horizontally for each eye). This is critical because most of the acuity of an eye is in the fovea (~1-2°) but the rest of the retina has some acuity and is very responsive to changes (which cause the eye to swing to bring the fovea on the change).

Head mounted displays can have extremely wide fields of view, and when these appear (they will resemble lightweight glasses), they will allow a rather different notion of UI — note that huge fields of view through glasses will help both 2-1/2 D and 3D graphics, and the UIs that go along with them.

This suggests many new design ideas for future GUIs.

The desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves.

This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating. We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles, etc. and to a lesser extent automobile


Some quotes from Kay, all of which speak to his far-reaching sense of creative possiblity:

  • The best way to predict the future is to invent it. (1971)

  • People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware. (1982)

  • The real romance is out ahead and yet to come. The computer revolution hasn’t started yet. Don’t be misled by the enormous flow of money into bad defacto standards for unsophisticated buyers using poor adaptations of incomplete ideas. (Squeak)

Steve Jobs

I’ll end with a video in which Steve Jobs recounts his 1979 visit to Xerox PARC (2 mins). In the clip, Adele Golderg tells Xerox executives that they are about to “give away the kitchen sink” in showing SmallTalk to Jobs’ entire programming team.