Alan Kay, godfather of mobile computing, bashes the iPad

by David Needle

March 27 2013

Silicon Valley sacrilege? Alan Kay calls the iPad an "anti-personal computer." (Photo: David Needle)
Silicon Valley sacrilege? Alan Kay calls the iPad an "anti-personal computer." (Photo: David Needle)

Somewhere Steve Jobs isn’t smiling. Computer pioneer Alan Kay, a former Apple Fellow back in the '80s, had some harsh things to say about the iPad and tablets in general tonight at a Silicon Valley event.

Back in 1972 Kay wrote about his concept of a “Dynabook” described as a personal computer for children of all ages. An illustration he drew at the time looks like a tablet computer with a physical keyboard and stylus, and served as an inspiration for later portable computers. 

“We can praise Steve Jobs for a lot of things including his taste and vision,” said Kay. But the iPad? Not so much.

Kay insists the iPad’s success has come despite it being an “anti-personal computer” that’s “difficult” and not any good for “symmetric creation” and has no undo.

“The iPad’s been dumbed down so far it’s distressing,” said Kay, during a Churchill Club event sponsored by SAP. “And Microsoft of course followed suit with its interface.”

In a later interview with TabTimes, Kay said personal computers should be designed like an architect designs a house, as a place where people are going to spend a lot of time and different people can exist there.

Instead, he said computer design is driven by marketing departments and what will sell to the most number of people.

Kay, currently President and founder of the nonprofit Viewpoints Research Institute, worked at the famed Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s where many key computer technologies were first developed including the graphical user interface, object-oriented programming and the first personal computer, the Alto, 40 years ago.

Jobs’ famous visit to PARC greatly influenced the development of the Macintosh and also the NeXT computer developed by the namesake company he founded after leaving Apple.  (Dynabook illustration far right). 

Research spawns trillions of dollars of wealth

Kay said only a few dozen people at PARC worked on the Alto and even though it was part of a pure research effort, it created “trillions of dollars” of wealth, i.e. the personal computer industry.

But he said there’s been little in the way of true tech innovation since then because the funding for basic research has dried up.

“The past 30 years have been completely mundane,” said Kay. “It’s all been scaling (of old technology) and Angry Birds.” 

Kay was joined onstage by Vishal Sikka, Head of Technology and Innovation at enterprise software giant SAP, and tech forecaster Paul Saffo, Managing Director of Foresight at Discern Analytics.

Sikka agreed not enough was being done in the way of basic research, but said companies had to find ways to encourage creative ideas that could take years to develop, but would be worth nurturing even if many of them failed.  

David Needle is Editor of TabTimes and based in Silicon Valley.
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  • bonniemacbird
    1 year 8 months ago

    The negative headline and unflattering photo undercut what are some very well made points here; the iPad missed a great opportunity as it is primarily designed as a device to consume media, not to create things. It could have served more purposes, ie more people as Alan describes. With the interface as it is, you can't program. And why not? It can and may yet be, so much more.

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