Alan Kay

Alan Kay is one of the inventors of the Smalltalk programming languages, the developer of the modern windowing GUI system, and he also dreamed up the ideas that lead to the laptop computer and the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). Many of his ideas have been incorporated by both the Apple and Microsoft corporations.

Kay learned to use the innovative SketchPad program developed by Ivan Sutherland and began programming in Simula when he was enrolled at the University of Utah. Borrowing ideas from these and other programs, as well as from his background in Biology, he formulated his "biological analogy." Kay hypothesized the ideal computer would function like a living organism; each "cell" would behave in accord with others to accomplish an end goal but would also be able to function autonomously. "Cells" could also regroup themselves in order to attack another problem or handle another function.[1]

While at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory he began thinking about a book-sized computer that the user, especially children, could use in place of paper. He dubbed his project "KiddieKomp." It was at this time that he also began work on the Smalltalk language.
Smalltalk was designed to mimic Kay's biological model of individual entities, or "cells," communicating with each other via messages. Eventually this language would father the genre of Objected Oriented Programming languages.[1] Kay developed his ideas of Dynabook, which he described as "a portable interactive personal computer, as accessible as a book". Kay wanted his Dynabook to include such features as a flat panel display and wireless communications.[3]

He convinced the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to fund a lab to work on the problem, put together the best hardware prototype of the Dynabook that he could manage with available technology -- the Alto, was a bitmapped display, mouse and network connection. This resembled more of a computer workstation rather than a new invention on the way to the modern laptop.[2]

While on a tour of the Palo Alto Research Center in 1979, Apple pioneers Steve Jobs and Jeff Raskin recognized immediately that Kay's ideas were the way of the future. They were impressed with the idea of a windowing GUI and were astounded with the flexibility of the Smalltalk language. Kay's work at PARC were the seeds from which the Apple Macintosh's look grew. Even Microsoft Windows, the most popular computer operating system in the world today, is a scion of Kay's ideas. [1] Kay worked on Apple's newest computer at the time the MacIntosh, which was the first microcomputer to ship with no end-user programmability.[2]

In 1993, Kay's vision of Dynabook finally transformed itself into reality in the form of the Apple Newton. However, what was released was a far cry from Kay's dream. It transpired into a majorly flawed product and a public relations nightmare for Apple. The Newton was to be the world's first PDA or "Personal Digital Assistant". However, in 1993, Apple only sold 80,000 units.[3] Every time someone opens a new window or double-clicks an icon they are using Kay's concept of object-oriented programming.

For more information on Alan Kay:

[1] Alan Kay by Scott Gasch
[2] MUF Mastery - Alan Kay
[3] Alan Kay's Dynabook by Brian Rampersad April, 1997

Marissa Cleaver


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