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Summary:

Alan Kay, credited with inventing the concept of the laptop in 1968, has been lambasting computer makers for not maximizing its potential ever since. One device might get close to even Kay’s high standards: The tablet computer that Apple is expected to unveil tomorrow.

Computer pioneer Alan Kay isn’t known for buying into hype. Credited with inventing the concept of the laptop back in 1968, Kay has been lambasting computer makers for not maximizing its potential ever since. One device, however, might get close to even Kay’s high standards: The tablet computer that Apple is expected to unveil tomorrow.

Kay’s interest in Apple’s upcoming tablet is only natural. His 1968 Dynabook is widely regarded as the conceptual basis of today’s notebooks; indeed, the first cardboard model of the machine featured a tablet-like form factor. And he went on to become part of a small team of computer scientists at Xerox PARC in the 70s that invented much of our current computer technology, including the graphical user interface that Steve Jobs famously fell in love with during a visit to the facility. I interviewed Kay late last year, and while he didn’t mention the tablet by name, he did share a story about the unveiling of the iPhone, to which Steve Jobs invited him in early 2007:

“When the Mac first came out, Newsweek asked me what I [thought] of it. I said: Well, it’s the first personal computer worth criticizing. So at the end of the presentation, Steve came up to me and said: Is the iPhone worth criticizing? And I said: Make the screen five inches by eight inches, and you’ll rule the world.”

It’s not just the screen size of Apple’s upcoming tablet that will please Kay, but the fact that Apple is reportedly selling its tablet with a 3G data plan. This fits right in with Kay’s vision of using computer technology for education, a goal he’s been championing ever since he came up with the idea of the Dynabook. In fact, it’s been the challenges faced by the One Laptop per Child project in particular, for which he’s an adviser, that have solidified his believe that the PC industry needs to move away from just selling hardware and towards a service-based model that could be used to establish an educational infrastructure. “It’s all about long-term, sustaining relationships,” he told me, something that mobile phone companies have been practicing for years. Apple’s tablet could be the first major computing device aside from today’s smartphones to move towards such a service-based model.

Kay still wasn’t sure whether Apple would actually come out with a tablet when I talked to him late last year, noting that such a device could theoretically compete with the company’s iPhone business. But, he added: “I bet a thousand dollars that they had a five-by-eight-inch version for the last couple years in house.”

Post image courtesy of Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis.

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By Janko Roettgers
  1. Computing is unnecessarily complicated, and Kay knows this. Most of what I do outside of Photoshop is really able to be accomplished on a device.

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  2. “It’s not just the screen size of Apple’s upcoming tablet that will please Kay, but the fact that Apple is reportedly selling its tablet with a 3G data plan. This fits right in with Kay’s vision of using computer technology for education”

    This will be cost prohibitive, and doesn’t make sense, especially for education. Coming out with a wifi-only model, like the ipod touch, would make a lot more sense.

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    1. Wifi only model? wont that defeat the purpose of a portable computing device that has connectivity outside the realms of home or office where Wifi is available. At these places you can use your normal laptop as well, you need the tablet to have Wifi and 3G both so that you can easily carry it outside and still be able to do your work that you cannot do right now on an iphone.

      I think Apple would have a winner in 3G/Wifi enabled device.

      – my 2cents

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      1. Boom! you both win.

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    2. Totally agree with Doug …. really really hope this is not forced into the data plan model …. especially with wifi almost everywhere now days

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      1. It’s about choice. There needs to be a Wifi only option for those who already have 3G via their iPhone/smartphone.

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    3. I agree with Doug. Students have a hard time managing school costs with living expenses as is. Where do these companies think students will get the money to tack on 3g plans to every other electronic!? Probably why in my classes I have seen macbook usage drop and netbook usage boom. Students are broke and its hard to find money for a high end computer as is let alone the corresponding 3g plan.

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  3. Well, I’ve heard Windows users say that a $300 netbook with a keyboard running full Windows 7 Ultimate is the peak evolution of mobile computing and an Apple tablet is a step backwards into time. I’ve heard the claims many times that NOBODY in this world has a need for a tablet device which has been proven over and over again by all the previous Windows tablet failures. If Microsoft can’t build a successful tablet running Windows, no company can can build a successful tablet platform.

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    1. “If Microsoft can’t build a successful tablet running Windows, no company can can build a successful tablet platform.”

      Are you really that stupid?

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    2. Sarcasm?

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      1. He’s right. Similarly, if Microsoft can’t make a successful smartphone running Windows, no company can build a successful smartphone platform.

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    3. Microsoft can’t build a successful tablet running Windows? Maybe they can, maybe they can’t, but they’ve actually never tried. Microsoft is not in the PC hardware business.

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  4. @Doug
    3G is expensive now but that will change with time. The iPhone was the first device to really push the networks capacity. Just ask AT&T! Mobile data providers are currently expanding their networks as fast as possible. With economies of scale, a growing user base and the end of Apple’s “exclusive agreement”, we will see data rate cost decline steadily as providers compete for customers.

    However… 3G may not be the best solution for education. In-house WiFi would be a much better solution cost wise; for the device cost and data charges. Apple knows this.

    Alan Kay’s original vision was not 3G. It was wireless communication being built-in. It was the key piece that would make the Dynabook a truly useful tool.

    I suspect that Apple will release TWO models this year. One will be wifi only and the other will be wifi/3G. Which one will come first? I guess we will find out tomorrow !!

    TheJ

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    1. Daniel Miesner Tuesday, January 26, 2010

      If there will indeed be two models, a WiFi/3G and just WiFi, Apple’s going to come out of the gates strong with the WiFi/3G in order to easily move iPhone users looking for an upgrade into the Tablet camp. They won’t make the splash they undoubtedly want with just a WiFi device. The iPod Touch was one of the worst purchases I’ve ever made. The purpose of these portable devices is to have access wherever you go, WiFi-only severely hinders that goal.

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      1. i think a lot depends on how the billing relationship works. apple would be very wise to go the ereader route and buy the service from the network and than resell to the customer. let the consumer own a device with a network connection but no recurring monthly fees. instead the fee could be built into the cost of the apps.

        what would be interesting is how to charge for browsing. but not so complicated. the browser could have its only subscription charge for a day, week, or month pass. or users could choose to only have open browsing while in wifi(that would be free) but still be able to use paid subscription style apps anyplace within 3G coverage.

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      2. “The iPod Touch was one of the worst purchases I’ve ever made. The purpose of these portable devices is to have access wherever you go, WiFi-only severely hinders that goal”.

        You should have known ahead of time it was WiFi only… so why did you buy it? I’ve had an iPod Touch for years and the fact that it fits in my pocket and easily connects to WiFi without a monthly data plan is part of the beauty. For those that need to be connected constantly there are devices for that. Buy what suits you.

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  5. @odo do you know why Microsoft failed? Because they used the exact same UI on their tablet using a stylus to interact with it (using you finger is not better).

    Computers are generally too complex to use for people but people who don’t generally get computers totally get the iPhone.

    You should read this about “information appliances”,

    http://gizmodo.com/5452501/the-apple-tablet-interface-must-be-like-this

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  6. @Constable Odo: no doubt also they say if Microsoft can’t make a successful MP3 player or smart phone no one can…

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  7. Tell Kay to shut his pie hole. Dude, like when was the last time you did innovative? 30 years ago?

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    1. And you, fishcado? What string of innovations have you been producing over the last thirty years?

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  8. Of course, if y’all had read my blog, you would have gotten this story, complete with the same quote, a week before GigaOm posted it.

    “How To Take Over The World, According to Alan Kay”
    http://brianstorms.com/2010/01/how-to-take-over-the-world-according-to-alan-kay.html

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    1. The only one that reads your blog is the googlebot.

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  9. [...] to now: The article I just read is this short piece in which the guy credited with creating the idea of a laptop computer had this to say to Steve Jobs [...]

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  10. Ideally, this tablet should have both WiFi & 3G, and be available for purchase WITH or WITHOUT a wireless plan.

    When in range of a companion iPhone that’s already on a cellular plan, it should be able to serve as a (wired or wireless) switchboard/conference phone in an office. Ideally, I should be able to take my incoming ATT calls on either my iPhone or tablet, as desired and I should be able to include the tablet in a conferenced cellular call, even it is connected to the net via WiFi (instead of ATT or Verizon).

    And I hope it has iChat.

    The Amazon Kindle and all e-ink, grayscale tablets: As of 10 a.m., Wednesday, January 27, 2009, they are obsolete.

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