Alan Kay: With the Tablet, Apple Will Rule the World

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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