Did Steve Jobs Steal the iPad?
The industry tends to get too consumed by excitement for Apple’s latest products. So much, in fact, that we forget to ask questions we usually would like to ask. There is the general perception that Steve Jobs is one of the greatest inventors of our time. Be prepared for the wrath of Apple’s fan base if you criticize Apple and especially Jobs. Think about the iPhone and what it has done for the status of Jobs. Or the iPad, which Jobs reportedly described as the most important device he has ever launched. But is it possible that Steve Jobs is really the origin of all those captivating ideas?
Before you crucify me, yes, this article’s headline carries a bit of sensationalism, and depending on your perception of Apple, you have answered that question for yourself already. I don’t want to change what you already believe, but I would like to give you some food for thought. I will take you along a fascinating journey that took me back four decades in time to the origins of personal computing. There is a side of the iPad I am sure you don’t know.
A day or so before the iPad went on sale, I was researching material for my final iPad launch article over at ConceivablyTech.com and came across a slideshow that was mentioned by Business Insider that included some of the iPad’s predecessors. The first device was particularly interesting -- it was one of those sketchy drawings we usually see in patent drawings. The similarity to the iPad and previous Webpads was amazing. What struck me was how the article noted that the device called Dynabook dates back to 1968.
Like the author of the Business Insider article, I had never heard of the Dynabook. Google quickly revealed the source of the article, a 1972 research paper published by a Xerox PARC scientist. I have been an IT writer for the entire span of my 15-year career, so PARC was no secret to me and you perhaps know as well that this famed research center was the origin of many technologies we take for granted today, such as the laser printer, the computer mouse, and the Ethernet. It turned out the Dynabook is at least as significant as those technologies.
As you read the paper entitled "A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages," you get the impression that the author had a clear vision of a device like the iPad. Remember, this was 38 years ago in a time when the phrase "personal computer" did not exist, when there was no Microsoft and computers were not popular enough to have convinced a publisher to design and create a magazine for it. I'll spare you the details of the paper and you can read the text or download the PDF of the article to learn about a part of computer history you don’t hear about that often.
It so happens that the author of this paper is Alan Kay, one of the key people who have shaped the way we are using computers today. You may not have heard of Kay, as he is part of the research community and does not stand on stages like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates does. Kay is widely recognized and best known as the key scientist behind the graphical user interface and one of the inventors of object-oriented programming.
The Dynabook is still remembered as a vision of what computers could eventually become. Kay described a plasma screen with a contrast ratio approaching that of a book; a keyboard with no moving parts; a network connection with the ability to purchase, transfer, and download “instantiate” files; global information connectivity, such as libraries; media connectivity; and a target price of $500.
After reading the paper, it was natural to ask the question: Did Steve Jobs read this paper as well and did he just try to build the Dynabook? I was lucky enough to catch up with Alan Kay and ask him what he thought. Needless to say, I also tried to contact Apple’s PR department and Steve Jobs himself, but I did not get a reply.
After a week of exchanging delightful emails with Alan Kay, I have learned quite a bit about the origins of personal computing and the Dynabook, but I have to admit that answering the question whether the iPad was Jobs’ idea or not is nearly impossible.
Kay told me that back in 1972 he “wasn't trying to predict the iPad” and that “the desiderata for the Dynabook should be judged on their own merits.” In fact, the Dynabook was not so much a prediction, but a vision for a personal computer and what it could be. That vision not only included hardware, but software as well that would allow anyone, especially children, to use the computer as a medium of expression, much like reading and writing are amplified by the printing press, as Kay describes it.
Kay believes that computers can be much more powerful than most people can imagine today. A significant component of the Dynabook’s usage model was that its users would be able to easily develop simple applications. For example, even children could use simple yet effective graphics-based script languages to understand and translate experiments as well as to modify and write their own scripts and eventually entire programs such as games.
There is a clear difference between the Dynabook concept and what the iPad is today. If you look at the iPad and the Dynabook, the usage models could not be any different. You could even claim that the iPad is geared for passive computing, while the Dynabook represented an idea of active computing. The last thing you would want to do on an iPad is write your own software. You have the App Store, so why would you program anything? However, there is a much deeper connection between Kay and Apple.
Kay agreed that Steve Jobs has known about the Dynabook idea and the interim-Dynabook (called the PARC Alto) for several decades. The result of the research and Kay’s colleagues at Apple were the Lisa and Macintosh. After becoming an Apple Fellow in 1984, Kay intended to build a Dynabook and actually came very close to completing it. “The Newton was one such project and it was a shame that the Apple marketing people messed up the design of it,” Kay said.
Over time, there were more Dynabook hints in the IT industry. For example, there was the Tablet PC, which was predicted to revolutionize the notebook market. However, Kay believes that “the design of this machine was ruined by Bill Gates, who insisted that Windows be the software on it.” The Tablet PC, by the way, was first designed by Chuck Thacker, who also designed the PARC Alto.
So, did the Dynabook influence Steve Jobs and the iPad? “Hard to imagine that it didn't,” Kay said. “Of course, many things in the multi-touch UI, page turning animations, etc. were first done by the group of my friend Nicholas Negroponte at MIT,” Kay said. “The idea of touch screen interaction also goes back to this community, both at PARC and Negroponte's research group at MIT that invented a multi-touch tablet in the 70s. One set of the machines we made, called ‘The NoteTaker,’ had a touch screen.”
So Kay and Jobs have a lasting relationship. There is a particularly interesting event between the two that relates to the iPhone and the iPad. “When Steve showed me the iPhone at its introduction a few years ago and asked me if ‘it was good enough to criticize,’ which is what I had said about the Mac in 1984, I held up my Moleskine notebook and said ‘make the screen at least 5"x8" and you will rule the world,’ Kay said.
Did Jobs listen to Kay and simply build what he was advised to do? Possibly, but Kay really had another direction in mind. “Of course, I meant do more than just that, but it was clear the iPhone was going to be really appealing and very useful for most people,” Kay said. “When I saw the iPhone, I figured that they had already done a tablet version, which is easier to make work than the iPhone, so I was partially joking with Steve when I said 5"x8".
I asked Kay, of course, whether he felt that Jobs had stolen the idea for the iPad. Kay quickly denied such a thought. He actually enjoys the success Jobs has with this product and said credit has been given to all parties involved.
“I have been given proper credit for my research and so have the other principal contributors to personal computing and Internetworking. We've all been given the major awards in our fields, honorary degrees from universities, elected as fellows to the major professional societies, etc,” Kay said. “I don't know of any who wanted to be popular like a rock star or actor, so it all worked out well. And for quite a few of us, the big rewards now come from when our ideas are actually used rather than watered down.”
Kay sees a different kind of payoff in his work, rather than the monetary rewards we would normally expect. “The big rewards overall came from being able to do the work, that is to have visions and make them manifest. These are the rewards of art, and the simplest way to characterize the main figures we've being talking about is as artists in science and technology,” Kay said. “The second biggest reward was to get funded to be able to do this work. Good funders are rare, and the amazing ones give out the gold medals early, knowing that most of them will turn to lead. Public recognition 40 years later doesn't compare to the real deals.”
Kay said that he still talks to Jobs today and they do appear to get along pretty well. “When I talk to Steve, I try to get him interested again in doing big things for education -- this was a central theme for him in the early days -- partly as a route to sell computers, but also as a civilization booster,” Kay said. “The ‘big things’ would include funding both internal and external research to make better learning environments for children, especially for hard-to-learn ideas like math and science.”
Kay did succeed with his idea eventually by pushing Etoys and Scratch and visual authoring systems on top of Squeak, which is an open source version of Smalltalk. Etoys and Scratch are used by children around the world to develop scripts and even applications. But some of us may wonder, if the iPad really isn’t the Dynabook and the Dynabook has not materialized yet, why Kay has not tried to build the complete device himself.
I learned that Kay has a true dedication and focus on what he does and isn’t likely to deviate from that. “Scientists are not the same as entrepreneurs. My main interests are finding and inventing. None of my friends who started companies, like Adobe, ever did ‘finding and inventing’ again,” Kay said. “The processes are very different and interfere considerably. What we did instead is to spend 25 years finding out what is needed in a constructive computer environment to really help 90% of children learn difficult-to-learn powerful ideas, and we were finally successful.”
Kay gives Apple a lot of credit for putting the finishing touches on an idea, but he criticizes what most believe is Apple’s strongest advantage today: the App Store.
“The app-centric way of looking at computing is not a good one in the end for the users. The apps can be individually very good and lots of them are on the iPad, but they needlessly stovepipe and isolate functionality that really should be integratible,” Kay said.
In his words, the app approach is somewhat disappointing and hides “what’s special” about computers. “This still essentially invisible for most people,” Kay said.
Kay’s solution? “An alternative way to do this would be to ‘sell objects, not apps’ and let the different objects all exist and be usable together in a kind of extended desktop publishing Hypercard document structure. This would allow very useful mashups to be done without any mashing,” Kay said. “For example, one of the drawing programs on the iPad is superb, but it doesn't integrate with the word processor program other than extremely awkwardly. Object-level integration was in the original PARC systems and was more like what we intended for how integration would be done.”
Apple’s Hypercard may actually have been a critical component that prevented Apple from being even further ahead in the industry today than it is already. In the late 1980s, it was in place as a tool for end-users to easily create dynamic media. According to Kay, more than four million users had written scripted stacks after Hypercard had been out for about four years.
Sadly, Apple did not believe in Hypercard and scrapped it. Imagine Hypercard in existence today, further developed in line with Apple’s approach of clean design and ease of use? Kay even described a Hypercard-based Web browser that would allow users to create content directly within a Web browser, turning the Web browser into a versatile content creation and viewing tool, instead of the relatively simple viewing tool it is today.
But Kay does not believe that all hope is lost, as long as there remains a focus on the bigger picture of what computers can be and what makes them exciting. “There's nothing wrong with the computer as a washing machine, automobile, or, perhaps, even a TV. But it would be a disaster to let TV drive out the printed book, and an even bigger one if the computer as a washing machine were to drive out the computer as the next truly important representation system since the book,” Kay said. “This is the main issue here. Another way to look at it is that if you did deeply understand what computing was all about, then you would not just want it to be used as a washing machine.”
Clearly, the idea of the Dynabook went far beyond what the iPad is today and it does not represent the vision of the Dynabook idea. In a way, Apple may have taken the best thoughts of the Dynabook and squeezed it into a marketable model and a scenario that fit into Apple’s business plan. No doubt, there has been a lot of brainwork to make the Dynabook work for Apple. However, the whole iPad release and Apple’s claim as an innovator just does not feel right.
The iPad seems to be a typical Apple product and not quite the innovation it seems to be at first sight. Instead, it is yet another example of how an idea that has been worked on for a while can be refined to perfection, at least as far as today’s market requirements are concerned. I do not believe that Apple deserves all the credit it receives today and it is a shame that the iPad’s origins are widely unknown.
I wonder: Is there an opportunity for Alan Kay’s Dynabook? An iPad with a Sqeak implementation that enables any user to write his or her own applications, rather than resorting to purchasing an app?
Feel free to join the discussion by leaving a comment below, but remember to keep things clean!