Alan Kay, a Walt Disney software developer and former Apple employee, has left the company, Reuters has
Kay will leave Disney in September, along with his team of six programmers who took advantage this month of voluntary severance packages, part of the firm’s move to cut 4,000 jobs by this summer. Clare Thomas, a Disney spokeswoman, said Kay decided that the time was right to “pursue his research in a different type of environment.”
Why should you care? Well, Kay is one of the inventors of the Smalltalk programming language and one of the fathers of the idea of Object Oriented Programming. He conceived the laptop computer and was an architect of the modern windowing graphical user interface. Kay’s “research” has resulted in some interesting products.
Kay joined Disney to develop the use of Squeak, a programming language good for education, collaborative gaming and in small devices that work best on “less-resource-hungry software platforms,” Reuters said. Kay may continue to work on Squeak, since it’s an open source language. Meanwhile, Disney is testing Squeak in schools, since children as young as six years are able to develop programs in Squeak using pictures, or objects, minimizing the need for writing out directions, Thomas told Reuters. The company is also testing Squeak programs in handheld computers at its theme parks, she added.
Almost 25 years ago, Kay dreamed of what he called the Dynabook, a precursor of today’s modern notebook computers, according to an
article by Brian Rampersad, computer programmer and systems analyst.
While a post-graduate student at Utah State University, Kay developed his idea of the Dynabook, which he described as “a portable interactive personal computer, as accessible as a book.” He envisioned the device as having a flat panel display and wireless communications, Rampersad wrote.
After writing a thesis about graphical object-orientation and being awarded a Ph.D. at the University of Utah, Kay spent two years teaching at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, according to an
online biography. While there 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, which was designed to mimic Kay’s biological model of individual entities, or “cells,” communicating with each other via messages. Eventually his Smalltalk language would father the genre of Objected Oriented Programming languages.
And this is where things get interesting. In 1993, Kay’s vision of Dynabook finally transformed itself into reality in the form of Apple’s late, lamented (by many) Newton.
“However, what was released was a far cry from Kay’s dream,” Rampersad wrote. “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.”
In fact, the Dynabook idea was the basis for early personal computer work at the Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), where Kay worked on the development of graphical user interfaces until 1981, according to Rampersad’s article. And, of course, it was Xerox’s graphical user interface work that “inspired” the look and feel of the Mac OS.
When Steve Jobs, Jeff Raskin, and other Apple pioneers visited PARC in 1979, however, they recognized immediately that Kay’s ideas were the way of the future. They were impressed with the idea of a windowing GUI (graphical user interface) and were astounded with the flexibility of the Smalltalk language, according to the biography.
Kay left Xerox in 1983, worked briefly at Atari, then became an Apple Fellow in 1984 — the year the Mac was produced. During the next few years Kay lived in Los Angeles but trekked across the country to teach brief stints at MIT and to work at Apple.
Now that Kay has left Disney, who knows? He might return to an unfinished project. In a 1991 interview with “Byte” magazine, Kay described “Agent based systems.” and said he was in the process of writing a new computer language that constructed simulated intelligence within the computer to allow the machine to tell itself what to do. An “agent,” according to Kay, was a kernel of intelligence in the computer. In this article Kay predicted agent-based commercial systems by the year 2000. He also said that he envisioned a computer that can learn from the user and adapt to the user’s needs. In the decade-old article, he also said he eventually wanted to mass-produce his “Dynabook.”
With everything he’s done so far, whatever Alan Kay chooses to do should be fascinating. After all, he’s the fellow who coined the phrase, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”