Meanland: The times, they aren’t a changin’

Just go with me.

Click on this link to one of the recent articles in The Age about the patent fight between the Big Fruit and Samsung over the new Galaxy Tab 10.1. Take special note of the picture of the tablet at the head of the article. Now click on this link to the Dynabook. And this one. And finally this one. Taking note once again of the tablet-like device images that pop up.

dynabook1Amazed? Interested? Gobsmacked? All of the above?

I certainly was when I stumbled across images of the Dynabook and references to Alan Kay, its creator, several months ago while researching the history of the future of the book. Questions exploded in my head. How could an idea as potent as this have lain dormant for so long? How come we haven’t heard about the Dynabook-ness of the iPad, the Kindle and the myriad of other tablets out there? Where’s the iPad vs. Dynabook patent battle?

From there I plodded along the Alan Kay trail, keen to know more about the man behind the device behind the tablet. I found this article about the link between Dynabook and the iPad posted on the eve of the iPad’s release back in 2010 in which I was surprised to learn that the Dynabook was still news even at that stage of the tablet game and even to computer tragics like the good folk at Tom’s Hardware.

Perhaps we haven’t heard anything because Kay doesn’t feel he’s been ripped off by The Big Fruit. He has a working relationship with Steve Jobs and it seems that they both acknowledge the links between the two devices, as outlined in the Tom’s Hardware piece. So could the silence surrounding the Dynabook iPad nexus perhaps have something to do with the fact that The Big Fruit has more money that the US government? Who knows?

Kay seems to be more of an ideas guy than a businessman, an entrepreneur or a marketer. Someone more interested in making stuff than making money out of stuff. And, despite all the obvious similarities between the two devices, I think that point of philosophical difference is where the two devices diverge and perhaps explains why we haven’t heard more from Kay or about the Dynabook.

Dynabook was conceived in the 1960s, like today another so-called era of big ideas and wholesale change (Was it? Is it today?). Kay’s idea back then was to create a rechargeable flat screen personal computer, with a keyboard and a stylus for drawing, that was linked to a wireless network and that retailed at a reasonable price. Sound vaguely familiar? What’s not so familiar is the idea that this platform would be one on which users could create content. It was a machine geared to the Web 2.0 produser model of internet consumption and production – thirty years before such a concept even existed.

So in that sense it’s nothing like the iPad; it’s far superior.

The iPad, in contrast, is a very passive device. It’s great for consuming email, Twitter, books and media, but it’s not very good at producing sophisticated content. I have tried valiantly for months to find a way to use my iPad in the creation of content, but I can’t. Sure, if I bought a keyboard for it I’d be able to word process, but I still couldn’t use any Adobe programs.

Then there’s the great App con: these individually structured pieces of software that allow us to do very isolated tasks reasonably well, but which rarely have the functionality of their desktop equivalents and which don’t allow for easy integration. Apps fragment processes such that it’s like having one program that takes my key out of my pocket, another that puts it in my hand, a third that lets my hand put it in the lock, while a fourth is needed to actually turn it, and so on, rather than one seamless operation that does it all.

Kay touches on this himself in Tom’s Hardware article expressing his belief that computers today could be much more powerful than they actually are. And I think most of us suspect that is true. Does anyone really imagine that The Big Fruit is discovering new things all the time, things that they couldn’t possibly have thought of any earlier (like cameras on the front and back of the iPad – wow!) that prompt them to release a new iPhone and iPad every year or so? Of course not. It’s not that there’s a constant trickle of new developments requiring constant hardware updates, rather it’s a cynical grab for cash reliant on our addiction to the new. The Big Fruit embodies all the buck generating ideas of the Dynabook but none of its beauty in terms of capability or of what it might do for education and for people’s ability to create on computing devices.

So much for reading in a time of change Meanland pals. We might be consuming our texts in a changed format, thanks to digitisation, but in terms of the political and economic forces behind such changes, it’s business as usual, which really shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

All those early hopes and visions of the internet post Web 2.0 being a place where traditional power structures and political channels might be circumvented, where all voices might speak and be heard, have turned out to be silly and naive. The best ideas are still slaves to the cheapest buck – and apparently that’s what happened to the Dynabook way back in 1968. Why would anyone spend money on developing such cutting-edge technology when they could make a much faster profit out of something else – i.e. the desk top computer? I wonder what wonderful ideas are currently being squashed in favour of the bottom line.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

John Weldon

John Weldon has worked as a freelance writer since the mid 90s. His work has been published by the Age, the ABC and the Western Times among other organisations. He currently lectures in Professional and Creative Writing at Victoria University. His first novel, Spincycle, will be published later this year by Vulgar Press.

More by John Weldon ›

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  1. John, I’m not really sure where to begin.

    Your argument seems to be that Apple have managed to “con” a large slab of the computer-buying market into purchasing a device that prevents them from creating anything. The iPad is, all things considered, little more than a touchscreen paired with a sophisticated OS and developer API. What’s preventing you from creating the new, revolutionary reading environment you’d like to see as a device-specific app, or as a web app? And if the iPad doesn’t fit the bill hardware-wise, what’s preventing you from working on a different platform?

    I find it hard to stomach this kind of conspiracy theorising. This is a fantastic time to experiment with new ways to read, write, and distribute texts. There have never been more places to read and more ways to write. Every day, I speak with programmers who are working on fantastic new applications for displaying text in brand new ways, or are jumping on the latest EPUB specification to create standards-compliant ebooks that wouldn’t have been possible last year.

    There’s an insane amount of innovation happening right now. People are moving as fast as they can. Traditional power structures and political channels *are* being circumvented.

    It seems as though you’re missing the forest for the trees. You’ve zoomed in on one very particular idea of “the perfect future” that you’ve blinkered yourself off to everything else that’s going on.

    1. Thanks Connor,

      I appreciate your comments and questions. I’ll tackle a few of them here if I may.

      What’s preventing me from creating the new revolutionary reading environment I’d like to see? Well, I’m not a developer, so that’s not really my bag. I can, however, hope to influence others who might be able to do that by lauding and criticising current devices and software options and hoping that this helps.

      To answer your next question – I am working on different platforms that the iPad, for the reasons I state in the post. Reasons I think it’s important to make clear because unlike you and I an awful lot of people I encounter are confused about the capabilities of the iPad and other tablet devices. They think they’ll be able to use them in ways they just can’t. Whose fault is that?

      Yes this is a fantastic time to experiment, it’s also a fabulous time to critique those experiments (the iPad), reflect on past experiments (the Dynabook) and see if we can’t learn from all of them.

      Conspiracy theorising? Maybe I’m guilty of that, but maybe we need a few conspiracy wackos just to act as counters to the overwhelming tide of Apple spin.

      Lastly, I’m sure there is an insane amount of innovation out there right now. No argument from me there, but will we see an insane amount of it anytime soon? Will it be distributed in a way that’s even vaguely equitable or will it be dribbled out in the same way that Apple doles out its technology: releasing minor modifications under the guise of significant improvements, thereby sucking the bucks out of those less discerning or less able to discern than you and I?
      No more I promise but…I don’t see how you can say the traditional economic and political structures are operating any differently within the digital realm than they do outside of that, but maybe that’s just me. I’m more than happy to be corrected.

      Last, lastly, I’m not looking for a perfect future; I just don’t like being conned.

      1. Hey, thanks for responding! I agree that this is a great conversation to be having.

        I think the fallacy here is to understand the iPad as a computer-competitor, and also to believe that all of us want and need creator-centric devices. If you want a computer, well… computers already exist. They’re not going away. Criticising a tablet because it doesn’t run Photoshop is like criticising a bicycle because you can’t use it for motorsport.

        The truth is that most consumers don’t want or need a computer that can be used to process video or create vector graphics or even write a novel. The more functionality you pack into a device, the more unwieldy it becomes to use. Most people want a device that can do 10% of what a conventional computer does, but do all of that extremely well.

        I think the distinction between “creation” and “consumption” is problematic, too. Is getting stuck into a great work of literature “mindless consumption”? Is taking a few drunken party snaps to upload to Facebook an act of “creation”? What if we were to distinguish between “speaking” and “listening” instead? The iPad, to me, promotes a “listening state”. It’s a great place to read articles, books, magazines, without feeling distracted. In the “creation/consumption” dichotomy, I’d be “consuming”.

        I find it baffling that creative-types often appear to look down on “consumers”. Within that group we call “consumers” are art-appreciators, serious readers, critics, music geeks, and so on. Without “consumers”, creators would have no audience. And in that vein, if the iPad is a device that promotes “consumption”, isn’t it also a great device for creators to use to distribute their work to a receptive audience?

        We can’t create all the time. We need to step back and appreciate the work of others. It’s a bit of a yin-yang thing.

  2. I too have major concerns about the Apple monopoly – and being locked into devices, etc – and about the purpose of the iPad, which is purely a media consumption device. As I’ve written before, it’s ‘a one-way medium in a time when most other technology is exploring the two-way medium, and consequently, seems neither future-oriented nor progressive.’

    Have more to say but may have to finish my word limit for the day!

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