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.
Amazed? 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.