A Conversation with Alan Kay (1989)

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hello I'm Michael Markman in the early days of computers when they cost
multiple millions dollars were housed behind glass walls intended by
specialists it was hard to think of them as personal and yet today there's more
processing power in personal computers than there is in mainframes
one of the people responsible for that change is with us today he's dr. Alan Kay he's now a fellow with
Apple Computer and he's responsible for changing the way we look at computers
and the way computers look to us Alan how does it feel to be known as one of
the fathers of personal computing well as they say success has a thousand
fathers and failures an orphan so I'm one of many fathers of it I've always
thought the personal computer was invented by Wes Clark back in 1962 but I
got interested in the 60s in the whole notion of the computer being something
other than a vehicle but being more like an amplifier the way paper and other
media amplify us and so I just started thinking about what would it be like to
have something not even on a desktop but
intimate something you could take with you and maybe even made out of fur or
something but something that would be friendly in a way that computing
machinery wasn't back then people who are managing the use of computer
technology in large businesses or large government agencies often find there's a
resistance to the technology and there is a barrier to accepting new ways of
working is there a difference between the way people respond to Macintosh
versus other computers such as ms-dos we certainly think that there is and the
response and the change in market share and so forth over the last few years
would would lead us to believe that there's a much greater appeal in using
the Macintosh style of interface the Mac
has two things that it tries to do one is it tries to meet people where they
are and not demand any special knowledge of them to get started because of course
you don't need special knowledge on a computer with a well designed user
interface you should be able to start from where you are things that are familiar operations that you can do
instantly so the Macintosh starts you off doing what people actually do with a
Natchitoches and then what it tries to do is to spiral you upward so that you
can immediately start doing things but the sort of an inner goal of the Mac is
to help expand people's horizons giving them new ways to think about things and
to get them to perfect skills that they didn't have before so I think those two
things of going with the person as they are and then hoping to elevate the way
they think about the world are the essence of the success the study on
workforce 2000 which was done by the Hudson Institute spends a lot of time
talking about the changing nature of work and the workforce and the need that
people today will will have to adapt learn new skills and take on new jobs as
we move toward the 21st century is there anything in the design of the Macintosh
that can help I think the Mac deals with it in a
number of ways the Mac is much easier to learn than other systems and so the
ability of people to first get on the
Mac in the first place and do things but second to go to every couple of years to
a completely new round of powerful software without an enormous penalty and
retraining is one of the largest factors
in the in the Mac success when we look at change moving towards the 21st
century are the different perspectives when you look at it from the management side or from the workers side oh yes I
think that the again you know huge
generalization but I think that many American workers would like their high
school and training to be a little bit like a vaccination once you've done it you don't have to do it again
and that it's very often the case when workers get displaced from jobs they
have a very hard time going to new ones there's there's not a large tradition of
full life learning in our society
management I think tends to be a little
bit component-based when it thinks about people I need three draftsman over here
I need two of these over there and the
enormous training industry that's been set up now it tries to mediate between
these two and so I think finding ways to
help people see themselves as learners and one of the best ways to do that I
think is to fool them is to get them to
do a new skill before they realize they've actually learned something the
Mac has that property that before you know it you're actually doing something
then at some point you realize oh wait a minute I'm using a computer here what
happened you've said that Macintosh is fun I think some people may have
problems with that what is the practical value of a computer that's fun I think
that the practical value of having a
device that's fun is that you learn faster on it Richard Wurman says
learning is just remembering what you're interested in and so if you can get
people interested in something then the learning will happen a lot faster the
reason I think fun is important is because fun expands people's awareness
they're much more interested they're more likely to see more possibilities and they try more things the experience
that we've had with the Macintosh is that the number of applications people
actually use on the Macintosh is about four or five times the number that they
use on the ms-dos environment and part
of the reason is that the once people have used a couple of Macintosh
applications they know that about 70% of what they've learned already will be
immediately applicable in the new unknown application so people will not
even open the man I think people start out and get into
the Macintosh because of the fun they have but what keeps them going is a
sense of achievement a sense that they can accomplish something that they're
interested in doing yeah I I agree because I I think that a really you know
a pretty face nice user interface isn't enough that there has to be an enormous
amount of function behind it and although the Apple doesn't emphasize
that we have the most powerful processors that are on desktop computers today they deliver a lot of function but
the the by the same coin the function is absolutely irrelevant if people can't
get to it so it's really it's really a
balanced situation where you have to have ease of use but you also have to
have power that you're getting to so it's like just having automatic
transmissions and power steering and kind of things that make an automobile
easy to use you still have to have an engine and wheels and the gas tank and
so forth I think you can be extremely left brained and quantitative about
something like the Macintosh because the the fact is that people are more
productive on it by any standards that people care to come up with the fact
that it's fun and so forth people could think of as being value-added the fact
that it takes many weeks less training time is simply one way of paying for the
computer in the first place there is a lot of emphasis on benchmarking
computers and finding out how fast they can do certain processes I don't think
there's enough benchmarking of the entire system and the system involves
the person and the computer it's how fast you can work with the computer how
fast you can put your ideas into the computer as well as how fast the
computer can process it it's how fast you can decode what the computer tells
you so I think the benchmarking ought to involve looking at both the user and the
computer and measuring that right absolutely I agree I like the idea of
system-wide benchmarking and I think one of the things that I have shifted over
the years has been a shift from a concern for response time from the
mainframe to now a sort of a horsepower race how many MIPS do you have on the
desktop and I think the real concern though is what is your access to
resources both in the sense of what can
be on your your local hard disk but evermore what is your access to
resources all over the world that you can get to by networking and that access
question is the the heart of thinking about a computer as being a user
interface plus function yeah this puts more emphasis on interface well I think
it's that the Mac transcends just the
act of computing it actually gives you an environment in which you feel safe
which you are interested in things and at one level it's simply because it
appeals to the kinesthetic domain which most technology doesn't even contact so
in the Macintosh you can actually reach into the Machine and touch the objects
that are in there and move them around and so you you are in Sirte into the
world in a way you aren't and other in other systems and that if you consider
the total cost of getting a computer as
being more than what the box costs but the total cost over the life of having
it and what it means to do things with it then the Mac is the best bargain on
this earth and computers as the service sector becomes a more important element
of our economy management in industry and in government are looking not only
at productivity issues but also quality issues productivity says more more more
quality says better better better are these two in conflict or do they support
each other just think of sort of quality productivity and fun all actually go
together but I think for people to get sensitive to quality you have to be able
to allow them to experiment with it and so I think this notion of expansion of
awareness is the most important one and the other one is trust and I believe in
a funny kind of way that the computer revolution is going to expand that
because you're much more an autonomous being on a computer than you are when
you're hooked into a typical organization you're able to do more
yourself you trust yourself more and I think you are more trusted and I think
that and being inequality rich
environment can make a person more sensitive to qualitative things remember
we're in a we're in a place where so many forces in our society a
quantitative they're all bottom line things you have to get this done soon
and now we're asking people to sit down and make qualitative judgments about
things but make sure you get done quickly as well and I think that's the
hard one so we know as we plan out the rest of the century that there going to be tremendous changes at work and the
nature of workers and the workforce what can we look for from technology and what
should we look for from other sources well I think I always look first to the
human and think that we should change the awareness the kinds of things that
humans are aware of first the technology can be the amplifier of
that and to some extent it can be a catalyst and a reason for the change I
think that we will see a very large shift in the next ten years to a
pervasively networked society we'll see
a shift in friendly user interfaces from
the tool based kinds of interfaces that the Mac has made famous to a combination
of tool based and agent based interfaces where we will have in semi intelligent
computer processes taking on some of our goals structure going out and finding
things for us to go around and make sure that transactions we're trying to have
executed are going to happen for doing sign-off that happens in a dozen
different places in the world an agent will go along with a document to try and
get each of the people to to do the sign-off it will try and and organize
and bring together our relationship with the computer is gonna be changed the
computer is gonna jump off the desk into our laps you know it's going to be a change from
a desktop personal computer to an
intimate computer in other words we'll start using computer the way we use paper these computers that we carry
around with us but will will be linked into this network using cellular technology
anything that we deal with on the computer can be criticized we can be
skeptical about those models we can question we can call up other opinions
of it in the in the workplace I think
it's going to lead to a much more curious society I think that the hardest
thing for people to do is often is to open up the encyclopedia once they've
got it open they will read more than the article they are looking for so I think
perhaps the biggest change in the computer are all the implications of a
computer of computers that have no on/off switches all of these things
together are going to constitute an enormous set of changes for
organizations to deal with but as always the strongest weapon in exploring these
new areas is the one between our ears providing us loaded