Thursday, September 28, 2017 [Tweets] [Favorites]

Alan Kay on the iPhone

Alan Kay:

If people could understand what computing was about, the iPhone would not be a bad thing. But because people don’t understand what computing is about, they think they have it in the iPhone, and that illusion is as bad as the illusion that Guitar Hero is the same as a real guitar. That’s the simple long and the short of it.

What’s interesting is, the computational ability of an iPhone is far beyond what we need to do good computing. What you wind up with is something that has enough stuff on it and is connected to enough stuff, so it seems like the entire thing.

[…]

So, I talked to Steve on the phone [about adding a standard pen and penholder]. I said, “Look Steve. You know, you’ve made something that is perfect for 2-year-olds and perfect for 92-year-olds. But everybody in-between learns to use tools.”

[…]

Well, a saying I made up at PARC was, “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” They’ve got simple things being simple and they have complex things being impossible, so that’s wrong.

Update (2017-09-28): Alan Kay (via Gok):

Let me try to help this community regarding this article by providing some context. First, you need to realize that in the more than 50 years of my career I have always waited to be asked: Every paper, talk, and interview has been invited, never solicited. But there is a body of results from these that do put forward my opinions.

This article was a surprise, because the interview was a few years ago for a book the interviewer was writing. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the actual interview did I advocate going back and doing a Dynabook. My comments are mostly about media and why it’s important to understand and design well any medium that will be spread and used en-mass.

If you looked closely, then you would have noticed the big difference between the interview and the front matter. For example, I’m not still waiting for my dream to come true. You need to be sophisticated enough to see that this is a headline written to attract. It has nothing to do with what I said.

And, if you looked closely, you might note a non seq right in the beginning, from “you want to see old media?” to no followup. This is because that section was taken from the chapter of the book but then edited by others.

The first version of the article said I was fired from Apple, but it was Steve who was fired, and some editor misunderstood.

8 Comments

This interview remind me a lot of reading about Richard Stallman. Both he and Kay are tuned into a different kind of reality compared to most of us, or to the mainstream thought. But both are also convinced they're correct, and their vast experience makes it difficult to argue – even though there patently obvious objections arise immediately. Both also aim to put barriers and conditions in front of technology – Stallman with his political stance, and Kay evidently with his belief that computers should be complex tools that require education to use.

Still, there are some interesting perspectives here.

"This interview remind me a lot of reading about Richard Stallman. Both he and Kay are tuned into a different kind of reality compared to most of us, or to the mainstream thought."

I do get your point with the comparison, but I don't think it's quite right. Stallman, due to his fervent opposition to commercialization, is doomed to be irrelevant to the computing industry. Kay, whatever you may think of his perspective, is not. To take the obvious example, Steve-o kept in close contact with Kay because he valued his opinion, while it's impossible to even imagine him doing the same with Stallman.

Kay indeed departs from where mainstream industry thought has gone, but his perspective is not fundamentally incompatible with the industry in the way Stallman's is.

"...and Kay evidently with his belief that computers should be complex tools that require education to use"

This strikes me as a fundamental misreading of Kay. If folks know just one thing about him, it's his famous quote, Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible. Even without knowing anything else about him and his background, that's enough to understand why he was so excited about the introduction of the Macintosh; it was a computer that required far less training/education to use than the existing competition. Simple things should be simple.

The fact that he simultaneously wants complex things to be possible doesn't put him in the bucket in which you've placed him.

@Chucky Indeed, Kay originally wanted Smalltalk to be a tool for children, and he tried again to make something for children with Squeak. My impression from what I’ve read over the years and from a talk that I attended is that he’s in favor of empowerment, not complexity. He believes that if done right the language or computer can be easy to use without limiting the potential of what it can do. I agree with much of his critique of iOS. It makes some things really easy, but at a cost. And no real undo, 33 years later?

....and Kay evidently with his belief that computers should be complex tools that require education to use.

As mentioned by Chucky and Michael, I think there's a simple misunderstanding here. Complex interactions should be possible, not that complexity is the end goal. A computer existing as a tool that is conceptually easy to use but allowing for the possibility of future complex interactions as mastery is attained.

Well, a saying I made up at PARC was, “Simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible.” They’ve got simple things being simple and they have complex things being impossible, so that’s wrong.

I've actually read/heard Kay's complaint echoed for years from other people too. Even when discussing the Mac in historic versions of this refrain. When Apple really nails a feature, things work automagically, but when you navigate outside the basic Apple box a bit, sometimes things get stupidly hard....iOS is simply the paragon of the Apple way, "Trust us, we've really sweated the details. We know what works best. We are trying to make complex things more accessible." Walled gardens, sealed boxes, it's all great until you think of something they haven't....

Frankly, I never felt empowered with iOS, instead constantly hitting limits. This coming from someone who tried to swap out a laptop for an iPad 3 "back in the day"*....oh man it was painful. Yes, I know the platform is still growing and maturing, but I've heard this story for seven long years, "iPad as future of computing." Not yet in my own estimation. To the original point, while the iPhone is really good in many, often different ways than the iPad, I just can't justify what is now a $700 starting price for a phone....I'm sorry, it's painful enough for one user, but when you add in the family too, way too much money for my tastes.

*Also coming from someone who had previously written emails, blog posts, and articles on Nokia E series cell phones (think classic Blackberry, but Nokia style), the iPad should have been an amazing step up. Since I still felt like I needed a laptop, it just wasn't. Yeah, yeah, "iOS 11 is the game changer", but man, just can't bring myself to drop serious cash on a new iPad when my laptop and current phone already make an excellent tandem (that probably still cost less combined than most people's iPads alone...).

I swear to something unhealthily profane....my own inability to italicize quotes properly on this site....yes, I'm that incompetent. Feel free to fix...Thanks in advance to the magic of all that is Tsai.

But since I'm here again anyway, I will add. I don't think Stallman actually hates commercialization. He is adamant the GPL was never intended to stop people from making money. I think the idea was, sure, ship a great software product, or a great piece of hardware with great software attached, just don't close me out of the source. There will be bugs, there will be missing features, there will be abandonment, but access to the source means there's a chance these things can be fixed without further corporate support. Stallman, and crazy people like myself, just want to remain in ownership over our own devices. Feel free to charge for hardware, charge for software, charge for service, but the source should be free.

Yes, I know the practical applications of these beliefs are often at odds with those very commercial entities that don't really care one whit about such "rights".

@Nathan I changed the italics to block quotes but didn’t see anything wrong with your tags. If I missed something, please let me know.

It should also be noted that recent events have quite plainly shown that Richard Stallman was a lot more right than we gave him credit for.

Thanks Michael, that was it....I just can't seem to keep tags closed or add proper quotation marks when I do close tags, maybe I'll just keep to blockquotes....

Lukas,
I agree. He might be a zealot to some, but he isn't wrong. I compromise daily on these issues, nice someone keeps fighting the good fight, as lonely as it might be.

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