A pioneer's view of computer history In speech at UMBC, Kay urges creativity in creating software


October 31, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

If it seems the word processors and other software programs on your computer are eating up more memory and taking longer to run, Alan Kay feels your pain.

Kay is a legend in the computer industry, a digital-age Benjamin Franklin widely recognized as the father of the personal computer. He has been involved with nearly every key innovation in the history of modern computing, from laser printers to the Internet.

Yesterday, Kay came to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to give the keynote address at a conference called "Bridging the Gap: Practical Aspects of Object-Oriented Technology."

He told a group made up mostly of computer programmers that today's software makers need to think more creatively and stop relying on outdated ideas to create computer software.

"It's just really hard to point to anything that looks like software engineering," said Kay, vice president of research and development at Walt Disney Co.

Kay's talk was mostly technical, but he weaved in personal details that offered a perspective on how far computing technology has developed in the past few decades -- and how far it has to go.

As a graduate student at the University of Utah in the late 1960s, he worked on a research team that developed the first three-dimensional computer graphics, the technology behind most of today's computer games. He was also involved in creating the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. At that time, he said, it was called the World Wide Information Utility, not the World Wide Web.

Kay developed ideas that underlie many of today's most popular computer programming languages and came up with the first notebook computer, which he called the Dynabook. His idea was to create a book-sized computer that could be used by children instead of paper. "This seized my imagination, a personal computer for children of all ages," he said.

In the early 1970s, Kay moved to Xerox's famous Palo Alto Research Center. There he led a team of researchers that developed the first laser printer and the first computer to use graphic windows, icons and a mouse. When Steve Jobs visited and saw the machine, he was so impressed that he used it as the model for Apple's Macintosh.

And it is the same basic technology used in Microsoft's Windows.

"Everyone always asks, 'How could you do all that stuff 35 years ago on those dinky little machines?' " Kay said.

Yesterday, Kay offered a peek of a computer language he and Disney researchers are developing. Called "Squeak," the zTC language has the graphic bells and whistles that today's computers offer, he said, but is more compact. When those in the audience saw how little memory it took up, they gasped.

Kay said Squeak shows what software makers could accomplish if they threw out stale ideas about programming and started thinking freshly.

Pub Date: 10/31/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.