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Computer Pioneer Alan Kay: 'Tech Companies Should Focus On The Future'

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I recently visited SAP's Silicon Valley Labs, not far from Delphix here in Menlo Park. Alan Kay was speaking about design, technology, and the future. It's always worth catching an Alan Kay talk because you will always hear original thinking. In the 1970s Kay was one of the researchers at the seminal Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where Steve Jobs got the idea for a graphical user interface, the mouse, and the laser printer.

I recently visited SAP's Silicon Valley Labs, not far from Delphix here in Menlo Park. Alan Kay was speaking about design, technology, and the future. It’s always worth catching an Alan Kay talk because you will always hear original thinking. In the 1970s Kay was one of the researchers at the seminal Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where Steve Jobs got the idea for a graphical user interface, the mouse, and the laser printer. Kay, in his talk, points out that Steve Jobs only saw the visual aspects of Xerox PARC’s personal workstation project. Those workstations were all connected, via Ethernet (a Xerox PARC invention), and each was connected to Arpanet, which became the Internet.

Steve Jobs did not see the connectivity because he was a “visual guy” and it was the graphical user interface that grabbed his attention. Kay argues that if we had connectivity built into early personal computers they would have been far more useful to us far earlier.

Kay also talks about applications and bemoans the fact that our apps aren’t integrated and we can’t use them as we would like. The key problem says Kay is that tech companies aren’t looking to the future, they are not trying to figure out what we will need 10 years from now. At Xerox PARC the researchers studied how people would work if they had personal workstations, graphical user interfaces, and were connected to a company network. What types of applications would they need? And that’s what they developed. Word processors, spreadsheets, email, etc, the same sets of applications we use today. We still use Xerox PARC’s Ethernet, ArpaNet is now the Internet, and laser printers, the mouse and graphical user interfaces are everywhere. In the 1970s the focus was on thinking about technology within a whole system. Holistic thinking was popular for good reasons: it was evident we live in a connected world. This is more true today than ever. We need a return to thinking about whole systems.

Kay's key criticism is that tech companies pay too much attention to the present and disregard the future when it comes to new products — and this delays the future, it holds us back.

But our systems don’t reward companies for long-term foresight. Investors reward companies that are able to exploit the near-future — a year or two at the most. How far can we = continue to exploit the innovative technologies and concepts that came out Xerox PARC forty years ago? We need new concepts and technologies for a new future. Kay says it would no be expensive to create a new Xerox PARC organization,the original had just 30 researchers. But their work led to the creation of multi-billion dollar industries. Kay is working at SAP on a creating a modern version of Xerox PARC. Interestingly, he hasn’t gone far. The SAP campus is right next door to Xerox PARC. Checkout my video of Alan Kay’s talk you won’t be disappointed despite a couple of wobbly bits!. I also have an interview with Kay where he talks about the early days of Xerox PARC that I’ll publish in a future post.