A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life project (www.pewinternet.org) shows that 25% of US adults own a tablet computer. This amazingly rapid penetration of tablet computing suggests that devices are a solid trend, not a fad. But how, exactly, are these devices being used. As I’ve said before, they function more as tools of consumption than as tools of creation.

This is a perversion of the ideas behind the invention of the concept of tablet computing by Alan Kay. Alan, in the early 1970’s, maintained that there would be great utility in a computer for children the size and weight of a typical notebook – a computer he called the “Dynabook.” He not only thought about the hardware, he thought about the underlying software, and how this software would be used and created by the end users. In describing his “personal computer for children of all ages,” (history-computer.com/Library/Kay72.pdf ) he shows the influence of MIT Professor Seymour Papert on his thinking – the idea that children are constructors of their own knowledge, and that a personal computer would be a perfect platform to explore this Piagetain ideal.

In the early 1970’s the technology was not yet advanced enough to build such a tablet device. Page-sized liquid crystal dot matrix displays did not exist. The touch screen I invented in 1973 worked well enough to use in such a device, but we ended up using it on a traditional computer monitor instead. In fact, the Dynabook prototype became the Alto computer, the first personal computer to incorporate a graphical user interface – also developed in 1973 if memory serves. The Alto was the size of a two-drawer filing cabinet – hardly the portable device we had hoped for, but it worked splendidly, and became a powerful development platform as well as inspiration for the kinds of applications and user interface that resulted in the Apple Macintosh.

As for the underlying programming language, Alan was a fan of object-oriented languages and oversaw the development of Smalltalk. The central idea was that, like Logo, Smalltalk had a low floor and no ceiling. With it, children – or anyone else for that matter – could create programs of any desired complexity.

The main point is that, from an historical perspective, it was tablet first, personal computer second – largely because the tablet couldn’t be built at that time.

And so we fast-forward to the present where we see very powerful and beautiful tablets, clearly inspired by the work done in the 1970’s (which makes the Apple v. Samsung case quite confusing to understand.) My concern is not with the tablets themselves, but with how they are being used. They are clearly not set up with anything ike the original vision of children being able to create their own programs. There is no Smalltalk, or Logo (from MIT) – or more modern interpretations such as Squeak and Scratch for these devices. Furthermore, Apple has made it clear that the ability of kids to create their own programs on an iPad is not to be allowed (at least so far.) Instead, the tablets are for hunting and gathering information. Period.

Imagine how amazing these devices would be when kids are finally able to do what Alan Kay thought they should do in the 1970’s – build their own programs on these devices. I do see some glimmers of hope on the Android platform, and the next year will bear watching. Until that time, the dream of the 70’s has been interrupted.