Alan Kay rips into Apple
FORTUNE — That Apple (AAPL) owes a lot to Alan Kay — everybody’s favorite computing pioneer — is an understatement.
It was Steve Jobs’ visit to Kay’s lab at Xerox PARC that led to the Lisa, the Mac and all that followed. Kay’s aphorism that “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware” — an aphorism that Jobs often quoted — became one of Apple’s core principles, one that distinguishes it from all its competitors.
Yet it is clear from his interview with computer historian David Greelish — excerpted Tuesday on Time.com by Harry McCracken — that Kay is profoundly disappointed with what Apple has done with his powerful ideas.
On failing to deliver on his dream of “symmetric authoring and consuming”:
Isn’t it crystal clear that this last and most important service is quite lacking in today’s computing for the general public? Apple with the iPad and iPhone goes even further and does not allow children to download an Etoy made by another child somewhere in the world. This could not be farther from the original intentions of the entire ARPA-IPTO/PARC community in the ’60s and ’70s.
Apple’s reasons for this are mostly bogus, and to the extent that security is an issue, what is insecure are the OSes supplied by the vendors
On the Newton, the short-lived predecessor of the iPhone that was created while he was an Apple Fellow under John Sculley:
I had many grazing encounters with the Newton (this was a very complicated project and politics on all fronts). Back in the Dynabook design days I had determined pretty carefully that, while you could do a very good character recognizer (the GRAIL project at RAND had one in the ’60s), you still needed a keyboard. Apple Marketing did not want a keyboard because they feared it would then compete with the Mac. Then there was the siren’s song of trying to recognize handwriting rather than printing — and they plunged (this was a terrible decision). And so on and so forth. One of the heroes of the Newton was [PARC and Mac veteran] Larry Tesler who took over the project at the end and made it happen.
On Apple with and without Steve Jobs:
As far as Apple goes, it was a different company every few years from the time I joined in 1984. There was Steve [Jobs] — an elemental force — and then there was no Steve. There was John [Sculley]. He was pretty good, but the company grew so fast and started getting very dysfunctional. And then on downhill.
One way to think of all of these organizations is to realize that if they require a charismatic leader who will shoot people in the knees when needed, then the corporate organization and process is a failure. It means no group can come up with a good decision and make it stick just because it is a good idea. All the companies I’ve worked for have this deep problem of devolving to something like the hunting and gathering cultures of 100,000 years ago. If businesses could find a way to invent “agriculture” we could put the world back together and all would prosper.
You realize by the end of the Time.com piece — An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay — that Kay is profoundly disappointed by much of modern society, starting with the schools. It’s what you might expect from a guy who told another interviewer two years ago:
“I had the fortune or misfortune to learn how to read fluently starting at the age of three. So I had read maybe 150 books by the time I hit 1st grade. And I already knew that the teachers were lying to me.”