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cotton, Bob; oliver, Richard


"In 1968 Alan Kay built a cardboard model of a portable hypermedia system he called the "Dynabook". This prototype was designed to have a flat screen display (a technology then in its very earliest stages) and a graphic interface, and would be capable of handling large quantities of text. It would be a read/write medium for children, with an easy to use "development environment" (or programming language) called "Paintbrush", that children could use to create and animate pictures. Kay proposed that the Dynabook would link (via phone lines and wireless) to other Dynabooks and to library resources, and should be produced for under $500, so that it could be made available to every schoolchild. Over 20 years later, the Dynabook has still to be implemented as it was originally conceived.
Much of Kay's subsequent work at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) was driven by the Dynabook vision. The spin-offs were considerable: in particular, the development of software that allowed users to control the Dynabook by means of a "graphical user interface", that included many of the features later developed by Apple for their Macintosh computer, such as menus and icons. They also included a new kind of programming language (Smalltalk, the precursor of Apple's Hypertalk, the most popular hypermedia "scripting" language); and an expansion of the Dynabook idea to include intelligent "software agents" which are specialised computer programs to which mundane or time consuming tasks can be delegated, and which have enough "intelligence" to learn about us (our tastes, requirements, priorities and plans), in order to help us deal with the ever increasing "information overload" that characterises the late twentieth century.
Kay sees the emergence of the Dynabook as a culmination of the process that began with Gutenberg's invention of printing, progressed with the idea of the portable legibly printed book (such as those designed by Aldus Manutius in the late fifteenth century), and gave us the modern paperback. Just as books went from desktop-size with Gothic typefaces to pocket size and Roman (modern) faces, so the Dynabook will make the computer into a personal (and individualized) information resource, as easy to use as reading a book. And just as the availability of mass-produced books helped create the individualism and personal perspective that spurred the Renaissance, so the Dynabook and "intimate computing" will initiate profound social changes that will make a serious impact on the next century."

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