Alan C. Kay has been called the father of the personal computer in acknowledgment of his many contributions to the field of personal computing. His concept of the Dynabook lap-top computer was the inspiration of Alto, a forerunner of the Apple and Macintosh computers. Kay also pioneered the use of icons and windows, and his invention of Smalltalk--a very high-level, object-oriented programming language--gave children and nonprogrammers a hitherto unprecedented degree of access to computing.
Kay was a founding member of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 1970, leaving ten years later to become chief scientist at Atari, Inc. He joined the Apple Computer Company in 1984 as an Apple Fellow, a title held by a select group of scientists chartered to explore technology for Apple's future. In 1987, he shared the ACM Software Systems Award with his former colleagues Adele Goldberg and Dan Ingalls.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Hector William Kay, a physiologist, and Kathrine Johnson Kay, an artist/musician, Kay grew up in Australia, Massachusetts, and New York, where he attended the Brooklyn Technical High School. After high school, Kay joined the Air Force, where he worked as a computer programmer. He received a bachelor's degree in mathematics and molecular biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1966, and a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah in 1969. Following a stint as an assistant professor at the University of Utah, Kay joined the Artificial Intelligence Project at Stanford University, where he served as a research associate and lecturer.
During his 10 years at Xerox PARC--especially during what has been called the golden years of PARC from 1971 to 1976 when Xerox granted an exceptional degree of freedom to a group of creative young computer scientists--Kay and his colleagues introduced many of the basic notions of personal computing. As principal scientist and head of the Learning Research Group, Kay was able to develop the idea, formed in the 1960s when he was a graduate student at the University of Utah, of a personal computer, about the size of a notebook, that would provide an individual with a tool for storing, manipulating and communicating information in many different forms.
The initial attempt to implement that vision occurred between 1967 and 1969, when Kay and Edward Cheadle designed a system called FLEX. It was the first personal computer to provide direct support for a programming language that included the use of graphics, as well as of simulation--the ability to dynamically model the interactions of objects and processes in a particular domain.
From Kay's point of view, however, FLEX was not sufficiently easy for non-programmers to use. That limitation led Kay and Cheadle to study the work of Seymour A. Papert, Wallace Feurzeig and others, who had developed a programming language called LOGO with children specifically in mind. Kay's subsequent work was strongly influenced by children, particularly by the way in which they learn and express themselves at different stages of development. In his attempt to capture in a programming language children's distinctive approaches to problem solving and understanding, Kay also drew on the psychological theories of Jean Piaget and of Jerome Bruner, who had distinguished specific phases in the intellectual growth of a child. Kay transposed the notion of developmental stages into that of successive levels of abstraction at which a user could represent a concept in a computer programming language.
At Xerox PARC, Kay and his colleagues integrated these ideas into an approach to personal computing that exploited a "multilane" interface between the user and the computer. Starting with a desktop unit with a removable disk memory of three million bytes (the equivalent of about 2,500 double-spaced pages of type), a high-resolution display and high-fidelity sound output, they added a variety of input devices. In addition to the standard keyboard, their experimental system had a mouse, a pencil-like pointer, a joystick, a microphone, a television camera, and an organ-like keyboard for entering music. The use of windows, a technique later to be widely used, provided the sense of multiple sheets of paper, allowing users to display information in a variety of ways simultaneously. Kay introduced the technique of overlapping windows by means of a mouse, and of temporarily collapsing a given window into a small rectangular box with a name or iconic identifier. It was the software, however, that provided the inspiration for the computer. Kay's high-level, interactive programming language called Smalltalk--whose design was influenced both by LOGO and by Simula, a language developed in the mid-1960s by Ole-Johan Dahl and Kristen Nygaard in Norway--was expressly created to allow novice computer users to write relatively advanced programs. Smalltalk is a so-called object-oriented language, in which the objects--called "activities"--replace the notions of data structures and procedures found in more traditional languages. The activities, which are grouped into families characterized by sets of "traits," or things that the activities can do, are the basis for every interaction in the system, all of which involve the exchange of messages between activities. Smalltalk was the first computer-programming language to be based wholly on the use of activities and messages.
Having worked with children throughout his career, Kay has devoted considerable attention to understanding the potential role computers can play in the learning process. In 1986, Kay and his colleague Ann Marion, in collaboration with the Open School: Center for Individualization, in Los Angeles, initiated a research project--the Apple Vivarium Program--aimed at discovering how computers can serve as "amplifiers for learning." They concluded that, as more powerful computers became increasingly prevalent and widely linked through networks, significant benefits for learning would arise. Through enhanced user interfaces, including virtual reality, students will be able to interact with, and experience, phenomena that are currently mere abstractions, such as the relativistic distortions of objects traveling near the speed of light. Multimedia, simulations and multiple windows will allow ideas to be presented in various formats and perspectives, as well as dynamically. Intelligent agents will assist learners by asking and answering questions and by bringing relevant information to their attention. Finally, networks will make accessible a vast, universal library, creating the potential for a transformation of culture as momentous as that of the Renaissance.
The role of musical interfaces in Kay's personal computers and the use of musical ideas and metaphors in his writings reflect the important position that music has occupied in Kay's life. In addition to having worked as a professional jazz musician, he has composed music, built a variety of musical instruments and maintained a professional membership--his only one--in the International Society of Organ Builders. For many years, he has traveled each summer to New Hampshire, where he plays chamber music at a music camp.