The Dynabook is everywhere, but affordable internet isn't

Dick Pountain says the wireless tablet dream has been achieved, but now we face a much bigger hurdle

Dick Pountain
3 May 2013

Atari has filed for bankruptcy, which led me toward a string of odd associations. I never owned an Atari, but the firm’s demise jogged me into remembering that Alan Kay – that least-heralded inspirer of the personal computer revolution – worked for the firm immediately after leaving his epoch-making stint at Xerox PARC.

While at PARC, Kay’s team pioneered just about everything we now take for granted including object-oriented programs, windowed GUIs and local area networks, although Xerox notoriously failed to capitalise on this work (as did Atari). It wasn’t until Steve Jobs’ equally notorious PARC visit that Apple picked up the baton, prompting Kay to move there from Atari and remain as a research fellow for 12 years.

Even were I to buy a 3G tablet and SIM, the cost of the data plan would inhibit me from using it freely

My other Alan hero, "father of computing" Alan Turing, may soon have a Hollywood film made about his life (as Steve Jobs has). Indeed, after being ignored for more than 50 years, Turing now has three films made about him: two for British TV – Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi playing him, and the rather better Codebreaker with Ed Stoppard – while the forthcoming Hollywood biopic The Imitation Game may star either Leonardo DiCaprio or Benedict Cumberbatch. Alan Kay on the other hand is still alive, now running his own non-profit institute that studies new ideas in educational computing, and what he’ll eventually be remembered for (perhaps even with a biopic) is his dream of the Dynabook.

Conceived around 1968, this was to be a revolutionary keyboard-less, wireless tablet computer permanently connected to an online library containing all the world’s accumulated knowledge, and he wanted every child in the world to have access to one. Kay could never actually build a Dynabook because, at the time, there weren’t even any microprocessors, let alone an internet. His Xerox Star personal workstation was a fridge-sized mini-computer built with discrete logic chips. Now, all the hardware to implement his vision exists.

My Nexus 7 already comes close to Kay’s ideal, delivering information through Google and Wikipedia, music and movies via Spotify, YouTube and other places. What it lacks is universality, and that’s no longer a technical problem but a commercial one, over ownership of both conduit and content and how much we’re prepared to pay for them.

A Dynabook was supposed to operate wirelessly from anywhere, which rules out my Nexus because it’s Wi-Fi only – but even were I to buy a 3G tablet and SIM, the cost of the data plan would inhibit me from using it freely. Running a tablet off my home broadband is one thing, but I can’t justify an extra account purely for outside use.

It’s the same story with content: I already pay £10 per month to Spotify, justified because music is my main amusement, but similar subscriptions to Netflix or Lovefilm don’t tempt me because they don’t offer the films I want. If YouTube started charging (as it recently threatened to do) £5 a month for access, I’d probably give that up too. For Kay’s dream to come true we need to rationalise both conduit and content licensing to make ubiquitous data access affordable.

Even here, all the necessary hardware tricks are already well known. Mobile phone companies have invested billions to cover much of the globe with masts, supporting networks that, unlike the internet, already have a built-in ability to charge for traffic. A global system that mimicked the hierarchical storage systems already employed in enterprise-level computing could be assembled, using the internet as the trunk of a global tree, switching down onto mobile networks for its branches and finally onto village-/street-level Wi-Fi for its twigs.

The problems aren’t technically insuperable, but colossal efforts of diplomacy would be required to negotiate equitable distribution of revenues to the owners of these various "wires". In fact, the problem facing the ITU would resemble the problem the UN faces in trying to broker world peace, but we’re talking dreams here, and my point is that the obstacle is no longer hardware.

The same would be true for collecting royalties on content, although Spotify and the rest show that this can be done (with difficulty). There’s a strong case for subsidising the conduits and charging mostly for the content, along the same historical lines followed by roads and railways. I believe both Alans would agree that a species that can’t provide affordable information to educate its offspring, while fantasising about colonising Mars and mining diamonds from asteroids, has weird priorities.

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