Looking Back at the “Dynabook”-A Precursor to Smartphones and Mobile Devices of Today

“Devices” which variously store, retrieve, or manipulate information in the form of messages embedded in a medium have been in existence for thousands of years. People use them to communicate ideas and feelings both to others and back to themselves. Although thinking goes on in one’s head, external media serve to materialize thoughts and, through feedback, to augment the actual paths the thinking follows. Methods discovered in one medium provide metaphors which contribute new ways to think about notions in other media.”

Recently, I was able to find a paper that really fascinated me on some early concepts and ideas of what eventually led to projects like the development of laptops, tablets, and smartphones. In the late 1970’s (aroundDynabook Concept 1977 to be exact), a paper was published by researchers Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg of the Learning Center Research Group of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, highlighting the benefits of producing a personalized mobile communications system that would be able to meet the needs of the consumer in numerous information related ways. They described its main capabilities as being able to handle problem solving and basic programming capabilities, contain memory and storage of large amounts of data files, edit word documents, generate paintings of concrete or abstract drawings, and playback audio and music. The quote taken from above was a paragraph in the paper that clarified the definition of what an electronic device should represent to a user. It stresses the notion that thought, ideas, and communication itself can be molded in such a way that it can be perceived through the use of media.

Reading this article made me realize how far back innovation of portable media devices had been planned. “We envision a device as small and portable as possible which could both take in and give out information in quantities approaching that of human sensory systems. Visual output should be, at the least, of higher quality than what can be obtained from newsprint. Audio output should adhere to similar high-fidelity standards. There should be no discernible pause between cause and effect.” Kay and Goldberg’s team of researchers described functionalities with their tested “Dynabook” as a means for allowing users to connect with digital media on the go wherever they may be. They focused on the concept that visual and auditory commands would be able to get a direct and immediate response of carrying out the wishes of the user. They explained that in order for a portable device to be able to  process commands and respond with the correct set of actions, there needs to be a flow to the way it carries out the tasks. The paper compared the response and accuracy of such a device to that of a flute. Just like a computer, the flute would be Dynabookowned by the user and operate exactly to what the user commands.

As great of a concept as the Dynabook was, there were some limitations in its initial design. One of the more prominent thoughts on creative limitation was that it was primarily focused on acting as an educational digital device for children. This approach brought some concern for the use of the key features for a wider audience. Nonetheless, the basic aspects of the product were still seen as something truly beneficial.

As I read through the article on the “Dynabook”, I was astounded at how much of the proposed features have already been made possible today. Programming and problem solving skills are already prevalent in numerous applications on all modern laptops, iPads, tablets, and smartphones. Enough data storage for numerous computers of that time could fit into a simple Dell laptop or Apple iPad today. Google Drive and Microsoft Word are common applications for word processing and editing. With visual and auditory web sources so common in the modern age, music playback, paint, and video are all accessible through the uses of Spotify, Microsoft Paint, and built in recording cameras. What’s so amazing about this situations is that the proposals that Kay and Goldberg had originally envisioned were finally able to be implemented in the technology of the 21st Century.

Many of the ideas outlined in the article were later brought to fruition through the arrival of the prominent portable home computer known as the laptop. With the direction of home computer technology aiming for processing larger amounts of data and functional capabilities in smaller space, the future of portable devices are slowly moving towards mobile smartphones and tablet devices. Through the use of apps and touch screen interfaces, a wider appeal for these portable electronics are becoming common. However, that’s not to say that laptops are still not popular by today’s standards. When looking at the statistics, it is amazing to realize that as of today, more than one billion units of smartphones alone have been sold globally! Only time will tell where the consumer interest in “on the go” technology will take us.

Mobile Devices

Source: http://www.newmediareader.com/book_samples/nmr-26-kay.pdf