Xerox PARC Dynabook

Tonight I was watching an episode of The Computer Chronicles from 1988, and I heard Gary Kildall wishing for something called the Xerox PARC Dynabook. I had never heard of the concept before, but from his brief description it sounded something like a modern ultra-thin laptop, or a tablet. I googled and found this immediately.

Considering that a killer state-of-the-art laptop in 1988 looked like this, I would think almost any of our modern, light weight computing devices would meet the definition of a Dynabook.

Sadly he didn’t live long enough to see a Dynabook, but it is pretty amazing that they’ve essentially become ubiquitous.


Regarding the image, is this an Acer “lunchbox”?
(I was once considering one, I guess, it must have been the early 1990s.)

Although our modern computers are marvellous, and the Dynabook is a wonderful vision, I think Alan Kay is not happy, because the user is not in control of them, is not able to create, in the ways that he envisaged.

Some quotes from the linked page:

What then is a personal computer? One would hope that it would be both medium for containing and expressing arbitrary symbolic notions, and also a collection of useful tools for manipulating these structures, with ways to add new tools to the repertoire…

Need we add that it be usable in the woods?

…dynamic graphics of reasonable quality should be possible;

The active interface should be a language which uses linguistics concepts not far removed from the owner of the device. The owner will be able to maintain and edit his own files and programs when and where he chooses. He can use his Dynabook as a terminal when at work (or as a connection to the library system when in school). When he is done perusing and has discovered information that he wishes to abstract and take with him, it can rapidly be transferred to his local file storage…

A combination of this “carry anywhere” device and a global information utility such as ARPA network or two-way cable TV, will bring the libraries and schools (not to mention stores and billboards) of the world to the home. One can imagine one of the first programs an owner will write is a filter to eliminate advertising!

That last one is very interesting: indeed, we are plagued by advertising. But most people don’t write their own filters - they lack the skills, and on mobile platforms they lack the access. In fact I think all mobile platforms fall well short of the Dynabook, in terms of control of the machine and ability to create, including when “in the woods.”


There are actually several aspects of Alan Kay’s vision which didn’t work out exactly as intended – and Kay addressed them repeatedly in various talks.


  • object oriented programming (C++)
  • interconnected computing as in “URLs should be objects” (device addresses instead of software object addresses)
  • operating systems as programming platforms à la Smalltalk
    – and, I guess, particularly operating systems of mobile devices (e.g., iOS is for the most an extreme opposite of Smalltalk, regardless of its use of object-oriented programming paradigms and messaging).

It’s a Compaq 286 SLT from 1988.


Well the hardware is certainly there. Very probably beyond any hardware expectations he had when he conceived this. I would think some sort of open source software solution could provide the rest.

And I don’t think any of us could have envisioned the kind of control corporations would have over hardware development and standards. But for me, anyway, Alan Kay’s vision is satisfied.

This is the episode of Computer Chronicles I referenced in my first message.


Wow, that is a chunky little laptop! And only 14lbs.

You could well be right, with the right software today’s laptops (maybe even tablets) could qualify, and make Alan happy again. I have an early Kindle with a keyboard, and that’s really something. I think it’s even possible to jailbreak it, although I haven’t. (It even has a browser and free-for-life works-anywhere cellular data connectivity! (aka Whispernet) Which did save the day once when travelling in Sri Lanka.)

Don’t you guys on that side of the pond call it 1 Stone? :slight_smile:

Ha ha! We do, but only when weighing people. (My SO claims that bulk goods such as sacks of potatoes also would be.)

But aren’t computers persons, too? :wink:

Regarding the Dynabook, something that’s interesting about this, is the kind of input method Kay had invisioned at the time. As it predates PARC it also predates the work on the GUI and the keyboard appears to be the predominant input method. (Some declarative programming approach?) On the other hand, Kay was clearly impressed by the GRAIL system on the RAND tablet (1968), and its primary raisin d’être, “we can’t type”, certainly applies to kids, as well. – Compare Kay’s presentation of the GRAIL system in “Doing with Images Makes Symbols”, at 24:15, leading directly to an exposition of the DynaBook: Alan Kay: Doing with Images Makes Symbols (Full Version) - YouTube

Moreover, Kay’s own 1967 project, the Flex Machine, had already featured a tablet (see at 20:45 in the same video), and Kay clearly favored a pen-and-paper media approach. However, there’s no pen on the Dynabook, and depending on an easily lost input device for kids is certainly not the best idea. Similarly, the Kiddi Komp (a more realistic setup, just before PARC, same video at 28:20) doesn’t show an analog input device, which only returned with the mouse on the “Interim Dynabook”, AKA the Alto. Touch screens, on the other hand, while (at least conceptionally) available at the time, are just awful for drag-and-drop operations (like trackballs and tiny trackpads), essentially hindering operations, which are key to modeless software design.

So what would have been the ideal method of input for this, using an intuitive device, which is neither lose or detached, nor introduces the hand-on-keys-or-mouse dilemma of principal modes of operations? Most interestingly, we never got a definitive answer to this.

Correction, there seems to be a stylus on the Dynabook mockup:

1 Like

There’s an interview with Alan Kay on the matter, suggestively titled “The Father Of Mobile Computing Is Not Impressed”:

(Currently, trying to edit this on an iPad, I’m underimpressed, as well.)

1 Like

Here are videos of two other talks by Alan Kay telling the same story from slightly different angles (CHM YT-channel):

“Dynabook: The Complete Story” (1996)

“The Dynabook—Past Present and Future” (1986)

1 Like

Well the hardware exists to do whatever he could dream of. Maybe it’s time for the Dynabook.

Yea, honestly, reading through that link, there seems to be some sour grapes in it.

All of the tech is available, and cheap. Hackable tablets are a dime a dozen today. Modern software systems are pretty extraordinary (Smalltalk, for example, has advanced quite far.)

Simply put there’s no reason save for lack of trying to not have a solid prototype to show around.

Exactly. The hardware is more than ready. Someone either needs to design a new device that looks like he wanted it to look, or use some existing device, and then hack some code.

Which is why up there ^^^ I said the Dynabook vision has been achieved.

One issue that I never see addressed is whether Kay’s ‘vision’ was ever worthwhile or desirable. The Dynabook has achieved legendary status and is now touted as some kind of mythical Nirvana whose genius is not to be questioned. But maybe we’ve achieved all the elements of the Dynabook that are actually worth having.

Yes, I somewhat regret how technology has become something to be passively consumed by most people, yet that was probably inevitable. (There’s a parallel narrative here with the web not implementing the ‘write’ capabilities Tim Berners-Lee wanted.)

Kay’s vision, I think, was always something of an elitist, ivory-tower technologist’s dream far removed from the real lives of most people.

We geeks are people who enjoy “expressing arbitrary symbolic notions”. But that doesn’t go for most people. So those parts of the Dynabook that remain unfulfilled are those that have least to do with the real world. And in many other ways (the Internet and the app ecosystem) we have arguably surpassed Kay’s ideas.

1 Like

I think Kay’s perspective, and some of that from the counter-culture in the West Coast in that time, is that computer literacy is like ordinary literacy: when people learn to read and write, it’s very empowering and transformative. It’s also a threat to the status quo. That idea of computer literacy as including the ability to think about and construct programs lasted at least through to the BBC Micro days, although evidently Basic was felt to be an adequate compromise, although it’s by no means a sophisticated language.

In subsequent decades computer literacy as a term seemed to decay into the idea of being able to work with the desktop metaphor, organising files and driving GUI applications.

More recently, at least in the UK, there’s been a bit of a resurgence of the idea of teaching ‘computational thinking’ - not that everyone must become a programmer, but that it’s desirable for everyone to have some idea of what a program is, and that every use of computers is a use of programs, that programs are written by people, and (I would dearly hope) that programs may embody biases, inaccuracies, and misfeatures.

In the 60s and into the 70s, I think, ‘Computer Lib’ was political, and that’s where Kay is coming from. If you cannot use tools, if you have impoverished language, you are disempowered.

1 Like

Yeah, I’m familiar with the arguments, I’m just not convinced by them. At least, not to the idealistic degree Kay was proposing. The ability to be computer literate is there for anyone who wants it. Same goes for being able to fix your car or dishwasher.

Don’t get me wrong, I think computer literacy is a fine thing, and I sometimes despair how little people understand the devices they’re using. But I think there’s also a whiff of pomposity among people (myself included) who feel that others should want more or know more.

Back in the early 80s, when I got into computing, you had no choice but to learn how the technology worked. Now computing devices have become commoditised, and it’s that very commoditisation that has made computing ubiquitous. So worrying about how the iPad doesn’t live up to Kay’s arbitrary specifications in some respects seems to me to be missing the point.

1 Like

I think, Kay’s thinking was aligned to what we may call western, white middle class lines. As it happens this is also true for the entire IT sector (with the possible exception of the U.K., where there had been some blue collar computing culture, thanks to Sinclair). I guess, while this should be of interest to any reevaluation, this shouldn’t raise any personal reproach, we’re all embedded into our specific culture. And, to be fair, Kay never attempted to hide the experimental (or, if you want, elitist) status of his work. This wasn’t really meant for production, rather as a path leading to a concept of what may be the requirements for a production ready system.

Regarding the “vision”, I always found it remarkable, how research is often aligned to just a few key papers or documents, often spanning over several decades. The Bush-Engelbart-Kay continuum may serve as a prime example. On the other hand, there have been things, which seem to have impressed practically everyone who was lucky enough to get a first hands experience, but not to much further consequence, like the GRAIL system. It’s quite like there’s just so much of a “vision space” or bandwidth in a given field.

On the other hand, this also gave rise to some heroism that may be counter productive in the end. Compare awe inspiring computer literacy and virtuosity in popular culture, like SF films. How on Earth (or, in space) does Ripley know and manage all those cryptic commands in order to communicate with “Mother”? Frankly, I’ll be never that good at it. (Hereby quitting computing for ever thanks to this insight, yours truly… :wink: )
Now, Kay is on the opposing end, providing a way out of the dilemma (e.g., by visually laying out the knowledge there is in the system, no more trade secrets). Experimenting with kids was also meant to exclude bias and to gain some openness in concepts. However, this was still related to a very specific culture and a specific social background.