Alan Kay on Apple and iOS

January 31, 2017

I’ve never had as an easy of a time romanticizing Xerox PARC and the old guard as much as many others down here do, but this 2014 talk from Alan Kay is very thought provoking: “Is it Complex or Did We Just Make it Complicated?”.

There are a lot of good ideas in there, but my favorite moment is when he sets his sights on the dumbed down interface that is iOS. He’s asked about running Squeak (a Smalltalk dialect) on the iPad, and responds with:

I’ll tell you what does tick me off. Two things. The number one thing is that yes, you can run the Etoys version of Squeak, but Apple absolutely forbids any child from putting a creation of theirs on the Internet and forbids any other child in the world from downloading that creation. That couldn’t be anymore anti-personal computing if you tried. That’s what ticks me off.

Then the lesser thing is that the user interface on the iPad is so bad because they went for the lowest common denominator. I have a nice slide that shows a two year old kid using an iPad and an 85 year old lady using an iPad and then the next thing shows both of them in walkers. Because that’s what Apple has catered to, the absolute extreme. But in between, when you’re two and three, you start using crayons and you start using tools. So Apple, despite having made a pretty good touch sensitive surface, absolutely has no thought of selling to anybody who wants to learn something on it. And again, who cares? There’s nothing wrong with having something which is braindead and only shows ordinary media, but the problem is that people don’t know it’s braindead, so it’s actually replacing computers that can do more for children, and to me, that’s anti-ethical.

We’re giving up for mere convenience without knowing what the absolute cost is. I blame Apple because they know what they’re doing and I blame the schools because they haven’t taken the trouble to know what they’re doing over the last 30 years, but I blame Apple more.

There have been many changes since the dawn of personal computing. Some have been tremendously positive like the quantum leap in the raw compute power that we have available, but not all are as encouraging. As suggested by Alan, the walled gardens that we take for granted on everything from our iOS apps to our browser extensions would have been an abomination to early pioneers. So too would the idea of diluting interfaces so that they’re universally accessible, but at the expense of any kind of productivity gain by savvy or educated users.

We should be thinking about re-opening our platforms and rebooting our UX design to optimize for power users. We should be using computing to push humanity to new levels instead of constraining it to the most modest possible baseline. There’s still time to do so, but the hour grows late indeed.

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