Alan Kay: The genius behind Steve Jobs

One of my all-time tech heroes surfaced on Quora this week to tell the story behind this 11-year-old photograph.

From Kay's answer Wednesday to the question What did Alan Kay and Steve Jobs talk about at the 2007 iPhone keynote?

Later, I was chief scientist of Atari for a few years (81–84), and Steve and I would periodically have lunch. The last year of Atari was a collapse and I eventually accepted Steve’s invitation to come to Apple.

In 1984, Time or Newsweek [ex ped: it was Newsweek] asked me my opinion of the Macintosh, and I said “The Mac is the first personal computer good enough to be criticized”. Internally at Apple, my first memo had the title “Have I got a deal for you: a Honda with a one-quart gas tank!”. Steve did not like this memo, but what could he do given the history, and that it was quite true?

Steve and I remained friends (I was the go-between that brought him together with the people who were to become Pixar).

I think he invited me to the 2007 iPhone unveiling partly because it was kind of a tiny “Dynabook” — and he had always wanted to do one — and partly because he was going to use a quote of mine that he had always taken to heart “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware”.

The photo of us chatting was taken right after the event. He brought the iPhone to me, put it in my hands, and asked: “Alan, is this good enough to be criticized?”. My reply was to make a shape with my hands the size of an iPad: “Steve, make it this size and you’ll rule the world”.

When the iPhone had been revealed a few minutes earlier I realized that they must already have done an iPad/Dynabook-like machine (easier) and that the “iPhone first” must have been a marketing/timing decision.

My take: Alan Kay, the inventor of Smalltalk and a driving force behind Xerox PARC, is high up in my pantheon of tech heroes. Andy Hertzfeld called a lecture he heard Kay give in 1982, while Hertzfeld was writing the control manager for the original Macintosh, "perhaps the most inspiring talk that I ever attended." Hertzfeld took notes, transcribed them, and shared them with Jobs and the rest of the Macintosh team. Among the Alan Kay aphorisms he captured that night:

  • The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
  • Humans like fantasy and sharing. Fantasy fulfills a need for a simpler, more controllable world. Sharing is important - we're all communication junkies
  • Find a central metaphor that's so good that everything aligns to it. The metaphor should be crisp and fun.
  • Turn up your nose at good ideas. You must work on great ideas, not good ones.
  • The computer shouldn't act like it knows everything.
  • Systems programmers are high priests of a low cult.
  • Remember, it's all software, it just depends on when you crystallize it.
  • People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.

Hertzfeld's original notes are available here.


  1. John Kirk said:
    Those are all great quotes, PED. This quote makes me think of Steve Jobs. I well remember when he said it on stage.

    “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”

    People still don’t get that quote. It’s part of Apple’s “secret sauce” (although it’s no secret) — what sets Apple apart from so many other tech companies. Apple is, in my opinion, a software company. (Many disagree.) In my opinion, the only reason Apple makes hardware is because they’re serious about software and they know that they, and only they, can make hardware good enough for their software.

    This quote is, I think, one of the most inspiring quotes of all time:

    “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

    Ambitious? Yes. But oh-so-powerful.

    However, this quote is one that I think people still don’t get:

    “Find a central metaphor that’s so good that everything aligns to it.”

    I don’t think people, to this day, realize the power of metaphor. Metaphors compare two things that are very different from one another and use one of those things to explain the other.

    Our original PCs were built on a desktop metaphor. Notice how work-related that is. That wouldn’t work for a phone. The phone can’t be tied to something as stationary as a desk, so it needed a new metaphor.

    The metaphor for the phone isn’t as explicitly stated as it was for the PC. But the implied metaphor for the phone and the tablet is “tabula rasa” — a blank slate.

    When the iPhone was introduced, fans of the Blackberry were appalled. How could you have a fully functioning phone without physical keyboards? I’m no visionary, but as soon as I saw the iPhone, I realized that physical keyboards were a waste of space. The Blackberry people were right — physical keyboards ARE superior to typing on glass. But having glass that could be anything — including a keyboard — was infinitely more powerful that dedicating that space to only a keyboard.

    I don’t know what the next great thing will be. But I do know that whatever the next thing will be, it will be tied to a great metaphor.

    Thanks for the quotes, PED. They were a joy to (re-) read.

    April 15, 2018
    • David Drinkwater said:
      As soon as you keyed off the metaphor quotation my mind jumped ahead (sometimes I’m guilty of not continuing to read and thiniking on my own ;), and I stared focusing on “what’s the metaphor for the iPad?” (which also seems pretty central to the Alan Kay discussion here). I think I agree with your general approach on a phone/tablet. I was thinking more like “drawing board”, but that’s pretty close to a tabula rasa.

      I think the drawing board metaphor will be amplified by the release of the Apple Pencil. Hopefully the low cost iPad for education will also help with that. Apple definitely need to return to that base (education).

      When I read the PED Kay piece this morning, I did some surfing around Knowledge Navigator and multi-touch. Most readers today won’t know about of remember the Apple Knowledge Navigator videos. I could also swear that while I was at Cornell (‘89-94), I saw a very compelling video of a “future approach” to multi-touch. (In the past, I had thought that was Apple’s but to my chagrin, I think that was an MIT or Harvard video. I wish I could still relocate it.)

      It’s really amazing how much good theoretical musing happens on “what could be” long before the technology to do it comes to life.

      If I were a Computer Science guy, I suspect I would feel the same way about Alan Kay’s work.

      April 15, 2018
    • Gregg Thurman said:
      I stood in line (in the rain) for 4 hours to get my iPhone on launch day. Why? I have large hands with large fingers. When Jobs demo’d ‘Old school’ dialing on virtual buttons on a 3.5” screen I was hooked.

      What’s funny is that within a month I hardly used the “keypad”. I was using Contacts, and so the journey began.

      April 15, 2018
  2. Fred Stein said:
    Delightful article and durable quotes.

    The genius OF Steve Jobs (or one of his many gifts) was his ability to attract and inspire other genii to join and then produce their greatest works. Alan Kay is up there, but hardly alone.

    Re quotes: Attributed to another visionary leader, Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

    April 15, 2018
  3. Richard Wanderman said:
    Kay is an incredible guy. In the early Mac days he came up to Eugene at my request to talk with my Mac users group. While there we took him on a tour of a local mechanical organ builder (Kay is into organs and this tour was one of the reasons he came up). He was great with the Mac group and a lot of fun to be around. His importance in the history of personal and portable computing has not gone unnoticed, by Jobs back then and by many since.

    April 15, 2018
  4. Ken Cheng said:
    So many great quotes from genii like Jobs, Kay, and Buffett, etc., but where are today’s great wordsmiths? Zuckerberg quoting nonsense from Bezos didn’t strike me as all that great. Is there someone else out there in this current generation that can inspire like those giants?

    April 15, 2018
  5. Jonny Tilney said:
    Loved that.

    An other interesting one you didn’t include ped, was: “One goal: the computer disappears into the environment”. Perfectly describes my notion of Apple where the computer gets out of the way. And is the antithesis of other platforms, where: “The computer shouldn’t act like it knows everything.”

    April 17, 2018

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