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Interview with Alan Kay

The Browser — A Lament

Binstock: Still, you can't argue with the Web's success.

Kay: I think you can.

Binstock: Well, look at Wikipedia — it's a tremendous collaboration.

Kay: It is, but go to the article on Logo, can you write and execute Logo programs? Are there examples? No. The Wikipedia people didn't even imagine that, in spite of the fact that they're on a computer. That's why I never use PowerPoint. PowerPoint is just simulated acetate overhead slides, and to me, that is a kind of a moral crime. That's why I always do, not just dynamic stuff when I give a talk, but I do stuff that I'm interacting with on-the-fly. Because that is what the computer is for. People who don't do that either don't understand that or don't respect it.

The marketing people are not there to teach people, so probably one of the most disastrous interactions with computing was the fact that you could make money selling simulations of old, familiar media, and these apps just swamped most of the ideas of Doug Engelbart, for example. The Web browser, for many, many years, and still, even though it's running on a computer that can do X, Y, and Z, it's now up to about X and 1/2 of Y.

Binstock: How do you mean?

Kay: Go to a blog, go to any Wiki, and find one that's WYSIWYG like Microsoft Word is. Word was done in 1984. HyperCard was 1989. Find me Web pages that are even as good as HyperCard. The Web was done after that, but it was done by people who had no imagination. They were just trying to satisfy an immediate need. There's nothing wrong with that, except that when you have something like the Industrial Revolution squared, you wind up setting de facto standards — in this case, really bad de facto standards. Because what you definitely don't want in a Web browser is any features.

PowerPoint is just simulated acetate overhead slides, and to me, that is a kind of a moral crime.

Binstock: "Any features?"

Kay: Yeah. You want to get those from the objects. You want it to be a mini-operating system, and the people who did the browser mistook it as an application. They flunked Operating Systems 101.

Binstock: How so?

Kay: I mean, look at it: The job of an operating system is to run arbitrary code safely. It's not there to tell you what kind of code you can run. Most operating systems have way too many features. The nice thing about UNIX when it was first done is not just that there were only 20 system commands, but the kernel was only about 1,000 lines of code. This is true of Linux also.

Binstock: Yes.

Kay: One of the ways of looking at it is the reason that WYSIWYG is slowly showing up in the browser is that it's a better way of interacting with the computer than the way they first did it. So of course they're going to reinvent it. I like to say that in the old days, if you reinvented the wheel, you would get your wrist slapped for not reading. But nowadays people are reinventing the flat tire. I'd personally be happy if they reinvented the wheel, because at least we'd be moving forward. If they reinvented what Engelbart, did we'd be way ahead of where we are now.

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