Dynabook, the first tablet, was born four decades ago

Before iPads or any of the tablets known today, there was the Dynabook, the vision that came to Alan Key over 40 years ago through which he wanted to take computing to children of all ages.

In 2001, the Chairman of Microsoft at the time, Bill Gates, presented the Microsoft Tablet PC, which would be the first generation of commercial tablets that they somehow wanted to revolutionise the market with this new type of mobile IT device. The gamble did not pay off; the device was neither practical nor versatile. Hence, the title for the first real tablet goes to the Apple iPad, which was launched some eight years later.

A common mistake made by many, however, is to maintain that the birth of the iPad was inspired by Microsoft’s Tablet PC. No. Both the former and the latter came about thanks to the ideas – or, to put it more precisely, the vision – of one of the most important men in graphical user interface design in computing, Alan Kay.

In 1972, while he was working for the mammoth Xerox corporation, Alan Kay published his most well-known and significant article, on which all his ideas and visions since then have been based. In «A personal computer for children of all ages» Kay demonstrated his vision of taking computing to all the children in the world; and the Dynabook was the tool that, in theory, would make this possible.

alan kay dynabook

The Dynabook was the first real portable and versatile PC, although it unfortunately has never been anything other than a concept, though being such an important one that it set out the guidelines for what are now known as PCs and tablets.

According to Kay, a true Dynabook must have certain characteristics and offer certain possibilities to be really worthy of the name. For example, a Dynabook must allow texts to be edited and stored; it must allow its owners to express themselves through drawings, animations or musical compositions; it must offer users the possibility of reading innumerable books and letters; it must even be able to reproduce several hours of music or audio files and serve as a means of communication.

dynabooks ninosIs this not what is now known as a laptop or, more specifically, a tablet? Indeed, any iPad, Android tablet, Surface tablet or any other model has these characteristics, four decades later, and this is why Alan Kay himself has called both the Microsoft Tablet PC and the iPad the first Dynabook-like computers «good enough to criticize».

Alan Kay’s Dynabook had to offer users all the possibilities of books but without their limitations.

This highly ambitious device was never brought to life as a commercial product – perhaps unsurprisingly, taking into account all that its creator wanted it to be able to do and that Kay wanted the price to stay under $500 (a considerable figure at the time, but even so somewhat low for what its technology signified in 1972).

Nowadays, there is a myriad of PCs, plus the iPad and an enormous number of tablets on the market, but for Alan Kay, while we already have the technology necessary to give life to a real Dynabook, there is not yet one that meets his requirements, one with the ideal software and plan that truly brings a computer to each child.

Alan Kay currently participates in the One Laptop Per Child programme. The ambition of the creator of the first true tablet is more alive than ever.