Can we finally realize Alan Kay's Dynabook for $100?

The Dynabook. Source: A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, Alan Kay, XEROX PARC 1968.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Technology Editor on

The Dynabook. Source: A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages, Alan Kay, XEROX PARC 1968.

November 5th, 2008 was the 40th anniversary since computer scientist Alan Kay devised the "Dynabook", a theoretical computing device which was aimed toward higher education and "children of all ages".

Since the device's theoretical conception in 1968 and a publication of a paper proposing its use in 1972 when Kay was at Xerox's PARC, many of the technologies that were in Kay's conceptual device finally did come to fruition such as portable and mobile computing, GUIs and object-oriented programming languages. But has the Dynabook truly been realized?

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In a nutshell, no. While we have made tremendous strides in computing and information technology in the last 40 years, it's hard to say that we've been able to go completely paperless and create the computing equivalent to the 1930's Volkswagen or the "People's PC".

And certainly, from the perspective of the Dynabook's true purpose as an educational tool, even the OLPC organization of which Kay is an active consulting member has fallen way short of its original lofty goals to getting a computer into the hands of every single student in the world at a cost of $100 per unit, not the $294.00 that Kay originally proposed in 1972.


Alan Kay's proposed cost of the Dynabook was $294.00 in 1972 money, which adjusted for inflation is roughly $1538.00 today.

I believe we have all the technologies necessary to create the Dynabook, but to get a tablet-type ebook/computing device into the hands of every single student in the entire world -- be it in developing countries or in our own educational institutions, we're going to have to try a lot harder in terms of cooperation between competing companies with their own technological agendas.

We're going to need to put a lot of petty differences aside and provide government incentives to these companies to bring the cost of manufacturing and development down in order to finally realize Kay's dream.

Also Read: A Kindroid in Every Pot? (ZDNet Education)

Certainly, Dynabook-like devices which meet or exceed  Kay's original design specifications exist today, such as Amazon's Kindle. The Kindle, however, sells for $359.00, which although far below the $1538.00 in parts cost that Kay originally estimated is out of the question in terms of being able to provide every single student in higher education with, let alone every single student in elementary or high school.

There are certainly similar devices that are slightly cheaper, such as Sony's, but $260-$300 is still too much money.

I've already suggested in another piece that Amazon focus on its e-book store, drop its own proprietary device, partner with Google and go with an Open Source Kindle device-- an "OpenKindle" or a "Kindroid" that any manufacturer could produce.

Such an Android-based e-book reader that had an open development platform would go a long way towards realizing Kay's Dynabook, provided economies of scale could be reached to bring the cost down where e-book readers are accessible to literally everyone.

As if the cost of the devices aren't enough of a barrier to getting ubiquitous computing and electronic texts to the educational masses, there's also the cost of textbooks themselves.

When I was in college, I remember even used texts costing me around $500-$700 per semester, and that was back in the late 80's. I was a liberal arts student, majoring in International Relations and Economics  -- I can only imagine what they cost today, never mind the pre-law and pre-med books which have to be even more expensive.

While some college textbooks are available in electronic form, and certainly most high school and common literature used at the university level can be obtained from Amazon's Kindle store, there hasn't been much incentive to move entire college and high-school curricula to go fully paperless or 100 percent e-book.

$5 per e-copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which can't be transferred from Freshman English class student A in 2009 to Freshman English class student B in 2010 due to DRM restrictions is still too much especially when we are talking about stuff that is no longer a subject of copyright.

Inner-city High School students aren't going to buy $5 copies of Mark Twain anthologies when their parents can barely afford to give them lunch money and their school can supply them with a 5-year old beat-up paperback version for free, that is assuming that their school district budgets can even get them copies in the first place.

There's no reason why classic electronic media shouldn't be cheaper than dirt, if the objective is to improve education and literacy. This and lowering the cost of the hardware itself is an area where our new president and administration should clearly get involved.

My colleague Christopher Dawson, who writes ZDNet's Education blog, talks at length about what the benefits of doing this are, so I'm not going to repeat his column -- as an educator, he knows much more about the subject than I do.

However, I will say that going paperless and getting a cheap electronic tablet into everyone's hands --- not just students, is a very good idea for a ton of reasons. It's ultimately green, vastly reducing the shipment of paper books to university stores which eats up natural resources and adds to our carbon footprint.

Mass production and adoption of such a device would enable the use of social networking technologies -- so that education can be extended outside the classroom, such as for distance learning and part-time students.

For example, imagine electronic textbooks and works of literature that can be highlighted (remember the yellow highlighters we all used to carry in school?) and annotated by 100,000 students, all which can have forums/discussion boards and publicly viewable notes and tags with embedded hyperlinks that can be turned on and off by the reader.

Can the Dynabook for Children of All Ages be realized in the current economy? Or can popularizing electronic media and e-books get us out of our educational rut? Talk Back and Let me know.


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