Computer shortcomings cited by dignitaries

Alan Kay, Andries van Dam critical of current state of technology during conference

Computer industry veterans Alan Kay and Andries van Dam aired complaints about the current state of computing during a Monday evening conference panel session, with gripes about security, browsers, and system integration.

Kay, noted for his work in object-oriented programming and the GUI, and van Dam, who has done work in computer graphics, hypermedia, and pen-centric computing, spoke at the Program for the Future conference in the US. The event featured tributes to the works of computer mouse inventor Doug Engelbart.

Van Dam stressed privacy and security as an issue. "I think it could well be the killer of our field if we don't as a field deal with that problem," he said. "Cyber warfare and serious attacks on information bases are occurring."

"That could cripple everything we've been working on," he added.

The Engelbart vision was about integrated systems, something that does not exist today, van Dam said. "What we have is silos.

Silos do not communicate or interoperate. Instead, specialized programs are used, such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, with importing and exporting of bit maps serving as the common denominator." (The panel session was held at Adobe headquarters.)

With Engelbart's NLS (oN Line System), everything was live and hyperlinked, van Dam said. NLS featured modern computing concepts such as links and groupware.

"We want to go back to the future of that wholly integrated environment," he said.

(Engelbart's "mother of all demos," which featured NLS, occurred 40 years ago this week.)

Lamenting the current state of system design, Kay argued that there is a need to get people to understand what computers could do. Of the present situation, said Kay, "I would be very happy to burn the whole thing down and start over again."

Kay criticized the browser, saying it ruins the symmetric consumption and editing that was the hallmark of personal computing going back to NLS. He did, though, laud the new Google Chrome browser for retaining enough horsepower to perhaps enable doing something interesting with it.

He argued for more innovation: "Give us the computer back and let people try various ideas that are much more high-minded than just having simple markup languages as the ways that represent things."

(Kay's accomplishments include the Smalltalk language.)

Van Dam said URLs have "dumbed [users] down to the point of almost no diminishing return." He argued for fine-grained bidirectional tag links and stressed a need for better tools for capabilities, such as visualization and debugging.

Social software offers potential, van Dam said. "The whole social software movement has been, I think, a great development but it is still a fraction of what it could be."