Magazine article Management Today

A Pure Electronic Toy in a Disorganized World

Magazine article Management Today

A Pure Electronic Toy in a Disorganized World

Article excerpt

A pure electronic toy in a disorganised world If you could bury an object inside a time capsule in order to capture the flavour of the '80s what would it be? A cellophane? The first issue of The Independent? A Body Shop tube of over-priced, but environmentally sound, primrose oil and cocoa butter for calming razor burn? Richard Branson (alive)?

No, none of these: there is only one item that represents, more than any other, an '80s phenomenon of almost cult proportions -- the Filofax.

In the mid-'80s the first converts to the Filofax would tell you with a gleam in their eyes how their personal organiser had changed their lives. Religious metaphors were common among the new devotees of the loose-leaf art. Even the most hopeless, office air-head would preach the gospel of time management and espouse the virtues of setting daily short-medium-and long-term goals. Once the Filofax had entered our lives the Next Directory seemed only one small step away. The Filofax became the bible of the '80s; it straightened out a generation.

But old gods must inevitably make away for new ones and with the end of the '80s came reports of the death of the personal organiser. Filofax's profits had slumped from a heady 2.7 million pounds to losses of almost the same amount. And we were left with a vacuum in our lives. How could life have meaning without goals written down on the page opposite the d ay's to-do list? Could nothing save us from the chaos of the pocket diary?

Just in the nick of time, the computer industry has come to the rescue of all us post-Filo upwardly mobiles. Realising the rich pickings that are to be had, companies are licking their lips at the prospect of a mass consumer computing market. But they have an image problem.

Although the term 'personal computer' was coined nearly 20 years ago computers have been anything but. The relationship between people and the machines they have to use are usually characterised by feeling of deep mistrust and barely concealed loathing.

Much of the current marketing effort is aimed at persuading people that computer power can enhance, rather than diminish, the quality of their lives. But the merchants of truly personal computing offer something much more seductive -- truly personal power.

We have already witnessed the first wave of ads for electronic gadgets that promise executives an edge. Burnt-out high-fliers can't help but feel drawn toward those tantilising ads that regale them with tales of almost superhuman feats in which the hero or heroine succeeds in simultaneously impressing the boss, getting promoted and riding roughshod over their colleagues: the ultimate executive fantasy. 'And I owe it all to my secret X1/11 pocket computer,' says the unbearably smug face at the end of the ad.

The concept behind this piece of power technology was first devised by Dr Alan Kay as far back as 1974 at Xerox's blue skies research centre in Palo Alto in California. According to KAy what the world was waiting for wa 'a dynamic medium size of a notebook (the Dynabook) which could be owned by everyone and could have the power to handle virtually all of the owner's information-related needs.'

In what is in retrospect possibly among the most significant papers ever published in computer science, Kay explained how he saw the Dynabook as more than just an electronic notebook. 'Imagine,' he wrote, 'having your own self-contained knowledge manipulator in a portable package the size and shape of an ordinary notebook. Suppose it had enough power to outrace your sense of sight and hearing, enough capacity to store for later retrieval thousands of pages of reference materials, poems, letters, recipes, records, drawings, animations and anything else you would want to remember and change.'

So bearing in mind that at the time that Kay devised the Dynabook the rest of the i ndustry was still languishing in the age of punched cards and magnetic tape, his conception of computing differed radically from what was around. …

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