Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 2, 2011

Your $28,500 Computer

Last week I attended a conference which examined the role of Design (capital “D”) in influencing and guiding technology and business strategy. There were presentations about the design of products and systems from the real world of industrial design and product engineering, as well as more esoteric and theoretical talks.

This conference gave me the chance to hear — and in a few instances, actually meet — some notable people from the technology business, and some fascinating designers, as well. For example, the highlight of the first day was an hour-long talk by the architect, Frank Gehry. Because he knew he had a technologically oriented audience, Mr. Gehry focused on explaining how 3D modeling tools — called CAD, for Computer-Aided Design — are revolutionizing not just the design of buildings, but the degree of control over cost, scheduling and fabrication that architects have at their disposal. A few of you will remember that I wrote something critical about Mr. Gehry’s interior public spaces (not the auditorium) for the Walt Disney Concert Hall about a year ago. I’ll anticipate your question: no, I did NOT take Mr. Gehry to task for the dim and claustrophobic interior of Disney Hall when I had the opportunity. I did ask him a question on a different subject, but I left that particular issue aside. Call me a chicken, if you like.

Another personal highlight of the conference was that it provided me a chance to hear the distinguished technologist, Alan Kay. One of Dr. Kay’s persistent topics is his assertion that the “computer revolution” has barely begun, and that we are only in a primitive era of discovering what computing can achieve. The point that he pursued at this conference — on the subject of design — was that software engineers have far to go before they learn to design software well in order to move that “revolution” along.

As he established examples of the challenges that stand between the current state of engineering and what it might be able to achieve — what it should be achieving — he put on the screen a photo of a Toyota Avalon. Here, he said, was a car that costs about $28,500: the average price of a new car in the U.S. What he said was, “Man, I would love to pay $28,500 for a computer. The average price of a laptop is only $2,500. If I could pay ten times as much and get ten times as much  computer, I’d do it…. Why? Because computer people know what computers can do, and having that extra horsepower is not trivial. Most people in the world use the computer only for automating old media. They use it for looking at simulations of text, simulations of recordings, simulations of movies. They do almost nothing that has to do with what the computer’s actually about.”

He then referred to another analogy he had established: training wheels. A bicycle without training wheels can go more places and do more things than one with them, but it’s easier to learn with training wheels. “So these [computers] are the training wheels,” he said.

His point is that a computer should cost $28,500 (or some higher number), but that it’s been commoditized into a consumer device, and that software designers have aided in that dumbing-down. In other words, computers should already be capable of doing far more than they do.

That’s a startling statement for at least a couple of reasons. The obvious attention-getter, of course, is the notion that a computer an ordinary person would use could cost $28,500.  But, as Kay suggests, since the average car buyer is willing to pay that much for a car that gets you to and from work, isn’t it reasonable to think that — at least for the technical people in that conference — a person who works with a computer would be willing to pay just as much. (Naturally, there are computers that cost tens of thousands of dollars for specialized scientific or business applications). So, what if the average computer cost as much as a car? What could it do?

This is an interesting question. Dr. Kay was throwing down a gauntlet of sorts to people who design software to frame their inventions in a larger, more demanding context: to imagine capabilities and functions that they’re currently leaving out, because they’re designing too far down the scale of values. They are, he is saying, not bringing to bear everything they know about how people think and work and manage ideas, which could promote the design of systems that would do far more than they currently can. One thing he is not saying is that the ultra-expensive computer would be some sort of status symbol like a very expensive automobile or an industrial-model refrigerator or range that does more or less the same thing as your own model, but at much higher cost. It would be the average computer (and associated operating system, software, interface, etc.), but vastly better than what already exists. Not twice as good: ten times better.

Dr. Kay’s particular interest for much of his career has been the potential that computers represent as tools for learning: especially to help children learn. He is impatient with the focus on enhancing the capacity of computers to play games and videos and other consumer-oriented activities, rather than being challenging and fully enabled systems that help children (and adults) fully use all their capabilities. Such uses, he is saying, have merely taken old models of movies in theaters or games in arcades or the analog worlds of text and accounting and made them operate on computers, without looking for other, more innovative ways to apply the power of computers.

HERE is a link to Dr. Kay’s Viewpoints Research Institute, which is pursuing that course of expanding the scope of what computers can do.

It’s an interesting challenge on another front, because it should apply to any serious discipline, not just software engineering: are we really doing what could be done, or are we satisfied with simple improvements, incrementally, that don’t yield genuine change? Until we question the assumptions of our present case, and look for innovative leaps, we are only repeating the present.

The quote from Alan Kay is taken from the recorded proceedings of the conference sponsored by TTI Vanguard, copyright, 2011, by Alan Kay. No commercial use of this material is permitted without express permission.

© Brad Nixon 2013, 2017



  1. very thought provoking–but so far I am limited to also observing that the 28,000 dollar car, and the 200,000 dollar Ferrari “only” get you where you want to go just like a horse or a pair of shoes. To imagine a computer as more than a tool in order to do/create more/better stuff, I’ll have to read more of his writing. Otherwise all I can imagine is ROBOTS.


  2. HAHAHAH. Then there are fathers of two daughters and a wife, with a mortgage, college costs for said daughters and a dubious economy that can only chuckle at the thought of a $28,000 c-a-r, before I could even think of a computer that would cost that much.

    Looking around L.A. it seems most all “20 something” year-olds can afford them though, so perhaps they will install a supercomputer in their dashes in the future.

    Good article Brad.



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