(from the new expanded version of Software Takes Command currently in preparation)
April 3, 2010
I started putting Software Takes Command book together in 2007. Today is April 3, 2010, and I am doing final edit on the book's second chapter called "Understanding Metamedia." Today is also an important day in the history of media computing (which starts exactly 40 years ago with Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad) - Apple new tablet computer iPad went on sale in the U.S. During the years I was writing and editing the book, many important developments both made Alan Kay’s vision of a computer as the “first metamedium” more real – and at the same time more distant. (I am referring in particular to the text in Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, Personal Dynamic Media, IEEE Computer. Vol. 10 No. 3, March, 1977. At the end of this article, Kay and Golderg call computer “a metamedium” whose content is “a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media.”)
The dramatic cuts in the prices of laptops and the rise of netbooks – together with the continuing increase in the capacity and decrease in price of consumer electronics devices (digital cameras, video cameras, media players, monitors, storage, etc.) brought media computing to even more people. With the price of a netbook many times smaller than the price of a digital TV set, the 1990s arguments about the “digital divide” became less relevant. It became cheaper to create your own media than to consume professional TV programs via industry’s preferred mode of distribution. More students, designers and artists learned Processing and other specialized programming and scripting languages specifically designed for their needs – which made software-driven art and media design more common. Perhaps most importantly, most mobile phones became “smart phones” supporting internet connectivity, web browsing, email, photo and video capture, and a range of other media creation capabilities – as well as the new platforms for software development. For example, Apple’s iPhone went on sale on June 29, 2007; on July 10 when the App Store opened it already had 500 third-party applications. According to Apple statistics, on Marc 20, 2010 the store had over 150,000 different applications and the total number of application downloads reached 3 billion.
At the same time, some of the same developments strengthened a different vision of media computing – a computer as a device for buying and consuming professional media, organizing personal media assets and using GUI applications for media creation and editing – but not imagining and creating “not-yet-invented media.” Apple’s first Mac computer released in 1984 did not support writing new programs to take advantage of its media capacities. The adoption of GUI interface for all PC applications by software industry made computers much easier to use but the same time took away any reason to learn programming. Around 2000, Apple’s new paradigm of a computer as a “media hub” (or a “media center”) - a platform for managing all personally created media - further erased the “computer” part of a PC. During the following decade, the gradual emergence of web-based distribution channels for commercial media, such as Apple iTunes Music store (2003), internet television (in the US first successful service was Hulu publically launched on March 12, 2008), e-book market (Random House and Harper Collins started selling their titles in digital form in 2002) and finally Apple iBook store (April 3, 2010), together with specialized media readers and players such as Amazon Kindle (November 2007) have added a new crucial part to this paradigm. A computer became even more of a “universal media machine” than before – with the focus on consuming media created by others.
Thus, if in 1984 Apple first Apple computer was critiqued for its GUI applications and lack of programming tools for the users, 2010 Apple iPad was critiqued for not including enough GUI tools for heavy duty media creation and editing – certainly a step backward from Kay’s Dynabook vision. The following quite from iPad review by Walter S. Mossberg from Wall Street Journal was typical of journalists’ reactions to the new device: “f you’re mainly a Web surfer, note-taker, social-networker and emailer, and a consumer of photos, videos, books, periodicals and music—this could be for you.” New York Times’ NYT's David Pogue echoed this: “The iPad is not a laptop. It's not nearly as good for creating stuff. On the other hand, it's infinitely more convenient for consuming it - books, music, video, photos, Web, e-mail and so on.”
Regardless of how much contemporary “universal media machines” fulfill or betray Alan Kay’s original vision, they are only possible because of it. Kay and others working at Xerox PARC build the first such media machine by creating a number of media authoring and editing applications with a unified interfaced, as well as the technology to enable machine’s users to extend its capacities. Staring with the concept which Kay and Goldberg proposed in 1977 to sum this work at PARC (computer as “a metamedium” whose content is “a wide range of already-existing and not-yet-invented media”) in this chapter we will discuss how this concept redefines what media is. In other words, we will go deeper into the key question of this book: what exactly is media after software?