PLATO@50: Seeing the Future Through the Past

I grew up in both Australia and New Zealand - a long way from the US and the UK where home computing markets were just starting to develop in the late 70's and early 80's. Unlike most kids at the time I was very fortunate because my father Robert Hogg worked for Control Data Corp (CDC) and was responsible for introducing Plato to Australia - and as such he had managed to obtain a Plato terminal for our house. Before I get into more detail about what Plato is let me explain one of the two reasons that Plato is relevant. The first is because Plato is being honored at the Computer History Museum in California next week:

"Perhaps the greatest untold story in the history of computing is the development of the PLATO system at the University of Illinois and later also at Control Data Corporation. Largely unknown today to the general public, PLATO's list of innovations and seminal influences is considerable. For the first time ever, this event will assemble many of the key people involved with the creation of the PLATO phenomenon."

Now a little more information about what Plato is and then I will get into my second reason for this post. Plato was developed by the University of Illinois and then later run by CDC with the goal being to demonstrate the role that computers could play in our education system. From memory I think it was said that 4 weeks on Plato in any particular subject was the equivalent of a full year in school. This statement alone struck fear into the hearts of teachers – as at the time none of them had experience with computers and viewed them as a threat to their jobs rather than as an aid for learning.

The really amazing thing about Plato was just how far ahead of its time it was. The early 80’s were around the same time that your average leading edge micro-computers would include the likes of TRS-80’s, IBM PC’s and in the UK the Sinclair ZX-81. These leading edge computers were not typically networked - BBS’s and 300 baud acoustic couplers were just starting to emerge. They would typically use cassette recorders for persistence and the user experience would normally start with a prompt to a textual command line interface. Meanwhile, Plato already included functionality such as: networking, forums, message boards, e-mail, chat rooms, picture languages, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and even multi-player games. Plato also had a touch screen model for interacting with users and a graphical interface that was optimized around the students user experience.

When we left Australia and moved to New Zealand I had to trade the Plato system for a ZX-Spectrum – which was both exciting (the games were frankly better in color) – but also a massive step backwards. This takes me to the second reason for this post. The really interesting thing to me is the fact that so many of the ideas that we currently credit as being new or innovative have of course already been invented… Ray Ozzie credits Plato with a lot of the ideas that later became the basis for Lotus Notes. A similar Touch screen capability is only just starting to emerge in the mainstream now with Windows 7 Touch functionality. Another more recent example of this industry wide memory-loss syndrome is the Apple iPad – forgetting the fact that Windows has had tablet support for almost a decade now (why can’t we market our wares properly?) it is even more interesting to compare it to Alan Kay’s original Dyna-book concept.

Getting to the heart of this second point - as I mentioned in my last post around qualities of patterns our industry does a poor job of capturing and describing knowledge in a standardized or reusable way – thus limiting our ability to apply past learnings’ to future technologies and worse still giving the illusion of having to re-learn everything each time a new computing “paradigm” emerges. If anyone isn’t still convinced in the need for standardized patterns and reference architectures as the basis knowledge within our industry you should read Dealers of Lightning – it is truly amazing the work that was done at PARC in the early 70’s some of which is only now starting to show up in consumer technology. I wonder how much further along our industry would be if we had both standardized representations for knowledge as well as repositories with which to search…


Comments (2)
  1. Brian Dear says:

    Great story!   Sounds like you were a genuine "zbrat", which is the term the PLATO community used (at least in the USA) for kids who had a PLATO terminal at home and who had a parent who worked at CDC.

  2. Jason Hogg says:

    I haven't heard that expression – but I like it. Looking forward to hearing more about the Plato conference. I wish I had of had more notice about the event as I would definitely be there otherwise…

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