Key Atari Scientist Switches to Apple

By David E. Sanger
The New York Times

May 3, 1984

Alan Kay, the chief scientist at Atari Inc. and the key figure in Atari's effort to regain prominence in the home computer market, resigned to take a top research post at Apple Computer Inc., Apple said yesterday.

Mr. Kay is considered one of the leading scientists in the computer field. While at the Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970's he led a team that developed what many consider to be the first personal computer, incorporating many of the concepts now being used for the first time in second-generation computers made by Apple and other major manufacturers.

Considered Blow to Atari

Analysts said Mr. Kay's defection was a sharp blow to Atari, a unit of Warner Communications. Some said it could impair the company's ability to meet its stated goal of developing an entirely new kind of computer that home users would regard as a needed ''appliance,'' rather than as a toy or a sophisticated typewriter.

''It can't be good news for Atari,'' said David Lawrence, an analyst at Montgomery Securities. ''My assumption is that Kay wants to do serious work in computers and Apple is the place to do it - Atari no longer is.''

The 43-year-old Mr. Kay, in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles yesterday, said that Atari's laboratories had lost some of the atmosphere of innovation that once attracted some of the finest talent in the industry. ''When I left last month it was clear that they would be putting their efforts in the short term,'' he said.

Research and development funds, once plentiful at the company for Mr. Kay's study of artificial intelligence and products for the 1990's, have recently been diverted to short-term product development, he said, and his staff was cut.

''Last year was like a war,'' Mr. Kay added, recalling Atari's $500 million loss after a price war ravaged the home computer and video game business. And while he said he respected the company's new leadership and its focus on a new line of products, he said, ''I guess the tree of research must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of bean counters.''

No 'Significant Impact'

Bruce Entin, an Atari spokesman, said yesterday: ''We still feel we are strong in technology. While we will miss Alan, his departure won't have a significant impact on our product strategy.''

Defections of highly priced software and hardware engineers is commonplace in California's Silicon Valley, where both Apple and Atari are situated. But the announcement yesterday of Mr. Kay's defection, to become an ''Apple Fellow'' reporting directly to Steven P. Jobs, the company's co-founder and chairman, was regarded as particularly significant because Mr. Kay has become something of a cult figure among computer programmers and designers. That status arose from his work beginning in 1971 at the Xerox research center, known as Parc. Within a year of his arrival, Mr. Kay and the others developed the Alto, a prototype of the first personal computer.

While at Parc Mr. Kay, a specialist in the design of software, also conceived of two ideas that have since become crucial elements in the personal computer software market. One of them is ''windows,'' or separate areas of the computer screen in which various tasks - from word processing to graphic illustrations - can be displayed at once. The second was the ''mouse,'' a pointing device that enables the user to draw or perform complex maneuvers speedily.

Xerox officials, saying they could not envision demand for personal computers in the next few decades, decided not to market any of the development team's inventions. By 1981, Mr. Kay had moved to Atari, and many other Parc engineers migrated to Apple. It was Apple's Lisa computer that became the first commercial product to incorporate windows and a mouse, and the same principles distinguish Apple's newest personal computer, the Macintosh, from other machines now on the market.

Still, Mr. Kay says he is not satisfied with the results. ''In absolute terms, today's personal computers are not very impressive,'' he said yesterday. Apple's Macintosh, he added, ''isn't so bad on a relative basis,'' but the I.B.M. Personal Computer, which uses more conventional technology, ''is beneath comment.'' If Apple can be faulted for anything, he said, it was for being conservative and ''a little too slavish in following what we did at Parc.''

Copyright 1984 The New York Times Company