Kay was involved in several influential projects while at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the source of computing innovations such as the mouse. Kay himself worked on several features designed to make computers useful to the average person.
For example, he invented the concept of overlapping windows on a screen, a graphical representation of the different computing tasks on which people are working and a foundational feature of Apple Computer's Macintosh computer. He also tried to make life easier for programmers, helping to create the Smalltalk programming language, a predecessor to Sun Microsystems' Java. Before his PARC work, Kay envisioned a portable computer called the "."
As a fellow at HP, he'll continue his more recent work: trying to advance computing technology for children so computers become as fundamental to thinking as literacy and pen and paper have become in today's world. Ultimately, Kay believes that computers will endow future generations with more sophisticated mathematical and scientific skills.
"The best stuff I've done in the last 20 years has been to finally find out the combination of things that allow children to be really literate in programming and computing work," Kay said. The computer should be a "simulator of ideas, an integral tool of thinking about complex things."
Kay has been working on that task for many years. He spent 1984 to 1996 as a fellow at Apple, a company that profited from the computer user interface work of Kay and other PARC researchers. From 1996 to 2001, he worked at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Most recently, he has been in charge of a nonprofit group, the Viewpoints Research Institute, devoted to his vision for better education. He'll continue that post as he works for HP.
"If you look at the standpoint of the majority of the people having a strong fluent relationship with computing, we've still got a long ways to go. I think the computer revolution hasn't happened yet," he said. "We've been through the first flurry of interest, which was like the California gold rush. But California wasn't ultimately about gold."
Kay declined to offer too many specifics about what exactly he'll do at HP labs. "They know what my agenda is going to be, I just haven't figured out which of the 50 ways make the most sense for HP," he said.
While Kay praises, it's clear he's charting his own course. "By the time I started school, I'd read a few hundred books. I started from arguing with the teachers almost as soon as I got there," he said.
He and HP have a "gentleman's agreement" under which he's expected to help HP, and HP is expected not to micromanage him.
"When you get a person with his own opinions and way of doing things, the trust is this person is not going to go play golf or work on their own private things, but try to fit into the (company's) context and advance that in their own way," he said.