The movie The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy opened last week to great fanfare and excellent reviews. However, the event was a bit bittersweet for me; the author, Douglas Adams, died several years ago, and consequently the IT world lost a wonderful visionary.
I know, because fifteen years ago I worked with a bunch of people intent on bringing the Hitchhiker's Guide to life. I was working at Wang Laboratories, at the time a $3.3 billion computer company, a pioneer in pen-based systems. In 1990, a set of developers worked at creating The Guide, a pen-based PC that we would now call a tablet PC. (For those who think tablet PCs were a relatively recent invention, Wang and NCR both shipped production versions in 1990).
Douglas's book was the inspiration for The Guide, which led to some interesting design decisions. Most other companies building a tablet PC at the time (NCR, Toshiba) looked at a pen PC as a laptop with a pen-enabled screen. Consequently, the designs were kind of kludgey. However, Douglas's spec called for a much more integrated system. Therefore, besides a PC chip (386), The Guide sported a DSP, a specialized chip that could do many things. For example, the DSP enabled the modem as well as a voice recorder. The system also had a chip whose sole purpose was to clean up the digitizer information. Consequently, The Guide's handwriting recognition was head and shoulders was above competitive systems, since the data from the digitizer was smoother and less noisy.
Because of The Guide, I got to meet Douglas Adams in person. He'd been speaking at a conference in California; the development manager of the group happened to attend. He went up to Douglas after his talk and asked, would you like to see The Guide? We've built it.
Douglas leapt at the chance. So on the way back to the UK, he stopped off in Boston and came up to Lowell, where we demonstrated the system. He was quite impressed, given the state of technology at the time. However, it pained him considerably that it ran on Microsoft Windows; he was an Apple convert through and through.
After signing some books and discussing the system, the 12 of us convened to a Japanese restaurant in Nashua, NH, where Douglas recounted, in hilarious fashion, the origins of some of the stories in the book. He was tall (probably around 6'5"), funny, loved technology, and was quite a fellow. But perhaps most importantly, he thought about systems from the outside in -- he thought about what would be nifty to have as a user, rather than starting with the technology and then retrofitting it to the user. In short, he was a great systems designer, even if the only specs he wrote were novels.