Two ideas recently converged for me in one device. The first idea is the notion of self-imposed limitations, and the second is the concept of retro-computing. The device is the AlphaSmart Neo. Here’s how it all fits together.
I’m not the first to note the challenge that modern computing presents to human concentration. Writing is a hard thing to do, and when you have to do it, easy things like email, feeds, and Facebook can tempt and paralyze you.
The name of the game is focus and a cottage industry of apps has sprouted around eliminating distractions. The poster-child for these is WriteRoom, which hides everything on your screen except a monochrome text-editor. Slate has called these programs “zenware,” while the New York Times took a more Western tack and called them “biblical.”
These programs work because they allow users to self-impose limitations in order to concentrate and get more done in less time. Internet-related distractions are not the only target. In large part these tools are a revolt against the tyranny of Word. That was the focus of the New York Times piece, which was inspired by the Steven Poole essay “Goodbye, cruel Word.” In it he explains how the Microsoft flagship long ago gave up the pretense that it was a tool for the art of writing. A good tool disappears in the act of creation. Word might once have been such a thing, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Poole, an author of two books and countless articles, writes:
Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.
He goes on to say that he’s converted to WriteRoom and Scrivener, but not before giving us a tour of the tools that he’s loved the most. Apart from Word 5.1a, they include a Brother LW-20 electric typewriter with a 6-line LCD screen, and an ultraportable Psion 5. What he likes so much about WriteRoom and the rest, he says, is how much they imitate the single-minded purposefulness of those old tools.
That brings me to the second theme in this story. One way to achieve zen word processing is to hide the fact that your modern computer is a modern computer. (Out there, no doubt, is someone who paid $1,800 for a MacBook Air only to then run WriteRoom on it.) It’s an attempt to travel back to a time before virtual tailfins. Another way to zen, however, is to simply use the tools from that era—the era in which word processing had been perfected.
Writer Paul Ford has said that his weapon against distractions was installing WordPerfect for DOS on his computer—the original that WriteRoom emulates. As a result of switching to the mouse-less, crash-less WordPerfect he says, “My average daily word count has doubled, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.”
Another promoter of retro-computing is Andy Ihnatko who inspired me to look not just to old software, but to old hardware as well. He sings the praises of his NEC MobilePro 790, a Windows CE device he picked up for $10 at the MIT flea market. It doesn’t have the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz or good looks, but it matches its weight, comfortable keyboard, and more than serviceable screen. But when distraction-free writing is the goal, the latter matters more than the former.
The AlphaSmart Neo
I think I did Andy one better, though, or at least more retro. I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo, in part thanks to Paul Ford’s writings because the Neo is his companion to WordPerfect. What is the Neo? It’s a full keyboard with six-line LCD attached. That’s it. No distractions. It’s a thing of beauty.
At two pounds, I take it everywhere. I love my MacBook, but it kills my back, and for no good reason since most of the time I just want to write. Instant-on, and automatic save of every keystroke make it even more appealing. Some other retro advantages:
- At an all-day conference my three-hour battery on my Mac isn’t much help and I have to be on the hunt for limited power outlets. (The NEC MobilePro wouldn’t fare much better.) The Neo’s frugal processor and simple screen, on the other hand, gets me 700 hours from 3 AA batteries. That’s about a year’s worth of normal use.
- The keyboard is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness keyboard with satisfying travel and quiet clickitiness. It really feels better than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is the same design as the Air’s. It also beats out the MobilePro’s slightly cramped keyboard.
- AlphaSmart was started by two former Apple engineers and it has overtones of the eMate 300. Like the eMate, the AlphaSmart was designed for the education market, and it shows in the build quality. If it’s tough enough for kindergardeners, it’s tough enough for me.
Most important, though, is that it keeps me focused. If I go to a coffee shop to get some work done, the only thing I can do with my Neo is write. There are no distractions. There isn’t even bold or italics (something I get around with Markdown). When writing is the only thing you can do, you get it done, and it remains an enjoyable activity because it’s not the thing that’s keeping you from Twitter.
At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience. Do yourself a favor and look into some single-purpose, “underpowered,” and self-limiting tech.