Purposeful portables

Ten years ago – over four years before Apple shipped the first iPad – I expressed my views on how it might go about developing such a product. I reproduce them here, edited only to update links, and reformatted slightly for easier reading.

The Cambridge – really Sinclair – Z88 was my first computer that could be used for writing on the move. Unlike most other highly portable systems, it had a decent sized keyboard, even if it felt like typing on dead flesh.

For 1987, it was a huge step forward that Newtons, Palms, and Jornadas have failed to equal since.

My addiction to similar portable systems has resulted in many of those highly innovative but ultimately disappointing devices cluttering up odd crevices in our house. But each has confirmed the fundamental conclusion that you cannot do any serious writing – that is, anything more than a few scrappy notes – without a proper keyboard. Apple’s eMate came closest to practicality, but was killed off too soon to make it worth pursuing.

For a few years, I have managed to get along without wasting any more money on PDAs and their ilk. A brief affair with a Sharp Zaurus showed that Linux could be fun on a PDA, but remained imprisoned by its appalling keypad. A folding keyboard with an HP Windows CE system proved equally futile. When I first saw AlphaSmart’s Dana, I was tempted, seriously tempted, but somehow managed to resist. That resistance has now proved futile, and although the Dana is no longer rated as a sexy piece of kit, I am delighted with mine.

It is a complete contrast to the current trend of packing multipurpose systems into ever smaller cases and trying to sell them as ultra-portables. I have a multi-region portable DVD player, an Archos AV400, and a selection of iPods. Depending on where I am going and what I am doing, I am more than happy to select the right combination of entertainment devices to take with me. But when I want to write, I don’t want a huge colour display or power-profligate hard disk; rather, I want a decent keyboard, a simple reliable system, and many hours of battery life.

There will no doubt be a niche for products like the OQO, even though it runs Windows XP, which is hardly conducive to low-power mobile systems. But if anyone in Apple is tempted to use the switch to Intel processors to accomplish anything like that, they will not have learned from the Newton. With a battery life claimed to be “up to 3 hours”, a screen with a pitch so small as to make a magnifying glass vital, and a keyboard too tiny for even my baby grandson’s fingers, the OQO is a compromise in every quarter.

If Apple has serious intentions in this area, it should give the project to the iPod team rather than re-employing the great minds that created the Newton. For it is much better for Apple’s bottom line and our ultimate satisfaction that they develop a device that does its jobs proud, just like iPods do, rather than lumping more potential applications into it and cursing it with compromise.

Ironically it was the eMate that was Newton’s most real-world incarnation, tragically too little, too late, and spookily just a decade after the Z88. When I put one of our eMates beside the Dana, it was clear what had inspired some of AlphaSmart’s ideas.

In the years after the Z88 died, it became embarassing to turn up at a press conference or product launch with one, despite its eminent practicality. Forgive me if my Dana lacks style, and is far from the leading edge, but it does its job exceeding well.

Updated gently from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 21 issue 24, 2005. It is remarkable that every one of the devices listed above, and most of their manufacturers, have since vanished. Except Apple and its iPod, now of course largely succeeded by the iPhone and iPad.