Notes On A Writing Device
Here’s a brain dump of something Stephen Hackett and I were talking about yesterday. This is an idea I’ve had (and researched pretty thoroughly) since freshman year in the dorm: the ultimate tool for writing text. A “real” computer is overkill, and an iOS device, with its color LCD screen and multitude of apps, isn’t ideally suited to be a tool for writing text. What is needed is something closer to the Kindle: a (mostly) single-purpose, self-contained device with an always-on wireless connection (whether that’s through 3G like Whispernet or through WiFi) in which every facet of the design of the hardware and software is geared toward one thing: being an efficient tool for translating ideas into words. Essentially this device would be the translation of an application like Byword or TextMate into hardware.
The hardware would be a cross between an Alphasmart Neo and a Kindle (other antecedents include the Information Appliance Swyft and the TRS-80 Model 100: black and white screen, “real” keyboard) with a little bit of OLPC thrown in for good measure. The device would probably run Linux on an ARM chip or something similar—although it’s possible everything here could be done via Arduino or some other off-the-shelf open source hardware. Potentially the operating system could even be Android, with a interface sitting on top hiding the ugliness.
It would be imperative that the hardware be hacker-friendly; if someone wants to compile Firefox on it and then use it to play Doom, have at it. Smart hardware hackers and Maker-types would gobble something like this up the same way they did the Kindle and the OLPC, just testing the limits of what they could make it do.
The user interface would be entirely keyboard-based, using something like the Emacs or Vi keyboard interface for advanced users and a “save” and “open” button for people who don’t want to have to think about it and who just want to write text. There would be “apps” for writing, for editing (which is a different mode), for outlining, and maybe for email or something—but that would function the same way as the Kindle’s browser: it’s there if you need it. Figuring out a mouseless interface that works fairly effortlessly would be the biggest challenge here, usability-wise.
Everything is stored as text (Markdown text, specifically), and sync happens invisibly over a wireless connection to the user’s Dropbox account, of course. Nothing else makes that much sense.
There’s not one. I’d like to prototype the interface someday, but that’s about as far as I’ve thought ahead. But I think a device like this could be earth-shatteringly useful to me and others who write: a device to use when you don’t want to use a computer to write. One that doesn’t ever remind you it’s a computer. Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?
Seriously, though, I know this is a half-baked idea, but if it were to exist, I would use it religiously.