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Kendall Clark: AlphaSmart Neo's interesting for what it's _not_

On the Joys of Primitive Computing: The AlphaSmart Neo

I keep hearing rumblings about the AlphaSmart Neo, but haven’t put my hands to one yet. Anybody out there got one? Tried one? Seems a bit steep at $250, but I’d love to play with one (<accent belle=“southern”>Why, I declare: I do believe I’ve dropped my kerchief: AlphaSmart, would you be so kind…?</accent>).

Kendall Clark seems to think Neo’s part of a larger trend:

I am so over hardware, and I have been for more than a decade. I take pride in making my living from technology and doing so with very old, even decrepit hardware….

Oddly enough, the Neo is basically a computer for school children. It’s stunningly stupid and, well, primitive. I’m enjoying it so much, and being so productive with it, that it’s got me thinking about what I’ll call Primitive Computing and Power User Devolution.

The Neo is interesting not because of what it does or what features it has, but what it can’t do and the features it’s missing. It’s all about one thing and one thing only: writing. I’m most comfortable turning any task into a writing task (when all you have is a hammer…), which means I’m super comfortable with a primitive device that’s really only good for writing.

And no internet. Some days, I believe I’d find that pretty appealing.

newton user's picture

Though the Neo has been...

Though the Neo has been around for a while, it's important to note that other, similar and better systems have been around for longer. They have never taken off. They do too little for the price.

I have some perspective on this, as a heavy user of "instant on" technology. The original Alphasmart machines were awfully similar to the Tandy WP-2 (I used to have one), and that was a modificiation of the ultimate simplicity of the Tandy Model 10x series (the 102 was thinner than the 100, and they maxed out at 24k unless you went to extraordinary steps to get memory, and I liked my 102 more than my WP-2). These machines are still available on eBay or online, connect easily via a parallel printer port cable, and rock. You turn them on, you type. There is no font choice. There is nothing other than typing. The Model 100 and 102 even had modems (300 baud, baby!) and were used heavily by certain journalists. Similar results come from a PDA with a Stowaway.

As I said, they never took off. One reason is simple: you can type, but you can't see what you are typing. Scrolling sucks. If you don't need to read what you wrote, don't need a paragraph overview, you're fine. But if you need to think some, re-read a previous statement, etc., they actually stink. Believe me, I've used many of them.

Another reason they've never taken off is that you can get a lot more power for not much more money... and with a Mac, you get nearly instant on from sleep, and you can TURN OFF what you don't need. No internet? Shut off the airport. No other programs? Quit them (or use multiple desktops to allow focus on a single work space). Too powerful a word processor? Use a text editor in full screen mode. These provide the same focus on machinery you already have, while allowing more when it's needed.

I think the linked article has it wrong when it makes the parallel to the Hipster PDA. Primitive writing is pen and paper. Using a Neo/WP-2/102/PDA-with-Stowaway or any other form of primitive writing tool is simply not equivalent. I still use my Newton for writing, it rocks, it's the best PDA out there... but I don't confuse it with pen and paper.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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