On the Joys of Primitive Computing: The AlphaSmart Neo
by Kendall Clark
Related link: http://www.alphasmart.com/products/neo.html
Part of being a savvy technologist includes staying on the perpetual
hardware upgrade habitrail -- or so people too often assume.
Some of us, however, are done with hardware. I put myself through
college, back in the day when Intel' 80386 CPU was a big deal, by
building computers for aeronautical engineering students at the
University of Texas, where I wasn't a student.
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. My main server for five years
has been an IBM Thinkpad I found in a dumpster. My only extravagance
was to max out its RAM at 512 MB. My everyday system is a nice 15"
Powerbook supplied by UMD. While OSX is nice, it's not exactly Linux
on an Opteron.
I'm bored by hardware and a bit cheap about it, too.
All of which makes the fact that I've fallen in love with a new box
(and a new kind of box) all the more curious. I'm talking
about my new Neo
by AlphaSmart, upon which I'm typing this weblog entry. Before
saying more, thanks to Paul Ford for
telling me about the Neo. Paul rocks.
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 Primtivie 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.
Specs? I don't even know what kind of CPU this thing has, and I
couldn't care less. The OS is some homegrown thing, apparently,
I think the OS is some variant of PalmOS, but I
don't really know. Or care -- cultivating ignorance about irrelevant details is part of the ethic here, I think. The word processor, the only app it has, is brain
dead. Which means no distractions; it gets out of my way as well as
venerable Word Perfect 5.1 for DOS used to -- a writerly experience
I've only come close to replicating with Emacs.
The keyboard action is passable; not great, but no impediment. The
screen is a measly six lines, and I'm finding it perfectly
acceptable. Especially when it meaans that battery life -- powered by
3 AA batts -- is a remarkable 700 hours. Yes, 700
hours! The damn thing weighs all of 2 lbs, though it feels
lighter. It's the ultimate road warrior's tool, at least if you think
of a road warrior as a writer.
My joy at the sheer utlity of the Neo -- even at the rather
inflated price of $250 -- leads me to wonder whether Primitive
Computing is a trend of larger significance. Maybe the sign of a real
power user is someone who's happy to get by with less, rather than
ever insisting on more. Using the Neo is of a piece with the href="http://merlin.blogs.com/43folders/2004/09/introducing_the.html">Hipster
PDA and with Danny O'Brien's ethnographic observations about the
ubiquity among the power set of text files as a first class
The Neo is the closest I'm going to get to the kind of intentional
simplicity that could lead to something like href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_David_Thoreau">Walden on the
job. (A chimerical goal, to be sure, since Walden was mostly about
not working for The Man, rather than doing so sanely. Oh
I recently wrote, as part of a proposal to build some Semantic Web
infrastructure for a large US government agency (not military or the
spies, thank the stars!), that the three crucial characteristics of
the system in question were propinquity (how close is
the system to where user's actually live?), ubiquity
(how universally available is the system?), and
expressivity (is the system powerful enough to let
users do what they need and want to do?).
Now that I think about it, that's a pretty good description of
Primitive Computing as I understand it and of the AlphaSmart Neo: it
can be ready to hand a all times, in just about any ordinary
situation, and it has just enough power and features to do what I care
As the man used to say back in the day: Highly
You ready to devolve?
Another Happy AlphaSmart Owner
I’ve had an AlphaSmart Dana (http://www1.alphasmart.com/products/dana.html) for two years now. It is based on Palm OS (version 4), making it probably the world’s biggest Palm. It weighs two pounds, boots up in under a second, has a excellent keyboard, and runs for 25 hours per charge. (I’ve only charged it with the adaptor once; HotSyncing it over USB is enough to recharge it.) With Documents To Go, it can even open and edit Word and Excel files you put on an SD card. I use it all the time for taking notes at meetings.
You have a Neo and you have an opeteron running Linux. How is the compatibility? As you put it, I'm really looking to devolve (I'm easily distracted) but I need to make sure I can get the data off the device :)