A Writing Device

Let’s be honest. In the short time that I’ve been a user of Apple’s products, I have always been enthusiastic and excited about impending announcements. I was one of the few people who saw those fake videos of the iWalk and got all excited that a successor to the Newton was imminent. In fact, my excitement about portable computing in particular runs deep and further back than my use of Macs. There was a period in the 90s when I was avidly reading everything I could about what was going on in the worlds of Windows CE and the Palm Pilot. My family can probably recount for you how annoying I was about it. I would talk about small portable computers over lunch and dinner. When we went out, I would want to stop by CompUSA or Best Buy or Office Max, just to play around on devices like the LG Phenom, the HP Jornada 820, or the Psion Series 5mx and Revo.

These devices were not meant for a kid like me. (Or probably any kid.) The potent general idea from my point of view at the time was that these were devices which offered a subset of the functionality of a full-blown desktop, but simplified to the point where they were actually possible to use. This was not long after I had switched from browsing inside AOL to connecting over dialup through AOL, minimizing it, and browsing with either Netscape or IE. I was learning a valuable lesson about feature creep: extra features often come at the cost of usability. The Palm OS, Windows CE, and Symbian OS all boiled down to the same main choices about what users needed and what they could do without. “Productivity” apps like email and calendar were in, other things like games were out. Not a lot of fun for a 14-year-old.

But I wasn’t really all that interested in games. What I cared about was writing. When my parents bought me an iMac in 1998, the first best thing that I noticed about it was how much easier I found it to write on. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you why very specifically. I was too young and writing is an odd experience that is hard to understand any way you do it. I can still remember what the experience felt like, however. It was as though the computer had really just melted away, and all I was left with was the keyboard and a canvas, uninhibited and unencumbered. It was great, and some of my fondest memories of writing took place in front of that lime green iMac.

When I went to the stores to try out the Phenom or the Jornada or the Psion, I was trying out what it would feel like to write on the thing.1 I cared about the keyboard, I cared about navigating the file system, I cared about how my words looked on the screen… hoping that the confluence of the OS, keyboard, and screen would create something that felt right to me. I didn’t need a calendar, contacts, or even email really. I certainly didn’t need PowerPoint or Excel, although I was fascinated that they were able to get something similar to those things working on such small devices. I wanted something that I could take with me to start writing whenever the mood would strike.

Every time new products came out, or were speculated upon, that might fit what I wanted - a portable writing device - I was excited. I was excited when laptops with full keyboards got smaller and lighter. I was excited when the Visor was doing well and when the Handspring team rejoined Palm. I was excited about the Psion Series 7 and about the creation of subnotebooks. I was excited about the idea of “thin clients,” computers with more limited built-in power that off-loaded most of the work to a remote server over an internet connection. (That one sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) Anything that was making computers smaller and lighter, and anything that was making the activity of typing more portable, I watched with baited breath. When Apple introduced Inkwell to Mac OS X, I thought that surely a foray into the tablet format was in the works, with the intention of giving users a pen-based interface and pen-based text entry.

Now that the iPad is here, I’m not sure quite what to make of it from this perspective. I think that it’s because I am still falling in love with my iPod Touch. My iPod is now my portable writing device. I wrote the first draft of my last post in Simplenote while flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles. In fact, I read the essay I was responding to on the same flight in Instapaper. After getting used to the auto-correction, writing on my iPod feels right to me in the way that I have been looking for. And it is portable beyond what I thought possible for a digital writing tool. I can carry it in my pocket with me everywhere at all times. I never thought that typing with two thumbs on a screen with no tactile feedback on a device that sits comfortably in the palm could feel like writing. But it does. A need that I’ve had unfulfilled for ten years has been met. I will of course be excited to try out the iPad in the Apple Store when they find their way there, running it through my usual motions, trying to determine whether I can really see myself writing on such a thing, weighing the feel of using it against its portability. For now, I couldn’t be happier with my iPod.

  1. My family can also tell you about my habitual purchase of paper notebooks that would never become filled. ↩︎