REINVENTING HOW WE USE COMPUTERS
by Ploum on 2022-12-03
Nearly two years ago, I put into words the dream I had for a durable
computer. A computer that would be built for a lifetime. A computer that
would not do everything but could do 80% of what I expect from it. I
called this idea the Forever Computer.
The computer built to last 50 years
I expected to launch a conversation about what we really expect from
computers. What do we really want from them? What are some limitations
that could N free us? What if we didn’t have a pointer but still wanted
to be user-friendly by avoiding cryptic key combinations? What if we
only had rare and intermittent connections? What if we didn’t have a
high-resolution screen? Thinking about that gave birth to Offpunk, a
command-line and offline web browser.
Unsurprisingly, most of the reactions I had from my Forever Computer
dream where about hardware. Every idea, every project I saw could be
summarised as "How to make hardware we can repair while not questioning
what we do with this hardware?" The (very interesting) Framework laptop
is available as… a Chromebook. This is like transitioning to electric
cars while having electricity generated from coal and not questioning
why we ride in the first place. Oh, wait…
By developing and using Offpunk, I had to think about what it means to
use a computer. I ended up putting my fingers on a huge paradigm
problem : we don’t have computers any more. We have "content consuming
The Consuming Screen
On my typewriter, two small retractable metal holders allow the page to
stand up while being written. It’s fairly common. I realised that I
retract them to keep the paper flowing horizontally. Instead of building
a wall of text between me and my environment, I stay open to my
surroundings, I catch the ideas that are besides the machine, further
away. On the Freewrite, the horizontal e-ink screen does exactly the
same. And it works great. It allows me to see what I’m writing without
being absorbed by it.
On our computers, the screen is always bigger, shinier, brighter. It is
designed to consume you while you consume content. It is a wall to lock
you in, to make you prisoner of your little space. Developers need three
screens to habit this virtual space. Meetings are now little rooms where
everyone put a screen behind himself and others while pretending to
listen to someone who connected his own screen to a projector (because
the only way to have us outside of our own little screen is a bigger
shared screen). Tablets and phones are screen-only computers designed to
take our attention, to make us consume more and more contents even when
we are with beloved ones.
Browsing the Gemini network with Offpunk allowed me to realise how
"consuming and producing content" was a disease and not something we
ever wanted to do as humans.
There is no content on Gemini
The Lost Input
But while computers were transformed into screens, we completely lost
the main input mechanism: the keyboard. It is not that the inefficient
and absurd misaligned qwerty keyboard didn’t evolve. It actually
worsened. We lost the mechanical keys in the search for flatness. We
lost comfort. We lost any ergonomics. The only point was to make a
keyboard as flat as possible and the same size as the screen to fit it
in a laptop. With its infamous butterfly keyboard, Apple even managed to
make it painful to type. And I’m not talking about those small
touchscreen keyboards which still mimic a full, often misaligned, qwerty
We know what a good keyboard is. Independent tinkerers managed to build
awesome stuff. There were some really interesting experiments but, in
the end, it looks like every attempt at reinventing the keyboard ends in
some kind of split orthogonal form with alternative layout (Dvorak,
Colemak or, for me, Bépo).
The Moonlander keyboard
The Typematrix keyboard
Why haven’t we seen a single computer with such a built-in keyboard?
Because computers are not built to type any more. There are built to
consume content. Even professional coders spend more time consuming
Slack messages and Github badge notifications than writing code.
The Clamshell Compromise
When you add a bright screen to a cramped keyboard, you end up with the
worst possible design: the clamshell laptop.
The clamshell is perfect to close it and put it in a bag. It is awful to
use. It is like giving a triangle to a cello player before a concert
because, hey, the triangle is easiest to travel with.
With a clamshell, the keyboard and the screen are never where there
should be. The keyboard is too high, forcing our arms and shoulders in a
stressful position while the screen is too low and deforms our neck. Our
body is suffering because we don’t want to think about what we do with
As I was thinking why it was so relieving to let the paper roll
horizontally on my typewriter, I realised that it allowed me not to read
it all the time. I was encouraged to look outside while typing, having
only glances at the paper. When lying lower, text is more comfortable to
read horizontally. You only need a really slight angle to read a book
open on a table.
What it means for the Forever Computer
All those points made me realise that a true Forever Computer should be
built "keyboard first". The keyboard should be the most important part,
with a housing for travel. The same housing could host a small screen,
possibly an e-ink one. While travelling, that would allow you to read
deeply (with the screen in your hand, like an e-reader) or to attach it
to the keyboard to write while not being absorbed by the screen. You
separate the action of reading and writing instead of being always
between two chairs.
The keyboard would feature a port to plug a bigger screen that you could
have at home or in your office. Those screens could be put on the wall
or, like any external monitor, configured to be at eye level.
When you think about it, it allows us to reintroduce the locality of
action. Want to watch videos? Go to the living room and plug to the big
screen. Want to code in an IDE or do some graphic work? Go to the office
and plug into your desk’s screen. Not at your desk? You can read, takes
notes, answer your emails (that will we synchronised when needed). But
don’t pretend to code a little, answer a message, watch a video while
eating at a restaurant.
Flipping the trend
We currently own a screen with very minimal input to allow us to consume
content and access our own data which are on some company servers. The
only thing we own, the only thing we pay for is a screen. Sometimes with
a bad keyboard.
What I call the Forever Computer is exactly the opposite. You own your
input (your favourite keyboard and trackball). You own your data (stored
with the computer itself in the keyboard housing). The screen is only a
commodity. You can share the screen, you can use someone else screen,
you can plug to the one in your hotel room.
This is the point where my dream made me realise what a nightmare our
tech dystopia has become. When did building the same old laptop or phone
with a handful of replaceable part became the epitome of sustainability
and innovation? Why is cramming a few more pixels and a few more CPU
using a cool new font seen as "a revolution". Like any other tool, we
should accept that you need to learn how to use a computer. Short-term
UX marketing and regular updates with arbitrary changes in the interface
have killed the very notion of "learning to use a computer". People have
been reduced to "consumers having to adapt to the change of their
consuming machine". We forgot that a computer should not hide how it
works to be easy but instead allow its user to learn gradually about it.
If we want durability, learnability is the key. When you learn
something, you take care of it. You start to like it, to maintain it.
It’s the opposite of forced upgrade cycles.
I don’t know if there will be something like my "Forever Computer" in my
lifetime. But there’s one thing I’m now certain: the ethical computer
will be radically different of what we have in 2022. Or it will never
Links and further resources
I’m closely following the work done by MNT on its Reform and its future
Reform Pocket computers. People like them are probably those that could
reinvent computing and free us from the current paradigm.
MNT Reform Pocket.
While not radical at all, the Framework is probably the most interesting
project for regular computer users.