The Little Computer that Could

My favourite piece of information is that Branwell Brontė, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantelpiece, in order to prove it could be done.

This is not quite true, in fact. My absolute favourite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees. However this is not relevant to what is currently on my mind because it concerns sloths, whereas the Branwell Brontė piece of information concerns writers and feeling like death and doing things to prove they can be done, all of which are pertinent to my current situation to a degree that is, frankly, spooky.

I'm a writer and I'm feeling like death, as you would too if you'd just flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan at some ungodly hour of the morning only to discover that you can't get into your hotel room for another three hours. In fact it's enough just to have flown into Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you are a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, then please assume that I am just kidding. Anyone else will surely realise that I am not.

Having nowhere else to go, I am standing up, leaning against a mantelpiece. Well, a kind of mantelpiece. I don't know what it is, in fact. It's made of brass and some kind of plastic and was probably drawn in by the architect after a nasty night on the town. That reminds me of another favourite piece of information: there is a large kink in the trans-Siberian railway because when the Czar (I don't know which Czar it was because I am not in my study at home I'm leaning against something shamefully ugly in Michigan and there are no books) decreed that the trans-Siberian railway should be built, he drew a line on a map with a ruler. The ruler had a nick in it.

I'm writing this article leaning against some nameless architectural mistake, and I am not writing the article on a Mac. I would, but my PowerBook is fresh out of power (funny notion, to name the thing after its only major shortcoming it's rather like Greenland in that respect.) I have the power cable with me but I can't plug it in anywhere. Though the power cable very cleverly has a universal power supply, it doesn't have a universal plug. It has a large, clunky British style three pin plug built right into it, which means that if you forget to buy an adaptor plug before you leave Heathrow you are completely and utterly screwed. You cannot buy an adaptor for British plugs outside Britain. I know. I tried that when I ran into a similar problem with the old Mac Portable. (I am not going to make any Mac Portable jokes. Apple made quite enough of them to be getting on with. Damn. I said I wasn't going to do that.) In the end I had to buy a US power cable. Or rather, I had to try and buy one. Couldn't be done. They only came with new Mac Portables. I heaved a dead Mac Portable around with me for ten days and occasionally ate my sandwiches off it because it was slightly lighter than carrying a table. (Damn, there goes another one.)

I don't have the same problem with my PowerBook, though. I am not totally stupid. I brought an adaptor with me this time. However, I am slightly stupid because it's in my suitcase which I've just checked in with the bellman while I wait for three hours for my room to be ready.

So what am I doing? Handwriting? You must be joking. After ten years of word processing I can't even do hand writing anymore. I know I ought to be able to: handwriting is supposed to be one of those like using chopsticks, once you get the hang of it, it never really deserts you. The thing is that I've had much more practice with chopsticks than pens, so no, I'm not handwriting. I'm not talking into one of those horrible little dictaphones, either, which keep on recording relentlessly while you're desperately trying to think of something to say. Pressing the off switch is the thing that turns your brain back on.
No. What I'm doing is sitting on a chair somewhere writing this on is a new Psion Series 3a palmtop computer. I got one at the Duty Free shop at Heathrow, just for the sheer unadulterated hell of it, and I have to say it's good. It works.

May I just say one thing about Duty Free shops before I go on to talk about the Psion? It's not that things aren't cheaper in the Duty Free shops they are. Infinitesimally. You do save a very small amount of money if you shop at them. Of course you can then lose a very hefty sum of money in fines if you fail to realise that you have to declare anything you've bought duty free to the customs when you come back into the country. The stuff is only really duty free if you intend to spend the rest of your life on an aeroplane. So what happens when you buy stuff at the Duty Free shop for very slightly less than you would in the high street? It means that most of the money saved on duty is going into the coffers of the Duty Free shops rather than helping to pay for the National Health Service (and Trident). So why did I buy my Psion at the Duty Free shop? Because I'm a complete idiot, that's why.

Anyway. Status update. They've found me a room. I've unpacked my adaptor plug. My PowerBook is charging itself up. I'm still not using it, though because I am now lying in the bath. So I'm still using the Psion. I have never ever written anything in the bath before. Paper gets damp and steamy, pens won't write upside down, typewriters hurt your tummy, and if you are prepared to use a PowerBook in the bath then I assume that it isn't your own PowerBook.

So the thing is, it can be done. You can actually write on a palmtop computer, which is something I didn't realise before. I had tried to do it on a Sharp Wizard, but it wasn't possible because the keyboard was laid out alphabetically which is hopeless. The principle behind the decision to have an alphabetical keyboard is based on a misunderstanding. I believe that the idea is this: not everybody knows qwerty (it's an odd feeling actually typing qwerty as a word. Try it and you'll see what I mean) but everybody knows the alphabet. This true but irrelevant. People know the alphabet as a one dimensional string, not as a two-dimensional array, so you're going to have to hunt and peck anyway. So why not use qwerty and let people who know it have the benefit?

I also tried the larger Sharp Wizard, the 8200, which does have a qwerty keyboard, but no word wrap. Can you believe that? Even Etch-a-Sketch has word wrap these days.

The other problem with all palmtops is, of course, that the keyboard is too small for your fingers. This is a tricky one. You can't win. If the machine's small enough to go in your pocket it's too small to type on. Well, I've found the answer. Forgive me if you knew this already, perhaps I'm the last person in the world to find this out. Anyway, the answer is this. You grip the palmtop between both hands and you type with your thumbs. Seriously. It works. It feels a bit awkward to begin with, and your hands ache a little from using unaccustomed muscles, but you get used to it surprisingly quickly. I've clocked up a thousand words now.

Now this raises some interesting question. (Well, interesting to me. You can please yourselves) What about this input business then? I am of course as out of my mind with excitement as the next person about the prospect of voice input and pen input, but you know and I know, and anybody who has fooled around with a Caere Typist or the like will know, that things rarely work as smoothly in practice as they do in theory, or at least not yet. Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don't quite work yet is just not worth the effort for end users, however much fun it is for nerds like us. The days when you can say "open pod bay number 2, Hal" and be confident that Hal understands that you want to be stranded on the outskirts of Jupiter are still a way away. And I suspect that it will be a very long time before I am able to dictate an article like this and for the result to be even decipherable, let alone accurate. We've all seen the old sketch in which a secretary writes down absolutely everything the boss says, including the bit where he says "Don't write this bit down" or "Cross out that last sentence". I think there's going to be a lot of stupid-secretary-type grief to go through before we get it working smoothly. As for pen input devices, well, as I said above, ten years of word processing has meant that my handwriting has deteriorated to the point where even I can't read it, so what chance a computer stands I really don't know. Can I be bothered to tease out the irony involved in all that? No.

So for the moment that leaves us back with the keyboard input, and keyboard input, for the moment, means qwerty. But qwerty, as we know, was originally designed to slow down typists so the keys wouldn't jam. It's deliberately inefficient. However, all attempts to replace it with something more efficient, like the Dvorak keyboard, have failed. People know qwerty already, and they don't have any pressing incentive to change. Dvorak et al may be better, but qwerty is, or has been till now, good enough. if it ain't bust don't fix it is a very sound principle and remains so despite the fact that I have slavishly ignored it all my life.

I think, though, that we might finally have arrived at a point at which there is a strong incentive to re-invent the keyboard. Palm-top computers are where all the new action is. Apple and Microsoft and everybody are suddenly beginning to get revved up about Personal Digital Assistants and stuff and, having been using this Psion Series 3a for a few hours now, so am I. It's terrific technology, and this is just the beginning that crucial moment at which something stops being just an entertaining new toy and starts being something you can seriously use in the bath. We've all known for years that qwerty isn't good. I think we've now got to that important point where it isn't even good enough. The point where it isn't even good enough. [yes this is exact copy typing!] I hope that systems designers have not been put off by the failure of the Dvorak keyboard. I hope they are carefully studying the way that people hold palmtop computers, where their fingers naturally fall and fit and how the whole idea of how a keyboard works can be rethought. I would very much like it if my thumb joints were not now stiff and aching. I've proved it can be done, but, like Branwell Brontė, I'm not expecting to do the same trick again tomorrow.

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