(Note: Amy Wohl’s responses are written in bold and are reprinted by permission.)
You do seem to be hitting all my hot buttons at once. Pocket computing, or clamshell form factor as you put it, has been an interest of mine since I got my Poqet PC back around 1990. I'd been moving to progressively smaller computers, from the old Osborne 1 through various sewing-machine sized Compaqs and IBMs to laptops. I was using my first battery-powered laptop, a Zenith Z183, when I ran across the Poqet. The form factor fascinated me. The touch-type-capable keyboard and the DOS applications suite (I used AlphaWorks) made it almost as functional as a laptop, while the size made it practical to use on airplanes. The instant-on and instant-suspend features meant I wouldn't lose my work through the interruptions of a business day, and the 20 hour battery life - on standard AAs, no less - inspired confidence that I could get through more than one day without running for a power outlet. The Poqet became my constant companion at trade shows and business meetings.
It was interesting to watch the technology around me. When I first got the Poqet, I'd sit down at a presentation and take it out to use for note-taking. Everyone around me would take notes on a yellow pad. A couple of years later, when laptops began to rise in popularity, I'd turn on the Poqet and about a quarter of the audience would boot their laptops to take notes. A couple of years after that, when the Poqet was near the end of its useful life, I'd take it out and watch everyone around me ready their yellow pads once again.
That's not to say that I think there's anything wrong with laptops - my primary computer is a Dell Inspiron 8000, and I still think portability is a prerequisite for any truly usable personal computer. But the smaller form factor of a clamshell gives as much usability as it takes away, especially when the package includes instant-on, a seamless interface with a PC, and battery life long enough for at least a day's hard use, and most especially when it's small enough to carry all the time - which the Poqet, unfortunately, wasn't. That combination of design factors results in a class of machines that fit usefully between laptops, which are full-function but too big to keep with you, and PDAs, which can be carried easily but are very limited in their keyboards and screens and in the range of applications they can run.
The clamshell I've come to love is the now-discontinued Psion Series 5mx. A reasonable keyboard, excellent applications suite, almost crash-proof OS, 20+ hours battery life on AAs, an adequate (though barely) screen, instant-on, great PC connectivity and usable Internet connectivity in a package that actually does fit in a pants pocket. I don't know what I'm going to do when it breaks, other than hunt around eBay for another one to replace it.
It's a matter of having the right tool for the right job, at the right price. Thanks to the Poqet and Psion, both of which cost under $500, I haven't had to open a laptop on an airplane since the end of the 1980s, and I've spent a great deal less time transcribing handwritten notes than I would have. The biggest downside? You wouldn't want to have to read my handwriting these days.
Rich, we must really have crossed in some former life. I have a Poquet and a Psion in my office, on my formerly used small objects shelf.
I was a consultant to Poquet in their ill-fated attempts to understand an early market. I helped them redesign the keyboard (among other things).
I think I've used just about every small object that has ever breathed. I've got numerous Newtons, an Envoy (remember that?), HP's of every description, and so on.
I agree with you that there's room in the market for something in between a PDA and a laptop -- I just saw a whole bunch of candidates at Transmeta's reception. I have friends (mainly reporters or travelers) who are deeply attached to this form factor, too. I helped one of them track one of those Jornado half-size laptops down on e-Bay last year.
To tell you the truth, I always end up with a laptop (which I only take when I know I'm going to use it), a yellow pad, and a PDA. But I remain hopeful.
I'm currently using a Vaio (not the very small one) and it's still more of a laptop than a small object, but it comes close. Maybe what I want doesn't exist?
Shall we publish this?
I got home late last night and didn't get a chance to reply, and I don't have time for a long response now. But I did want to answer your last message.
If you were responsible for the Poqet keyboard, I'm impressed. I've held that design up (literally, sometimes) as an example of how a thing can be built far smaller than people expect, while still retaining most or all of its intended function.
I think it would be interesting to pool our experience and points of view and come up with a small object that meets our needs (and dreams), and that can be built with either today's technology or with advances that are likely to be available, based on actual announcements, within the next two years or so. I know I have strong points of view, based on actual experience, and that you do too. The results could be worth publishing, or challenging the industry with. Are you game?
I'll be traveling much of next week, and out of wireless and wired communication range, but will get some thoughts together.
Yes, let's have some fun and publish a "dream machine" specification.
I sat down this morning to put down some thoughts and ended up with over five pages. That's just a warning to you that there's a good deal to read here. I hope it acts as food for thought for you.
I'm looking forward to whatever we come up with. It might never get built, but who knows? Maybe nobody who designed these devices before ever actually used one.
(Note: The five page document, a detailed description of a design philosophy for small objects, is here.)
Rich, this is just very special. I don't have time today to comment
properly, but let's just say I agree more than I disagree.
The question is what should we do with it?
After I comment and we go back and forth it needs to be shared.
Shall we publish it as a special issue of the newsletter, with
commentary? Or do you have something else in mind?
I don't know if you got my voice emails during the weekend. I was in a remote part of Maine with no mobile text or cellular service, and was picking up your email via pay phone. I never tried responding to an email by voice before so you can tell me if the experiment worked. Let me know if you got a couple of listenable emails from me.
Thanks for your kind comments, and I'm looking forward to reading your more detailed thoughts. I've been using and consulting with others on portable devices for many years, and it's good to talk to someone who has also found them useful enough to put up with the shortcomings of current (and past) products. As far as publishing the results, I'd be in favor but I'd rather try to come up with a design someone might be interested in building - maybe we could develop an idea far enough to interest an existing company. Given the difference in likely usage and the checkered past of mobile text in America, I think a good design would have to include a marketing strategy, user education, recommended adoption strategies and case studies, not just the device itself.
I have a selfish interest in trying to get some commercial advantage out of this, since I'm an independent consultant and looking for clients. Mobile devices were my specialty the last time I worked full-time for a consulting company, and I saw a great deal of interest among clients. Some of that interest faded when people in decision-making positions got a first look at available devices and infrastructure, but the ones who gave it a serious try often ended up quite dependent on their wireless email and quick messaging.
From this end, it seems this conversation may be starting to exceed the bandwidth of email. If you want to talk further by voice, let me know.