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Writer: An Open Digital Typewriter (2018) (alternativebit.fr)
171 points by mzehrer on April 9, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

This seems more like a word processor than a typewriter. The author seems to concede that this isn't a typewriter at all:

> However, using a typewriter comes with two major shortcomings: 1) You cannot delete a typo. I know you do a lot of those, no need to expose this nasty behaviour to everybody’s face. 2) You cannot share the text you wrote online, be it on your website or on any other social platform.

Also, I am not a fan of the bulky wooden case, but I get that some people would be. I think that this would be a great opportunity to take inspiration from devices like the iPad (Pro) and Nintendo switch: perhaps the meat of the device (display, electronics, connectors) could be in a single unit, with a detachable keyboard of some kind. Then, people would be free to create their own "docks" out of wood, old model M keyboards, pipe organs or whatever which could connect to this device using a single connector.

That aside, I really like the concept: hacker-friendly open design, a "more pure" writing experience, and a "real" operating system underneath it all which can be modified by the user.

I assume it's sort of in-between the typewriter and modern word processor experience: you can undo what you type and insert text for instance, but given the slow refresh rate of the screen it will be tedious so you'll probably want to limit it as much as possible.

As such I think it can work well for people looking for a "typewriter" in order not to be distracted while they're writing something. Just throw your thoughts on e-paper and edit them properly later on a real computer. So obviously technologically-speaking it's much closer to a computer than it is to a typewriter, but usability-wise the parallel might be more obvious.

My main issue with this design is that the screen is too small IMO, but of course I assume that large e-ink screens must be quite costly.

I have a colleague who uses an ~A4 e-reader with a digital pen/pencil thing for reading academic papers.

He claims it allows him to focus on the work, keep backup copies of his notes (he can draw right on the PDFs and then save them to "the cloud", I think), and although it has an experimental web browser, he keeps it in Airplane mode when working.

Almost certainly, it is the ReMarkable: https://remarkable.com

It is!

Digital typewriters with editing capabilities were widely available from the 1970’s. While I certainly appreciate this as a hobby project, the idea that digital typewriters are new or novel is misinformed.


Well, you could rip the backspace and delete keys off, write protect the SD card so files can't be saved and hook a printer up to it and you'd have most of the inconveniences of an actual typewriter.

I have some docs on how to drive one of those spare eBook reader eInk screens from my reverse engineering adventure of PocketBook: http://linux-sunxi.org/PocketBook_Touch_Lux_3

I've mainlined the support for this PocketBook to Linux 5.7.

Though if I was doing this project I'd re-use the PocketBook board too, instead of building new HW to drive the screen. Driving the eInk signals on larger screens requires a very fast and precise signalling, and you also have to generate around 5 different voltages for the screen. And the board can already do that and the SW (bootloader, kernel) is all open source, so there's no downside. You could drop the RPI.

Wow, this is inspiring work that I wish I’d seen earlier.

Here’s my ipython notebook that I used to extract LUTs from an eInk dev panel [1] which eInk support declined to give us the LUTs for.

I’d stopped after I managed to display some images but I now I have a reason to revisit and play with the PocketBook Linux. Thank you!

[1] https://github.com/prashnts/betty-epd/blob/master/notebooks/...

I work as a writer and love the concept, but the size of the screen is the one major drawback. Both the commercialized version ($550!) and the hacker version have tiny screens that do not compare to a laptop with a word processor or a typewriter with standard size paper.

If they scaled the screen size up, I would definitely consider this for professional use. Otherwise, it seems kind of inconvenient compared to the traditional methods.

The most attractive features are the e-ink screen, the long lasting battery, and the minimal design. Writing without getting distracted is more a matter of personal discipline than advanced technology. If anything, having internet access while writing is very convenient for research.

Some might view that drawback as a plus.

Before the emergence of laptops, the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100 was incredibly popular with professional writers/journalists. While one might argue that an iPad is better, I think one of the big things going for something like the Model 100 was the keyboard, which made the device worth the bulk.


looking straight down at a flat screen seems like terrible ergonomics.

It reminds me of the sit-down Space Invaders arcade cabinets. I used to love them as a kid, and I remember the neck aches.[0]

I like the idea of a modern typewriter. I just haven't found any decent implementations that I like yet.

[0]: https://i.warosu.org/data/vr/img/0009/72/1376119589459.jpg

The FreeWrite Traveler[0] seems to be a significant improvement on their older models, and they are offering a pre-order sale price that makes it significantly cheaper than the FreeWrite 2 (I was actually on the verge of ordering one as a birthday present for my writer wife before the current crisis hit). It folds up in a clamshell format for portability and the screen can be angled to be a bit less troublesome for your posture, although the screen size still leaves something to be desired.

[0]: https://getfreewrite.com/products/freewrite-traveler

>> looking straight down at a flat screen seems like terrible ergonomics.

Real typewriters weren't much better though. You were basically still looking down at the piece of paper in the platen.

“Real typewriters”, for much of their lives, were mostly write-only devices. You didn’t interactively edit with a typewriter; you drafted—typing something out without really being able to see the result very well, except when you get a paragraph or so further along—and then, when you were done, you’d pull the sheet out, write editing marks on it (or your editor would), and then you (or a typist) would take the sheet+editing marks and transcribe the result through another typewriter, to get a cleaned result. (Any mistakes made during transcribing would result in starting over on transcribing that sheet. Unless you had one of the fancy typewriters with a secondary white-out ribbon, and the result was just heading for a fax machine anyway.)

Really, it was a major revolution when the first word processors came ‘round, and you got a little LCD display one-line buffer, that you could commit to the paper or re-write.

> were mostly write-only devices.


In the mid eighties though, there were electronic daisy-wheel typewriters (I don't consider those to be word processors in the same vein as the Wang word processors that had full green screens) that had one line LCD screens that would let you edit the line before imprinting it onto the paper.

On a side note, remember how "letter quality" was considered a thing back then, because dot matrix printers could only achieve "near-letter-quality"? Those terms aren't even in today's vernacular.

> Unless you had one of the fancy typewriters with a secondary white-out ribbon,

Even without a fancy typewriter, there were handheld white out sheets you could get, white tape, or you could use liquid paper.

> Even without a fancy typewriter, there were handheld white out sheets you could get, white tape, or you could use liquid paper.

True, but if your transcription was being handled by a professional typist, often the process of handling manual white-out taping (followed by re-feeding/aligning the sheet to its previous position) would be slower than just re-typing the entire page! The secondary white-out ribbons were the only thing I saw used in practice (by anyone other than slow-as-molasses government bureaucracies), because they didn’t require re-feeding the paper.

> True, but if your transcription was being handled by a professional typist...

I tend to think business users at the time had the fancy typewriters or word processors, while home/student users were limited to whatever correction tools they could afford.

As a student, prior to getting a dot matrix printer, I would use either liquid paper or those powdered correction sheets to fix typos.

Not sure if this plug is welcome here, but I'm seeing some comments suggesting that people are looking for this sort of thing:

If anyone is looking for a practical, distraction-free typing environment, check out my freemium app called Cold Turkey Writer: https://getcoldturkey.com/writer/

Writer locks you into the app for a certain amount of time or until you type a certain number of words.

It's free, but the pro version also lets you disable the backspace/delete key, arrow keys, selecting text, etc...

I hope it helps someone here!

The “right thing” here, if:

• you’ve got a RasPi running Linux (Raspbian)

• you want to drive a novel display with it

• you want the contents of the display to be regular Linux text-mode console output, with regular Linux text-mode console input

...would be to just write a Linux kernel framebuffer driver for your novel display device, and then drop it into the Raspbian kernel tree, recompile, and deploy to your device, no?

Then there’d be no other custom software needed. You’d just have a regular Linux system, with a regular Linux console TTY, mapped to a grid of pixels by the Linux framebuffer code (bonus: in whatever bitmap font you wish), in turn bit-banged to the display device’s IO port using your driver’s custom refresh sequences.

Sure, this approach requires learning some new codebases (Linux kernel driver development!) but so does the “user-mode driver” approach in the article.

I think the thing is that an e-ink display isn't a typical display.

Linux is an xNix. xNix was written for teletypes: a fundamentally scrolling medium.

E-ink does not scroll well. Updating the whole display is bad. It take a long time, it blurs into illegibility, it could even wear out the panel.

Compare to the behaviour of 1980s 8-bit machines.


• Sinclair BASIC's knew that scrolling took a long time and was CPU-intensive, and so when it was happening, it was hard to interrupt -- it would be slow anyway, and if you kept polling for an interrupt keystroke it would be slower still. So, when the screen was about to scroll, they prompted: ... scroll? (Y/N) And you could say no.

• The Locoscript word-processor for the Amstrad PCW range (maybe the best-selling CP/M machines in history, with millions of units of only about 3 models). LocoScript was one of the most polished 8-bit WPs ever. The programmers knew that trying to move all the text along the screen live when inserting would be painfully slow, so when you went back to add a word, it split the text at that point. The next line was moved down a blank line, and so did not have to update or reformat. If you added more than a line, the text below only had to be scrolled once per line. When you were finished and moved the cursor past the insertion point, it reflowed and redrew the text from then on -- just once.

But these are specific niche programs. It's not possible to be so general on Linux because you don't know what program will write what to the screen.

The problem is this:

What you really want to do with e-ink is to fill the screen, either all at once -- no use for interactivity -- or one character at a time (which is doable), and then when it gets to the end.

So how about: a pseudo-terminal that detects when the console is about to scroll, and instead of scrolling, just resets the whole thing, clears the screen, and starts to redraw it again at top left.

Continuous output -- e.g. dmesg or catting a file -- would fill the screen, clear it, and redraw, over and over.

Full-screen editors would need to be aware of it but there are about a million FOSS text editors out there. This is not beyond the wit of mankind.

It's great to see people's takes on the idea. I have been mulling something similar. I've bought a couple of old Alphasmart units, which were originally designed to do exactly this: simple word processsors with the ability to dump text via a keyboard interface.

They have a keyboard and standard four line LCD character interface. I'm planning to stick an ESP32 inside and make it dump text via wifi.

After all that, you have to find something to write. I wonder whether having grown up with a random-access word processor makes it difficult to write this way.

Still use my old Newton eMate as a distraction-free writing device.

The keyboard is great, NewtonWorks is a capable word processor, the battery life is amazing and it makes cute beep boop noises when you touch the screen. Plus it looks like something David Cronenberg would design.

I've occasionally thought about modding it to house a rPi, but it would be sacrilege to gut something like that when it still works.

Incidentally, if anyone has a broken eMate knocking around I'd be very interested.

Cool! How do you transfer documents to your main computer?

I've got a serial-to-USB adapter, and NCX [0] by Simon Bell is a fully-featured device manager for importing and exporting documents, installing packages etc. It's basically a modern replacement for Apple's old Newton Connection Utilities.

[0] https://newtonresearch.org/connection/index.html

Thanks so much for bringing this up! I had lost all hope. I might get out my old eMate and MessagePad!

Cool! Love to see new tools for old hardware.

Maybe this?

In addition to the expansion slot, the eMate also featured a single non-CardBus PCMCIA slot. It could be used for a number of different cards, including modems, ethernet cards, wireless cards, bluetooth cards, and flash memory (linear and ATA/Compact Flash).

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EMate_300

edit: OP answered!

Yes, with a compatible WiFi card you can get it on the internet. Simon Bell also maintains a Newton email client.

There was a similar commercial product, basically a PC keyboard with a small (LCD?) screen, for typing text only documents. It was distraction free, and pretty cheap for something with great battery time. I think notebooks were very expensive back when it was launched.

You'd then download your texts into a computer.

I can't recall the name. I think it ran on regular alkaline AA cells. It attracted a bit of a cult following.

Edit: I think I must be thinking of the Alphasmart line - with products from 1993-2013:


Back before that, journalists used battery powered versions of the TRS-80 and even a modem to upload their texts to their news magazine.

A modern take is:


Back in the day, I had a mobile writing rig consisting of a Handspring Visor PDA, the wonderful Stowaway Keyboard (see http://danbricklin.com/log/stowaway.htm), a word processing app called Wordsmith (http://www.palminfocenter.com/news/2182/review-wordsmith-20/), and a modem that plugged into the Visor’s Springboard expansion slot.

It was great! The whole package fit in a couple pockets, you could turn it on and be typing practically instantly, and the modem made it easy to transfer your work (and also let the setup do double duty as an e-mail terminal). You could print from it wirelessly to any printer that had an IrDA (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrared_Data_Association) port. And the whole thing ran for ages on a couple of AA batteries, which were cheap and universally available when you needed to replace them. The only downside was the Visor’s low-res monochrome display, but for writing that wasn’t too serious a limitation. I still miss that rig.

The AlphaSmart products seemed like an attempt to bundle this kind of cobbled-together DIY rig into a single product with everything included in one box. I never had the chance to use them, but I was disappointed they never seemed to find an audience.

Take a look at this Z80-based product, released in 1987 too:


An old friend had one, and transferred text back/forth with a serial-connection.

I still have a Z88 somewhere in here (my office) ...

It's the granddaddy of the modern PDA and smartphone; anecdotally, some time in 1989-ish John Sculley was chairing a meeting of Apple execs and realized half of them were typing on these weird black plastic things the size of a pad of paper. Sculley wanted a pen rather than a keyboard, but got the idea that maybe Apple should develop something along these lines: a mobile computer companion device for note-taking, calendar, and productivity (back in the days when a Macintosh Portable cost $5000 and weighed 10kg because of the lead-acid batteries).

That thought eventually turned into the Newton, and the Newton in turn gave Palm their start (initially as a platform for Graffiti).

In the late 70's and early 80's there were really high end CRT word processors from companies like Xerox, Wang and Burroughs. I recall managers debating buying these versus general purpose computers.

At the time, that's mostly what you did with general purpose computers...WordStar or similar. Spreadsheets hadn't really taken off yet.

Edit: Check Google for the Xerox 860. It was the Cadillac at the time. https://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?st=1&c=488

I had a summer job around 1990 as a word processor using a Wang and a dictaphone. While this was definitely at the end of the era of the dedicated word processor, it was an interesting environment to be in. I was one of two dedicated word processors at the company.

It was quite a different world back then, because I would type up a lot of memos that would get physically posted on bulletin boards in public areas, and cc: (carbon copies), while no longer using carbon paper, meant that you were making physical cc's that were being distributed manually.

I remember being very productive with WordStar, with muscle memory better than what I have now with vim. I could type like the wind, make corrections, reformat, and print in a sort of "out of body" way where my thoughts just flowed.

I haven't really experienced that since. Maybe the single tasking environment kept me more focused.

Well, back in those days, styling choices could be incredibly limited (depending on whether you were using a green screen vs gui), especially if the word processor's output was limited to a daisy wheel printer.

I think the vast number of styling and formatting options these days can easily distract writers from... writing, which is probably why Markdown and focused writing tools have become so popular.

Very true. WordStar gave me headings, bullets, bold, italic, etc. But not much more. Kept my focus on the words.

You may find WordGrinder by David Given a treat. It is the most close resemblance of WordStar experience nowadays and it is free.

Amen. <ctrl>KP to my friends. I will check it out. The link: http://cowlark.com/wordgrinder/index.html

I remember playing with a Vydec word-processor as a kid and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.

Very cool project! Would love to have one of those :)

An acquaintance of mine pointed out that since this project was created there is a new driver in the Linux kernel for working with e-ink-displays: https://git.kernel.org/pub/scm/linux/kernel/git/torvalds/lin... (Don't know what kind of hardware it supports though.)

>However, I find the current screen refresh rate way too low.

Emacs does (or did) different things depending on the data rate of the terminal. If the rate was low enough, it would do stuff to avoid having to redraw the text.

* https://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/manual/html_node/elisp/Te...

Added: I just tried it with the rate set to 110 baud (for sentimental reasons) and emacs started leaving half the screen to fill in every time I hit the top or bottom of the screen. The general idea seemed to be to keep the cursor vertically near the middle of the screen as much as possible. Good for adding new text on a eink display. Wouldn't help if you were overwriting existing text unless you were willing to leave the old text there for a time.

I have the astrohaus freewrite, fully closed source metal case implementation of this idea. It's well done in some ways. The keyboard is great, the case and screen are good.

Where it falls down is the workflow. They require you be signed in to the device as config changes can only be done online on their website. If you don't use qwerty layout or want to change the font size you have to be online to make those changes.

While documents can be accessed locally via USB, you cannot delete a document. Only copy it.

It just has enough weirdo limitations like this that I never use it and always turn to my MacBook, a stand, and an external mechanical keyboard. I get a ton of writing done in scrivener with this setup.

If they open-sourced the freewrite it could be the dream!

"Typewriter" seems like a misnomer here. But, the article dives into grabbing a terminal emulator, ripping X11 out, and replacing it with the primitives to draw to an e-ink display. Which is more interesting to me than a typewriter.

Better if instead of a limited sw they bundled a tiny image of NetBSD/OpenWRT with ed(1) as the default text editor and spell(1).

A lot of people would hack it in order to run drotz(6) but that's a feature.

Just use `cat`.

Ed has line editing, regex and i/o.

I've owned an AlphaSmart for years, and it's a great prebuilt machine for roughly this purpose.

I type out my thoughts, plug it into my computer, hit a key and it dumps the entire thing into whatever editor you have open by emulating a USB keyboard. Great little device. Before I built my own editor, I used it all the time.

Disclaimer: Due to acquisition I now work for a company who at one time produced AlphaSmart machines. I however owned and loved the AlphaSmart prior to this.

Please tell them to start making them again!

I love this!

"Electronic typewriters" have a long history. Here's one from 1973ish:



This is fantastic. I was dying to do something like this. Tried with an ESP32 and an LCD, but just didn't have the chops to get it working.

Love it. If you're willing to make me one by hand, I'll certainly pay you for it.

If using macos and want a distraction-free writing environment, create a new user with strict parental controls. Allow access to zero web sites and limit app usage to just your word processor.

It would be easy enough to create a fold-down wrist rest at the front of the box to alleviate some of the comfort issues he mentions.

"I am easily distracted."

Well... I distracted myself with this awesome blog

Beautiful work. And witty also. Indeed restriction fuels creativity.

I wonder how many hyperlinks there are in the text that I missed. I'm reading on my phone and the styling of hyperlinks makes them completely un-discoverable (short tapping every word in the text). Why bother having any links at all with that kind of styling?

What do you mean, they all have a orange underline...?

I've got an older iPhone landlocked on an older iOS version. The old Mobile Safari version isn't showing the underlines. Once I looked at the site on a desktop browser I saw the links were styled w/ orange underlines. I haven't looked at the CSS to see why it's happening. I would have deleted the parent post here if I'd gotten to it in time.

> The mechanical keyboard is a 61 keys Chinese bootleg.

This guy obviously doesn't know anything about keyboards.

Unless you're Steve Wozniak in 1977, wood and computers never go well together. Better to buy some opaque acrylic sheets for it instead. It's about as easy to cut and glue (chemically weld actually) together and looks much better. 3D printing is also an option.

Wood is a simple and pleasant material to work with.

Back in the day I built a prototype of the vending machine with the wooden chassis to hold the electronic hardware. Later, the design was industrialized and mass produced in the quantity of hundreds. The industrial units came without the wooden parts, of course.

Mind you, no problems whatsoever. Wood did a great job!

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