Alphasmart writing devices have been clutch tools for a small group of traveling writers and journalists, but times have changed.
It is easy to assume that the technologies, things, people, and places that are around us today will always be there. We know that times change but it always comes as a shock to the system when an event occurs that drives this fact home. That feeling of temporal vertigo struck me this morning when I discovered that Alphasmart writing devices are no longer being manufactured.
In fact, the company that made them had even sold out of their final stock.
The days of the Alphasmart are over.
Alphasmart writing devices are just over-glorified keyboard that can remember keystrokes. They are portable word processors that have a little screen built into them so you can see what you’re writing, and it automatically saves whatever you type in 8 or so different files. Then when you get on a computer you can plug the Alphasmart in, push a button, and it will automatically type out what you wrote onto the screen — where you can then save it, send it, edit, or publish.
Alphasmarts have no internet connectivity, no email capacity, they don’t store photos or run programs. They’re not even really computers. They are just writing devices, pure and simple, and what they lack is a large part of their appeal. When you sit down on an Alphasmart there are no distractions, no pop ups, no Facebook, no email, no temptation to “quickly” check some website. No, it’s just writing time. They are portable word processors, digital typewriters.
The Alphasmart was developed by two former Apple engineers in 1993, who intended to “develop and market affordable, portable personal learning solutions for the classroom” and “deliver affordable, lightweight, rugged portable computing devices that are expandable, easy to use and manage, and provide exceptional battery life.” In the process they created the best digital tool made for traveling writers and journalists since the ballpoint pen.
The Alphasmart was never a replacement for a laptop in a digital nomad rig, but an extension of it. Alphasmarts are sturdy, lightweight, simple, and portable machines that have more than a 900 hour battery life from three AAs. This last attribute is the most crucial, as it means they can travel way off the grid for an extended amount of time without going dead. Where the best laptop battery may give you a dozen hours, the Alphasmart gives you 37.5 days of constant use. Adventure often begins where electricity ends. I’m talking about bicycle, walking, hitchhiking, trekking, outback and backwoods journeys here — going to places where electrical outlets are not ubiquitous and free. The traveling writer with an Alphasmart can get out there, stay for an extended amount of time, and still ply their trade.
Alphasmarts can perform where laptops can’t, and for this reason I’ve been carrying one with me since 2006. I’ve used it while bicycling across Portugal, Eastern Europe, and Iceland; while going into jungles, mountains, forests, and deserts; on countless buses, trains, and planes; and when I just don’t feel like firing up laptop to type up a few notes. The Alphasmart is an indispensable writing device.
But now it is looking like these days are coming to a close. While I’m confident that I still have a lot of mileage left on my Alphasmart Neo — they have an extremely long life expectancy — and there is a good chance that I will be able to pick up second hand ones well into the future, I know that the day this writing tool will go extinct is coming.
Alphasmarts are going extinct but they are not yet obsolete. In a world of smartphones and tablets and laptops, few people are going to use such an archaic seeming technology. But most people are also not traveling writers or journalists dancing around on the fringes of the world, and Alphasmarts are of little use to them. But this simple machine has a cult following of people who do what I do, and I can only hope that we’re able stock up on enough of them to last out the duration of our careers. Maybe by then there will be solar powered computers that can go anywhere. Only then will the Alphasmart be obsolete.