computers

The Mobile Computer I Want

table of contents

My phone has been bumming me out lately. I’ve decided to fantasize about my ideal mobile computer, a rough description of which is as follows.

The Dragonbox Pyra comes pretty close to everything I want. The original Dragonbox device, the Pandora, was released in 2008 and still receives OS updates, and you can still buy any replacement parts needed.

Screen

I’m ready to be done with back-lit, full-color, battery-busting displays. My ideal computer would have a 5”-6” front-lit e-ink display, ideally in color. Color e-ink has suffered through various fits and starts over the last 5 or so years, most recently being announced by E Ink (the company) for digital signage at the SID Display Week exhibition in May. There are some obvious use-cases that e-ink isn’t well-suited for (watching videos, playing fast-paced games), but the things that e-ink is good for (reading and writing text) is exactly what I want my computer to encourage me to do more of. (Besides, Sonic the Hedgehog running on a Nook Simple Touch from 2011 has me not too worried about actual refresh rate when I want to watch a video or something.)

CPU and Antennas

There are some cool mini-computers that use a Raspberry Pi, and that was where my intuition took me first. But for my main computer, I’d like something a little bit more powerful and flexible. Although it’s not finished yet, the lowRISC system-on-a-chip seems to be just about the perfect candidate.

The Blackberry Priv, Blackberry's first phone not running BBOS. The keyboard doubles as a trackpad for swiping and moving the cursor in text areas, as with other recent Blackberry phones. The lack of removable battery is the main thing that kept me from getting it.

For antennas, my computer would only have WiFi, GPS, and accelerometer onboard. There would also be a separate USB module (or a couple) for FM radio, bluetooth, NFC, SIM card, and cellular antennas. (A camera and microphone would also be in a separate USB module.) I prefer to keep it lean with only the necessities.

Ports

All the ports! I want to be able to hook up an external keyboard, mouse, and display to put together whatever workspace I want as a “dumb terminal” that plugs into my computer. Microsoft and Canonical have notably been pushing in this direction recently (with Windows 10 and Unity 8, respectively), and the Dragonbox devices are perfectly suited to it. Luckily, we don’t need any new technology to pull it off, we just need to revert the trend of fewer and fewer ports on computers. This sort of setup obviously can’t cater to everybody (AAA gamers, people compiling big codebases, people using CAD), but I think it could be a big step when we can realistically only own one computer and connect it to various workspace configurations, rather than having some combination of smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, work computer, smart TV, and game console–all with their own CPUs. Movement in this direction would make different computing environments cheaper and more accessible (for people who now can only afford a smartphone, for example).

The Fairphone 2 is the only smartphone to ever receive a 10/10 repairability score from iFixit. Fairphone (a Dutch company) is also the only smartphone producer that I'm aware of that uses only conflict-free materials in its phones.

Specifically, I’d like to have a couple USB-B slots (either USB 2 or 3), one or two USB-C slots, ethernet, HDMI (either micro or full-size), and a 3.5mm headset port.

Modularity

Upgradeability, durability, and repairability are of the utmost importance for my computer. It should take heed from computers like older ThinkPads, the Fairphone 2, and the DragonBox Pyra. It should encourage the replacement of the battery (which should be giant, by the way), and make accessible each of the other boards, sealed only by Phillips screws. This thing should be built to last on the scale of one to two decades (or more).

Keyboard

Although software keyboards have made significant gains in the last few years (mostly by getting creative with swiping), they’re still woefully inferior to hardware keyboards. The effect this has on defining the purpose of a device is massive; getting any kind of productive work done with a software keyboard is left only to a dedicated few. For most intents and purposes, it just won’t cut it. This leaves keyboardless smartphones and tablets fully in the realm of devices made for consumption.

The Amazon Kindle DX, from 2009, with a giant 10 inch e-ink display ticks a few of my boxes, but is no longer available new.

Although I’d like to have some room for consumption (long texts, blog posts, music, and podcasts come to mind), I want my computer to cater to creativity and productivity. The current market for devices that fill this niche is underwhelming, to say the least. On my computer, the keyboard would sit under the portrait-situated screen (i.e. not a slider). It would have the full set of keys from full-sized keyboards, and would include the ability to swipe across the keyboard to move the cursor (shamelessly stolen from recent Blackberry keyboards).

Software

The duopoly in mobile operating systems has left us with gimped computers that are meant to favor app stores over the open web (and–to beat a dead horse–to encourage consumption). My computer would start with coreboot or libreboot, and allow the user to use whichever OS they’d prefer. By default, it’d perhaps come with either Debian or rooted Android (probably of the Copperhead OS variety) for ease of use. Regardless, allowing the user to have full control over the software is paramount.


The monoculture of smartphone and tablet design is disappointing. The dominance of iOS and Android–to the exclusion of most other competitors like Blackberry, Windows, Mozilla, Jolla–does no one any favors (well, no end users at least). At least among my peers in my generation, it would seem very strange to most if someone didn’t have either an Android or iOS phone, let alone if someone didn’t carry a smartphone at all.

My main beef with this situation is that almost all of these phones are unabashedly computers meant for consumption and convenience over all else. Whereas computers with hardware keyboards and many ports and bigger screens are as effective of tools for creativity as they are for consumption, our modern slabs mostly hinder any chances for creativity (or, at least, they offer no where near the capacity for productivity that the aforementioned computers do). What I was really thinking about when describing my ideal mobile computer is how I could combine all of the benefits of laptops, e-readers, and smartphones into one. I want to have as much power as I do on my laptop with the portability of my smartphone.

On the web, we’ve seen a long and gradual shift toward the centralization of content and services at the server level (AWS) and the service level (Facebook, Google, etc.), instead of the spreading out of power. ISPs have increasingly exerted more control and made it impractical to run any type of server at home (the suggestion itself sounds almost absurd) by reducing upload times to near zero, and blocking ports needed to run home servers. To me, this gradual centralization of web services and inability to run servers from home seems parallel and analogous to the gradual shift toward computers that are useful only for consumption.

In one sense, it’s wonderful that cheap smartphones have enabled so many to access the web. I should note that I wouldn’t suggest that all consumption is necessarily a bad thing. For example, access to information via Wikipedia, books via Project Gutenberg, classes via Khan Academy, repair tutorials via iFixit, and countless other sources can all be wonderful modes of consumption. But, it seems like as our devices cater more and more toward consumption and reliance on centralized services (rather than productivity and independence), the feedback loop that centralizes services will only be added to, empowering manufacturers and service providers at the expense of users.