The 30 Year Computer

Someone should make a computer that will last 30 years. Arguably, some made now might survive that long; however, none seem to have the surrounding support from the manufacturer to promote such long service. I have several older Macs that are still humming away nicely to themselves; but Apple itself no longer supports their software or hardware.

In the past 15 years or so, I have (or, my father has, when I was in school) spent nearly $15,000 on computer equipment. This spans my first “serious” computer, a Tandy 1000TX to my current MacBook Pro (I’m not counting the Commodore 64 from the 1980’s; though I have many fond memories of it). I’m not a “computer person.” I don’t sit for endless hours tinkering with them or collecting them or reading magazines and websites devoted to them; they are tools. I want one that works with little fuss or mental consternation on my part. When I do sit for endless hours, I’m actually using the computer to work. My main professional task now is writing; I arrange words and recommend the re-arranging of other’s words. For this I have a $3000 computer that can map out the stars in our galaxy and analyse their individual gas compositions whilst ripping my entire CD collection to an iPod and playing The Lord of the Rings on DVD. (This is the now obsolete model; I bought it five months ago—the new one can simultaneously order flowers online.)

I expect this computer to last or, at least, provide a sensible amount of service for three or four years. I only have this timeline in mind because I also edit video; the expectations for video processing, file handling, and etc. will have changed by then. If not for that, I’d imagine I’d have a longer span in mind (I know someone who still writes novels on a Mac from the late 1980’s and will probably do so for some years longer).

Recently, I came across a very simple word processor (or more like a text editor) called Write Room. It’s very easy for me to become distracted during the work day. I’m copyediting a document; oh, how am I supposed to list this; I’ll look it up online; what’s this; something is happening in Tibet; what’s the history of Tibet; better check my e-mail; should respond to that; I wonder what happened to this person; I’ll look her up online; and so on. Taking my aimless and slightly ADD mind into account, I began looking for something I could write with (besides, obviously and probably more sensibly, paper) that would reduce distractions. Write Room displays only a black screen and text; it’s similar to an old DOS word processor. Now it occurs to me, why do I need any of this extraneous stuff at all? Update: I’ve now started using LaTeX, which is far more potent with a bit steeper learning curve, but is amazing for academic writing.

In the basement of my parent’s place, there is an IBM Selectric typewriter from the 1960’s; it still runs perfectly. One can sit down, switch it on, put in a sheet of paper, and begin typing. It has, for more than 30 years, done what it was made to do. I’ve a camera that can use lenses from the past 50 years and the same film that’s been manufactured from the past 100 or so. It’s built like a fine watch and, if maintained, will outlast me (of course, maybe nobody will actually make film for it by then, but this is a separate discussion). Why, with all the technology and accumulated design experience from the past 25 years of home computers, can someone not produce a computer with the same principle? This would be a computer that just deals with words. Writing and, perhaps, e-mail would be its main and only apparent purpose.

Here is my challenge as a list of attributes this computer should have (to all the computer designers and manufacturers who, I’m sure, read this blog daily. Keep in mind, each of these components must last 30 years; they must be durable and serviceable):

  • It would have a really good keyboard (like the old IBM clicky keyboards or the newer Mac laptops. Writers eat around their desks, the keyboard must be easily cleaned of dust and debris. Multiple language sets and interchangeable function keys are a must).
  • The case should be metal (or of a plastic that will not yellow over time).
  • The case would be aesthetically pleasing; maybe make it like a cross between an old Royal Typewriter and a Tandy CoCo—something that has a bit of retro design. It would also be beautifully made, like a piece of fine Hi-Fi equipment.
  • There will be no need for a mouse. The user could use one if he or she wanted. But, we are just talking about text; we should be able to navigate with the keyboard.
  • It will have an internal switching power supply for worldwide use as well as a 12v input (and the 12v input would not be some fussy little proprietary plug, it would be an XLR type connector like those used in pro film and video gear).
  • It would have limited expandability (it’s just going to do what it does).
  • It will have VGA, DVI, and plain old video out.
  • It could possibly have a matching monitor (portrait or horizontal orientation).
  • Of course, it will have a printer port (matching printer as well with the same 30 year specs? It would have to be something that prints with ink that will last and that won’t have some toss-away ink cartridge that one can’t find anwhere after a couple years. Spooled typewriter ribbons anyone?)
  • There will be a “disk drive.” Not only the drive mechanism, but the media has to last 30 years. I’m not sure what that means as far as design. Some optical media is touted as “100 year archival;” does it have a built in CD drive? Some manner of MO drive? I recently found some 3.5 inch floppies from the early 90’s and read them with no problem; however, I do hear many stories of writers pulling out their WordStar floppies from the 80’s and going through all manner of permutations to get information from them. There should be a dedicated effort to commit to some format for the storage and archiving of written materials.
  • The computer itself would have internal storage (all solid state, no moving parts inside if possible) enough to store and index the writer’s work for the next 30 years (obviously, this would depend on how prolific he or she is; but we are just talking about words and one can pack a lot words into the types of memory we have at hand now).
  • The manufacturer would offer a service for all users that backs up the system onto a remote server (there would be an ethernet connection). Over this connection, the manufacturer would assess the “health” of the computer as well and perform whatever updates are necessary. There could also be an e-mail service specifically for users of this computer, as well as a service that connects writers to their editors (the whole system would need to promote easy collaboration between writers and editors or groups of writers working on projects).
  • The underlying system would be UNIX or Linux; should be Open Source and accessible. I’m imagining, since this is such a durable and serviceable unit, it would also appeal to scientists and others working in extreme environments.
  • It would have several of the best text-based word processors and editors ported to it; in lieu of the “stock” set-up, one could run one’s preferred word processor (though I think the manufacturer, in order to reasonably guarantee long-term service and compatibility, would standardise on one set-up).
  • It must run efficiently; as it will not need a super-processor, this should be the most power-efficient and coolest-running computer ever built.
  • It should have at least a 10 year warranty.

There must be room for a computer like this on the market. It would appeal to all of us who fondle our Moleskine notebooks and obsess over what pencil to use. The pen and notebook companies have long realised the mystically aesthetic component to writing; why (except, perhaps with the exception of Apple) have no computer manufacturers? Actually, why doesn’t Apple make this? They have the technical ability, for sure. This would be a niche market that would not drain extensively from their core sales. They certainly have the marketing clout and know how to promote it well, The Writer’s Computer—a legacy computer for generations to come. As I said above, as long as I’m working with media, I’ll still need a second computer (which, rather argues away the financial aspect of this proposal on my part). I doubt there are many hold-outs on the concept of buying a computer for writing; but I’m sure there are many writers who buy cheap PC’s to work with. After all, why would I need a fancy Mac just to do word processing? Apple, make a computer like this that appeals on multiple levels specifically to writers and you could open yourself up to a whole new market! You’ve already got the UNIX system down for this, just strip away the wonderful GUI you’ve put over top of it and make the most unique text-based computer ever. I will volunteer to beta test for sure.

Update with some further thoughts: I’ve recently upgraded to the latest version of OSX; it’s. . .quite keen. My further question is: Apple, do you have the nerve to make a computer akin to the one outlined above that runs the current OS and then support it for 30 years? Beyond this, is it possible to make technological goods that last indefinitely? E.g a watch from 1890 can be maintained and run “forever”. Why can we not aim for something similar with computers?