When classic tech pisses off “new” tech


(Updated 11 Dec: see bottom of post)

In 2014 Astrohaus Kickstarted a “smart keyboard” called the Hemingwrite to the tune of nearly $350,000. Since then they released it onto the regular retail market, and it’s now called the Freewrite. 

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The Freewrite is a single-purpose, distraction-free writing tool. You type on a Cherry-MX mechanical keyboard, your words are displayed on a tiny e-ink screen, and you can upload your text to Dropbox or Google Drive via the Freewrite website. Because of the lack of features the Freewrite can last a month on one charge.

True, the Freewrite was hailed by some aspretentious hipster nonsense”, but while a couple of post-use reviews have indicated it’s a product better in the imagining than the using,  others have found it a useful tool for the easily distracted.

I am easily distracted. On many occasions I have gazed longingly at the Freewrite, but the US$499 price tag (plus $30 for a felt case) made this an impossible purchase.

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Astrohaus market the Freewrite as “the world’s first smart typewriter” but this is untrue. Because AlphaSmart.

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AlphaSmart (later Renaissance Learning, then NEO Direct) manufactured smart typewriters from 1993 to 2013. The units are lightweight portable word processors, with a tiny LCD screen. They run on 3x AA batteries, which will keep them going for 700 hours aka a bloody long time. And they let you write in a distraction-free environment because they can’t connect to the net. To transfer your text to your laptop you just plug in a USB cable. The most popular models are the Neo and the Neo2. Secondhand units run from $20-$50 on Amazon and eBay. AlphaSmart units have been successes with writers since long before the Freewrite, so the introduction of the Freewrite inevitably brought a screed of comparison articles, which basically said the AphaSmart and the Freewrite do the same thing, but one costs a monthly rent payment.

Because I couldn’t afford a Freewrite in this lifetime, I bought an AlphaSmart and I have never regretted it for a second. These things are rugged as hell and fit inside a standard laptop cover. So, all good, right? Astrohaus make a cool-looking aluminium smart typewriter with lovely keys for those with a lot of money. Second-hand AlphaSmart units get exactly the same job done but earn you no hipster points. Yay, consumer choice in a capitalist system.

Then yesterday Astrohaus announced a “buyback” where you send them your AlphaSmart, and they give you $50 off a Freewrite.

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Astrohaus know users compare the products, and they don’t like the results. So here’s what I want to know: what is Astrohaus doing with the AlphaSmart units they collect? Because I’m having Will It Blend visions.

AlphaSmarts are fucking awesome and a brilliant example of what tech can be: a sound, practical, rugged, incredibly versatile device that will function under the most adverse of conditions. This is literally a unit you could hand down to your kids.

Good scenario: Astrohaus donate the AlphaSmart units to communities and schools – particularly ones without consistent reliable power – to use for learning and creating.

Bad scenario: Astrohaus scraps the AlphaSmarts and removes a competitor from the consumption chain, one machine at a time.

Wow, the dark side of capitalist choice has never been so starkly illustrated.

I’ve asked Astrohaus on Twitter what they’re doing with the AlphaSmart units, as have others, but no response yet. Do me a favor? Tweet Astrohaus and ask them. If enough of us work together maybe we can get some useful tech donated to people who can use it. Because the alternative is pointless to everyone except Astrohaus.

Update 11 Dec:

I heard back from Astrohaus via Twitter.

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I find it difficult to believe donating them was their plan from the beginning: they would have partnered with someone, promoted this from the offset, and worked out the logistics of physically redistributing hundreds/thousands of units. But I’m glad that’s their plan now. Thanks to those who reached out to Astrohaus to get an answer on this.

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