Of AlphaSmarts and Changing Technology

Not long ago, writers on one of the loops I follow were talking about AlphaSmarts (and the Neos and Danas that came after them), self-contained, battery-powered keyboards developed for school children but widely adopted by writers.

AlphaSmarts, Neos, and Danas are no longer manufactured, but quite a few writers still use these distraction-free keyboards, which don’t play games or connect with the Internet. I bought mine fourteen or fifteen years ago and used it quite a bit for several years, but it’s been sitting on a bookshelf for a long time. The mention of things like corroding batteries (the Alphie operates on three ordinary AAs) made me think I should check on mine.

AlphaSmartWhen I hit the on/off button, nothing happened, so I turned it over and began pulling out old, slightly-sticky batteries. It took a screwdriver to pry the first one out, and I had to remove the entire back of the keyboard to retrieve the third one. My expectations weren’t high, but I blew the dust and battery crud out of the channel, put in three new batteries, and replaced the back of the keyboard.

When I turned it over and hit the on/off button, it not only came on, but it remembered the eight files I last wrote on it (clearly there’s a lithium battery in there somewhere). I found book reviews, newsletter articles, and the minutes of a couple of RWA chapter meetings, dated 2008.

I don’t think I’ll start using the Alphie for novel writing, but I’m typing on it now, and I may decide it’s still handy for writing short articles while sitting on the couch in front of the TV. Of course I have yet to see how well it transfers text (by USB cable) to Scrivener. I don’t think I’ve ever used the Alphie with my current computer. (Note: When I plugged the Alphie into a USB port, it took my computer a few minutes to find a suitable device driver, but once it did, the file transferred perfectly, typos and all.)

The rapid changes in everyday technology continue to amaze me. Not so many years ago, a few of my more affluent writer friends were showing off their new “thumb drives,” precious (and very expensive) gizmos that could store 128 megabytes of data. At the time that was enough space for several novel manuscripts (software was a lot simpler back in the day). Now I have flash drives all over the place, from very old and very small to ever newer and bigger, but never big enough, as my Document directory grows ever larger. The other day at Office Depot, I picked up a set of two 16 gigabyte flash drives for less than twenty bucks. I suppose the day will come when they seem small, but I’m not looking forward to it.

In yet another case of speeding technology, I find myself thinking about replacing my four-year-old keyboard Kindle. There’s nothing wrong with it, and I use it regularly. But the new Kindle Voyage is so tempting, with its larger, paper white screen, self-adjusting light, and much higher pixel per inch count. Although I still prefer to read paper books, many of my friends publish electronically these days. It seems that a good e-reader, unheard of when those first flash drives arrived or even when Alphie was born, is almost a necessity today.

I don’t think I’ll replace my relatively simple TracFone, though. It does (occasional) phone calls and text messages, and not much else, but I can’t convince myself I need more than that (or the monthly bill that comes with a smart phone). Maybe there are some areas of technology where I don’t need—or even want—to keep up.