Prose: The distraction-free, e-ink laptop that should exist

This Should Exist is a series in which I explore some ideas for things that don’t exist yet, but should. These ideas are open source: I may work on one or more of them at some point, but you’re welcome to take a stab at them too. If you use any of my work, an attribution and/or an invitation to collaborate is appreciated!

What is it?

Prose is a minimal, e-ink laptop for focused writing, reading, and thinking.

Imagine a standard e-reader, like a Kindle. Now add a keyboard. Maybe a stylus too. Now you’ve got a book, a notebook, and a typewriter all in one.

Unlike the backlit, colorful screen of a laptop or tablet, Prose’s screen would look like a soothing sheet of paper that you could work on all day without glare or eye strain. It would last days on a single charge. And since its sole purpose is to help you focus, its software would be distraction-free by default.

Why do we need it?

Our devices demand a lot from us. Too much, really.

Computers, tablets, and phones are marvels of engineering. As a designer and photographer, I can really appreciate the color-rich, pixel-dense screens that are now on every device. But these devices are also power-hungry portals into a dystopian hellscape of notifications, advertisements, and distractions, all clawing at each other for our limited attention. We’ve hit peak pixel.

It’s time to take our time and our attention back. There are plenty of workarounds and apps that help us with this, but we need a device that’s built from the ground up with clarity and focus at its core.

Prose wouldn’t completely replace all the glossy, needy screens in your life. But, like a trusty Moleskine notebook, it would be a companion for the times when you want to turn off everything and be still with your thoughts.

Who is it for?

  • The writer, working on the latest chapter of his book in a sunlit park.
  • The student, taking notes in class without distractions.
  • The journalist, working on a story while embedded in the field.
  • The traveler, blogging on a train without a power outlet in sight.
  • The nature lover, learning about plants from Wikipedia, miles from Wifi.
  • The recovering net addict, forming a better relationship with her devices.
  • Anyone who wants to think clearly and spend their time wisely.

How might it work?

Connectivity

There are a lot of ways to approach connectivity. One straightforward approach is to limit the device to Bluetooth only, syncing data with your phone/laptop but never touching the web directly.

But here’s a different approach:

A physical slider above the keyboard would toggle between three modes:

  • Disconnected: This is the default mode. You never open the device to the web. The slider always resets itself when you close the lid.
  • Local Mesh: This mode connects your Prose any other Proses nearby. This means you could share notes with classmates or work with a colleague on a document, without ever going online. This would also backup your Prose on any phones/computers you’ve synced it with.
  • Online: This connects your Prose to the web via Wifi or cell. You’d be able to access a stripped-down version of the web, similar to what you get when you send a page or article to Pocket. You could choose to sync any data locally so that it’s accessible offline. You could also set a timer to reset the slider and kick you offline after you’ve been on for some time.

The toggle seems promising because it could train people to be more intentional about how they choose to connect. And building in mesh networking would make the device handy in off-the-grid/zombie apocalypse situations. But a first version of Prose could do without it.

Software

Prose would be extremely useful if all it had was the ability to read and write. And that’s probably where a device like this would start.

But you could imagine an operating system and set of apps that were custom-made to strengthen focus, increase clarity, and reinforce healthy daily habits.

For instance, each app might ask you to set an intention for how you’d like to use it and when. You may decide to use an outlining app to plan your day each morning, or use the writing app to journal 750 words each evening. Prose would then queue those up for you at just the right time. (You could override the queues of course, and there would be a one-button shortcut to start a new composition from anywhere.)

The software could track your progress, and show you how long of a streak you’ve got going: a time-tested way of reinforcing good habits.

Here are some apps that would likely be native or available from third parties:

  • Reader (e-books and RSS)
  • Writer
  • Notes (+ sketches if stylus is included)
  • Meditation timer
  • Outliner (e.g. Workflowy)
  • Reading network (e.g. Goodreads)
  • Goal tracker
  • ToDo list
  • Podcasts & audiobooks
  • Email
  • Offline Wikipedia
  • Dictionary & Thesaurus
  • Knowledgebase (e.g. Notion)
  • Social journaling (e.g. Patchwork/Scuttlebutt)
  • Voting (for decision-making over mesh)

Has anyone tried this?

The following things are close but no cigar…

Currently Available:

  • Freewrite: An e-ink writer in the monstrous, non-portable body of a typewriter. There’s no editing interface, so it’s basically an expensive typewriter knockoff with none of the benefits of digital (except for document export, of course).
  • Remarkable: A lovely e-ink tablet with stylus… but no external keyboard!
  • Hybrid Laptops: The Microsoft Surface, Lenovo Yogabook, and others have detachable/backfolding keyboards that convert laptops into tablets. But they still use power-hungry, distracting displays.
  • Onyx Reader + Bluetooth Keyboard: I tried this one out, but the Android OS wasn’t made for e-ink screens and it is painfully laggy.

Never Made / Discontinued:

  • Boox Typewriter: The maker of some of the best e-ink tablets made a prototype for an e-ink laptop. Sadly, they dropped it.
  • Scripto: A nice product proposal that doesn’t look like it was produced.
  • Kindleberry Pi: A hacked-together solution that seemed to work well, but its creator says that Kindle has since made it harder to jailbreak devices.

Do you want this to exist?

Let’s display demand for this product. The more people who express that they want this, the more likely it is that someone will create it. In addition to applauding/sharing, if you put your email in this box, I’ll send you a note if I come across anyone making something like this.

The designs and concepts presented here are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International