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Think Retro: Why the cute and quirky eMate was Apple's most human product

Christopher Phin | Dec. 10, 2014
The Newton-powered eMate was stylish, friendly, and made the best noises you’ve ever heard from a device.

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Forgive me an aside: do you remember webOS, which ran on the last generation of Palm devices? Although the hardware was a little disappointing and sluggish, webOS itself was beautiful, and it was the first OS since Newton that felt friendly and human-centric to me. It's so sad it didn't survive, at least in that form. Thinking about it, I feel the same sense of unrealized potential as when I look at the list of Newton devices, which seemed to build so much momentum and to be just on the cusp of diversifying and establishing viability when a returning Steve Jobs canned it.

None of that, though, should detract from the wonder and delight of the eMate itself. I actually bought mine years ago because I wanted a small, portable and, importantly, focused writing machine. This is a common preoccupation of writers, especially of writers who write about technology: We want tools that do exactly what we need and not a single bit more. Some of that is the technologist in me. There's just something inelegant and wasteful about all the idling, unused CPU cycles on my MacBook Pro as I write this in iA Writer Pro--but most writers have a borderline-fetishistic relationship with the idea of removing distractions when they write. Some go extreme: writing long-form with pen and paper or using a manual typewriter, cut off not just from the Internet but also electricity itself. Others deliberately try to remove the possibility from their computers of doing anything other than write. (Matt Gemmell's "Working in the shed" gives some recommendations for ways you can neuter your modern Mac in this way.)

Alas, my eMate was never really used for this. Getting stuff off it was just a little trickier than I'd like-- not impossible, to be sure, but juuust too much work for me to bother--but a bigger problem was the keyboard.

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Remember, the eMate was designed and exclusively sold to the education market, and presumably at least in part because its intended audience has small hands, the keyboard isn't full-sized. It's also a little spongey, and this combination meant that I couldn't get up to my usual speed and accuracy when typing.

Regardless, there's something so charismatic and captivating about the eMate. It looms so large in the mind because it's such a peculiar and weirdly awesome little machine with such a mix of idiosyncratic innovations. The "inkwells" into which you could rest the stylus (one on each side so it didn't matter if you were right- or left-handed), the Assist button, the ability to quickly beam work to teachers or other students wirelessly using infra-red, a slide-out panel on the bottom where you could write your name and address, that handle that foreshadowed the iBook's (and which I'd welcome on even a modern Mac), and, wrapping everything, that weird, wonderful translucent emerald.


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