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    This sounds like the computer you want, but what makes you think it’s the computer “we” (the majority of people) want/need? It sounds like you want a typewriter with a little display on it somewhere. We had those 30+ years ago, they sold ok, but when laptops appeared people found they liked those better. (A small niche market of writers did form a cult following of these devices.) What evidence do you have that people would want to return?

    Your concerns are all about text entry. Most people are not writers or coders. Many people create things with computers that are not textual — drawings, photographs, movies, animations, music — and require or benefit from large color screens. Or that are textual but based more on manipulation of lots of displayed text, like spreadsheets or page layouts.

    The goal of “build a computer that will last for 50 years” has a certain appeal, but why would I want to use a 50-year-old computer? If I had a perfectly working PDP-11 in my house it would make a cool objet d’art (i love the front panel) but I wouldn’t use it for anything serious. Twenty years from now would I be satisfied using a 1992 PC/Mac instea of whatever is state of the art then? Jesus, no. I know some retro enthusiasts like playing with these old systems, but good luck selling them to a mass market.

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      I think a little more technical flexibility would take us a long way towards some of the goals outlined in the original “a computer to last 50 years” article without sacrificing so much (actually, practically everything) in technical terms.

      For example, lots of laptop discarding happens around trivia: broken keyboards that are too expensive to replace in service and too difficult to replace at home, broken displays that are super expensive to replace because the parts are hard to source on an open market, dead batteries that are hard to replace because they’re soldered and/or the cells can’t be sourced anymore.

      Lots of these things are technically trivial to resolve, with minor (sometimes 0, in the first two cases) compromises. The PR machine that made the bezel fashionable would have a field day selling a slightly thicker laptop that’s sustainable and reduces waste, so users (and corporate acquisitions departments) would absolutely want them, whether they realize it or not.

      Lots of computer waste in general is in the form of poor-quality peripherals. Back when laptops were more expensive and desktops were the norm, you’d see discarded keyboards all over the place. Twenty years ago, sixty bucks or so got me a basic, but good quality Logitech membrane keyboard that I still use today – the only visible problem is that some of the keys are slightly deformed, and most of the keys no longer have visible labels after twenty years of constant use.

      An embarrassing number of modern computers give out mechanically or electrically before they become obsolete. Back when I started doing freelance work full time I had no idea if it’d work, so I didn’t want to invest much, and my first work machine was a seven year-old i3 laptop that worked just fine. Using a seven year-old machine for development in 2003 would’ve been unthinkable.

      So I think that, with Moore’s law having been dead and buried for like a decade now, just mandating basic repair rights and/or educating users about peripherals would take us a long way towards long-lasting computers. Not fifty-year computers, but “a computer that you get to keep for ten years” is totally doable, and keeping some of the bulkier innards for longer than that is doable, too.

      And you can just run some fancy distraction-free app on it to make it feel like a typewriter if that’s your thing, I dunno, I just use emacs :-).

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        The part of this that actually does sound appealing to a large-ish swath of people is figuring out a way to do durable media. If I could buy a hard drive that I could fill with family photos and keep on a book shelf for 15-20 years, that would be huge! As it stands, I suspect unless I’m quite lucky I’ll either not be able to read any data at all, or will have some loss of data due to corruption.

        This situation directly drives the phenomenon where most people keep all their data on some corporate server in the cloud for safety. If your data was “paper book” level safe sitting on your shelf, then I suspect a lot of people would skip their $10/month Dropbox bill.

        The M-Disc kind of gets at this, but it’s write-once-read-only media (WORM), and thus more of a headache than most people are up for. Also, they’re no longer manufactured, computers don’t have drives for them, etc.

        Ideal solution might be a cassette of optical media, with some firmware that can create a “write-several-times, read-many” interface using something like a log structured file system that knows how to defragment data to allow you to replace expended discs. If the thing could accept Apple Airdrop, it could be a pretty slick addition to create some durable memories in a mobile/ephemeral content-consumption world.

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          From what I’ve heard, durable mass media is a difficult and unsolved problem. I’m not aware of anything on the market that can be expected to last longer than a decade. Apparently the current solution is to copy archives onto new media periodically.

          I know there are research groups working on things like 3D crystals with microscopic holes burned into them with lasers, but those are still in the lab…

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            Blu-ray is >10 years easily (100s of years theoretical as per ISO testing). If we hadn’t paused R&D due to streaming video taking off we’d probably be looking at another 5-10x bump in density/cost reduction — which would be sufficient to build an “infrequent write”, multi-disc consumer storage solution that could feasibly store the sorts of data volumes common today.

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              Really?! I guess I just assumed it would be similar to CD where the metal layer eventually starts oxidizing. But are there Blu-Ray recorders?

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                As I understand it the issue with CD / DVD longevity is that they use organic dyes, whereas the Bluray is an inorganic phase change that is more stable over time. And yes, an external USB 3.1 version is ~$100.

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blu-ray_Disc_recordable#HTL_(high_to_low) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CD-R#dyes

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          Your concerns are all about text entry.

          As a programmer, I get the most power by being able to enter text. I understand that some tools allow people to create effectively on a touch screen: I saw an artists work on drawings, I saw my youngest brother build an animation through what looked like a Bret Victor-esque scripting engine with an effectiveness that seemed to exceed my own skills with an IDE . But to make or modify those, we need text.

          Text entry, I believe, is a requirement to general computation.

          It is also the hardest thing to sell: while better screens are just better, better text entry methods require learning. That’s why we’re still stuck with QWERTY (I’m not, but this is a source of friction). If we’re in it for the long run, text input is probably the thing we should think about the hardest.

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            Text entry is a requirement. But every computer, just about, supports it. Yes, most keyboards are onscreen and/or crappy. But most people don’t need the absolute best keyboard, for the same reason most people don’t need the absolute best drill or wrench or fountain pen.

            Programmers are a niche. A computer optimized for programmers might be cool, but don’t expect to interest the rest of the population in it.

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            We haven’t exhausted the skill ceiling on computing systems designed for experts and we all benefit from exploration of this space. The only benefit of building for mass appeal is it’s easier to build a billion dollar corporation around.

            The chief reason to build a computer that’s useful for 50 years is to insulate one’s personal computing environment from outside pressure to upgrade. Upgrading should be an aesthetic and financial choice, not a necessity to keep your household functional.

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            This is all about laptops. I understand a lot of people really need a portable computer, but I think it is worth considering what it is asking to ask for a computer that you can take everywhere with you and it still lasts for 50 years. The desktop hardware I currently have will probably last decades if looked after, some minor parts might fail and need to be replaced but the big expensive components should last a good long time. It also does not suffer from many of the drawbacks mentioned here.

            A laptop has to handle impacts, being dropped, being sat on, getting wet, getting hot, getting cold, in 50 years of constant use all of these will happen. Don’t get me wrong I would love to see a ruggedised laptop on the market that could last 50 years but I probably wouldn’t rush out to buy it. The extra cost and weight would probably be significant, and I would want it to be constructed according to the principles of ‘right to repair’ and upgradeable in a modular way which is a whole other layer of problems.

            In short, while I agree with pretty much everything in the article, it sounds like a description of a desktop pc running open source software, written in a parallel universe where no such thing exists.

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              Man, remember netbooks? One of those, a wireless hotspot and a VPN/tunnel of some sort to a home desktop used to be my dream computing setup. I get the unbridled compute of a desktop-class processor with a super-portable method of access.

              Granted, this would not have been great from the perspective of screen real estate, but I’m kind of sad there don’t seem to be any devices like that any more.

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                The ones I had experience with had really crappy hardware. Awful trackpads, mushy keyboards, dingy displays. And they broke a lot.

                Get an iPad and an attached keyboard, install an SSH terminal, and you’ve basically got what you’re asking for.

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                  It’s still an option. You can still buy tiny laptops for less than £100 or connect a keyboard to your smartphone or tablet.

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                There is a lot I don’t agree about this article on a big picture and small picture scale.

                In the big picture scale it’s not clear to me why we should pursue a “forever computer”. It’s like us getting together and deciding on a forever parchment, because obviously goatskin is the best and this new fangled papyrus thing is clearly inferior and only meant to be used by gossips and other frivolous users.

                There will be no forever computer, because there is no forever thing, especially in something as young and fast developing as electronic computing machines. Applying survival bias to antique typewriters does not convince me at all, especially as an argument for keyboards.

                The key reason why my child started to use a computer at an age when I was still sucking on wooden toys, is touch screens and graphical icons. The next significant evolution of the computer interface will have an even more immediate physical representation - perhaps a virtual three dimensional haptic field.

                On the small picture scale:

                “consuming and producing content” was a disease and not something we ever wanted to do as humans.

                Even hunter-gatherer communities had oral storytelling traditions. As a story teller myself, if only at the level of telling my child bedtime stories made up on the spot, I feel that consuming and producing content is a key aspect of enriching our lives and the wisdom that the class of quotes like “man does not live by bread alone” encapsulates.

                I think this article is making a mistake by assuming that the age of social media is fundamentally different from any other age. To me social media is no different than gossip at the watering hole/bar/office water cooler except that anonymity is much easier. That is both a blessing and a curse, like most things.

                Social media and online markets are only a few of the innovations electronic computing has brought us. And electronic computing is just another link in a long, ongoing chain of technological advancement, where we extend the capabilities of our bodies.

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                  perhaps a virtual three dimensional haptic field

                  Wow, that’s wild. I’d love something like that! It’s like tactile joy of mechanical keyboards taken to the next level. I think it would also do wonders for adding “affordances” to interfaces, since one of the current trends seems to be (especially in Apple software) to hide things under gestures you just “have to know”.

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                    To me social media is no different than gossip at the watering hole/bar/office water cooler except that anonymity is much easier.

                    It’s not just anonymity — Real Name policies have been tried, and only make things worse. The bigger problems are scale and context collapse.

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                    I just finished looking the StarWars series Andor (highly recommended even to those who don’t know or like StarWars). On episode 5 there’s a nice discussion about Free Software and Free Hardware, briefly foreshadowed on episode 3: being free from the Empire requires renouncing its tech.

                    We don’t care about 50 years computers. We care about a 50 years computing. Some reliable way to do computey stuff that we can build upon and preserve in the long term. It’s okay for the hardware to break down, as long as renewing it doesn’t burn or depletes our planet (global warming, finite resources, small stuff), and our data (including our programs) can be ported over to a new unit (unlike poor StarWars’ droid minds).

                    I believe this starts with software. You want to make computers learnable? Then we need human sized systems. Not the two hundred million lines (10K books) of code a typical consumer device will rely on, and takes 200 years for even a genius to read. We need something like 1 book, like Nilkaus Wirth’s Oberon system, or the STEPS project. Something small, capable, and cheap. We should be able to run it on emulators, virtual machines… or older computers, with something like Y2K capabilities.

                    Oh, and forget about backward compatibility. We can keep IP, TCP, and UDP, everything else is up for discussion.

                    On the hardware side, we should look into how to do the most with the least. The most extreme hardcore among us might restrict themselves to TTY or CMOS logic gates, or sufficiently reversed engineered FPGA chips that can be programmed with Free Software only. We should almost certainly have direct hardware support for common tasks that would otherwise have prohibitive performance requirements: cryptography, error correction, encoding…

                    On the form factor side, I like the idea of being able to just hold my screen in front of my eye like a book. I also like the ability to do that and type text. At the same time, I mean. And for this I have an idea that I’ve seen tried only once, in an obscure picture I can no longer find: put the keyboard on the back of the screen. Each hand would have its own half, oriented to match its natural orientation (so the rows would be close to vertical). This likely requires a 60% keyboard or less with a couple layers, but I could dream about typing on it as fast as I am typing now.

                    Such a keyboard would be bulky of course, so we could imagine sliding the screen on and off it at will. One ideal computer to try this on I believe would be a Nintendo switch.

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                      We don’t care about 50 years computers. We care about a 50 years computing.

                      Thank you! You summarized it better.

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                      I think the Raspberry Pi 400 is/was an interesting nod in the direction of a keyboard-first computer, but sadly it doesn’t look like a very good keyboard: https://hackaday.com/2020/11/02/new-raspberry-pi-400-is-a-computer-in-a-keyboard-for-70/

                      I’d love to see what e.g. Keyboardio would do with the concept, with a split mechanical keyboard, open hardware, and high quality components.

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                        You could get most of the experience of this with a regular smartphone and a wireless keyboard of your choice. If you want to be able to connect to other screens or peripherals then you could add a usb-c dock or connect the devices with wifi.

                        I don’t think this keyboard-focused vision of mobile computing is a good fit for most people, though.

                        I think I would rather see legislation passed to force phone companies to produce longer lasting phones that are cheaper to repair, recycle, and possibly also upgrade (I’m imagining more rugged phones; fewer designs; a focus on repair and recycling at the design stage; and sharing tools and information more freely). Software for phones and tablets would have to accommodate more people having older phones, too.

                        The legislative levers would be stuff like forcing manufacturers to pay the expected cost of recycling each device when it is sold (and not accepting fake recycling schemes or exploitative labour in the recycling chain); making a market for recycled materials by banning materials produced in exploitative conditions; right-to-repair stuff; etc etc. Maybe public funding for lightweight & open-source alternatives for common software (e.g. OS, chat apps, social media, maps); limits on the amount of spyware bullshit apps are allowed to do, etc.

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                          Building any machine that lasts 50 years takes some work. The durable tech artifacts like typewriters and guns and mechanical watches and so on that tend to last a long time with minimal maintenance are also precision machines that are massively over-engineered, basically because they have to be very tough to keep that precision. How many, say, chairs, bicycles and pocket calculators are still around from the 1970’s? A lot more than zero, sure, but not that many.

                          Also, unlike bicycles and can openers, computers have a lot of components inside such as northbridge chips and drive controllers that are basically manufacturer-specific. If you want to replace a part in them 45 years from now then you either need a donor system or you need a manufacturer still producing those parts.

                          I’d personally be really happy with a computer explicitly designed to last 10 years; there’s plenty out there that are this old, but mostly by accident.

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                            Many 1970s Schwinns are still in service, because they were sold with a lifetime warranty and thus designed to not need much servicing in spite of being mostly sold to young people who were not expected to treat them gently.

                            As a tradeoff to meet their durability constraints at their price point, they were generally very heavy machines built with technology that was seen as outdated even when new— 50-70% heavier than many competing bicycles, with clunky 1950s derailleur and shifter designs that didn’t have a wide range of gears (which meant lower-precision and lower-maintenance complements worked just fine). Their frame was also mass-produced via a very unique technology, but it required huge capital expenditures and would have been very expensive to adapt to changing tastes: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/varsity.html

                            They are still pleasant machines to ride in the right circumstances— flat terrain without a lot of starting & stopping, which is why I am content keeping a $75 1970s Schwinn as the bike I ride when I visit my parents in Wisconsin— but Schwinn nevertheless went bankrupt (and is now a Walmart brand) because customers wanted lighter, more capable machines and were willing to accept a bicycle less likely to last 50 years in exchange.

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                              Thanks for the story! This is a great example of the tradeoffs involved. (Now that I look up pictures, I think my mom had one of those bikes in the early 1990’s.)

                              I’m curious, do you know what the market for parts is like? Have any companies cropped up making reasonable replacement parts, or are people just steadily cannibalizing old bikes? I’d guess the former, since it’s relatively easy to make moderate amounts of simple shapes out of steel, but…

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                                Bike parts are reasonably standard regardless of make & model especially on steel frames from US, English, and Japanese manufacturers. Velo Orange is one company that’s really marketed themselves as a maker of parts for old bikes, but they are the nice maker in a market that also includes free parts bins at a community bike kitchen.

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                                  I do still ride a bike built on a frame from around 1980 with parts mostly from the 2010s as a winter training bike (after many years of service as a 4-season commuter). There are only a few major mechanical interfaces (bottom bracket, headset, seatpost, brake mounts) on a bike frame, and, as mentioned, they mostly became globally standardized by the ISO around 1980 for ‘normal bikes’, although there has been an explosion of proprietary parts over the past decade on a lot of high-end bikes for the sake of weight/aerodynamics/stiffness/etc.

                                  For a bike like a 1970s Schwinn, mostly built to older American standards, one often needs to dig through the parts bin at a community bike kitchen or hunt things down on eBay. But everything is very durable & rebuildable so replacement parts other than brake pads & chains are rarely necessary.

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                            I don’t have giant screens “so they can consume me while I consume media” you self-righteous prick, I have them so I can switch windows using my eyes, because they’re fast and built-in.

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                              I like big screens because then I can have real big fonts.

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                                There’s a Mix-a-Lot joke in here somewhere.

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                              I do agree with the sentiment of wanting a low-tech laptop. Sometimes I just want to read wikipedia or write an article. It’s absolutely ridiculous that you need to spend multiple thousands of dollars to get a barely acceptable user experience (this is not exaggerating; I have a desktop that I spent 3k on, it has 16 cores, 64GB of RAM. It boots fairly fast, but chrome still crashes, VS code and Steam don’t boot instantly. Games still just randomly fail to boot). I deeply believe that computers is something we collectively fucked up, massively. Computers are billions of times faster than human beings. Yet, we have succeeded at making an impenetrable mess of complexity where somehow we need to spend an increasing amount of money more and more often, just to have access to general services. Most of the computer, both hardware and software, is too complicated to understand not only for the layman, but also for the expert.

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                                — because we are the impenetrable mess of complexity.

                                It’s not a mistake we made or an opportunity we messed up; it comes with the meat - and it’s always going to be like that when meat wants to harness anything roughly as fast as the speed of light.