Insane project idea: iMate Mini

On display at the Monochromatic Museum of Archaic Electronics (otherwise known as my bedroom closet) is a relic from the past that never got used as it should have. The Apple eMate, a device based on the Newton platform but which came in a clamshell case with an integrated keyboard and a carrying handle, was designed to be sold to schools but never took off before Steve Jobs returned to Apple and shut down the Newton division entirely. The design for the case influenced the following generations of Macintosh computers: it presaged the later PowerBook, iBook, and iMac designs.

The eMate never had the adoption even that the Newtons had. For one thing, they weren’t sold on the open market. For another, they came out after the Newton MessagePad 2000 with the same operating system but a processor that had come with the previous generation of Newtons. Compared to the MessagePads that Newton users loved, the eMates were limited in memory and clock speed. While many marveled at the design, few actually wanted to use one.

There is also the matter of a clamshell laptop design for a computer with a heavily pen-and-gesture oriented operating system. It was always a bit awkward to go back and forth from typing on the keyboard to pointing with the stylus. As much as the eMate had going for it, there were some industrial design issues that never quite got sorted.

Nevertheless, the eMate seemed in many ways to be an ideal writing platform. Like a lightweight portable typewriter, the eMate has a compact profile. With a carrying handle and a small backlit monochrome screen, it’s easy to imagine carrying the eMate around for some writing in a café or a park bench. It would have been a delightful platform for blogging long after the device was considered obsolete except for a few pesky shortcomings.

Though the Newton included a perfectly capable word processor, there was never a very good way to get content off of the Newton. Once upon a time one could use a utility called the Newton Connection Kit to transfer documents back and forth, but that utility was never written for OS X and certainly not compiled with Intel processors in mind.

What would be ideal is something like a markdown text editor that wouldn’t rely on any desktop software and could be saved through a rudimentary browser. Trouble is, there isn’t any development still being done for the Newton and the only browsers for the Newton performed very poorly on the eMate’s underpowered processor.

But what if instead of a monochrome LCD screen, the eMate could house, say, an iOS device? It wouldn’t take a lot of disassembly and reassembly, assuming it would be possible to do a non-destructive teardown of an iPad Mini and successfully replace the guts of the eMate keyboard with a bluetooth model.

It’s a nice fantasy, but the real upsides are few and the downsides are many. For one thing, the iPad Mini screen is about an inch larger diagonally than the eMate screen, so the opening for the screen would have to be cut wider. For another thing, the eMate weighs about six times as much as the iPad Mini. There’s not much point in turning a portable device into a much less portable device.

The built-in stylus slots on the eMate would not accommodate any of the styluses that work with the iPad. Even if one could be found to lay in the storage tray and not fall out, the size of the tips of capacitive styluses prevent any iPad-compatible stylus from fitting in to either of the stands on the sides.

A much more practical solution would be something like the ZAGGkeys PROfolio+ or if backlit keys aren’t a necessity, ZAGG’s ZAGGfolio would be far more economical.

For my own purposes, the MacBook Air is pretty darn light and has the backlit keys already. It lacks the fancy carrying handle that the eMate has, and a multitasking operating system can be less than immersive, but software like ByWord helps keep one task up front at a time.

So as cool a project as an iMate Mini would be, and as sad as it is to let a sweet device like the eMate collect dust, it simply is too much trouble with too little payoff to dedicate any more time to it than it takes to write a fanciful block post and Photoshop up a mockup that won’t fool anyone. Perhaps someone out there has more time and money on their hands and wants to retrofit an eMate with an iPad Mini. If so, let me know. I want to see how it turns out.

In the meantime, the eMate might make a decent dumb terminal for the RS/6000 or the SGI Indigo. If either of them were ever turned on anymore.