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

It's not that I don't like Apple's current hardware and software, but I fondly recall the days when its computers were suffused with a chirpy, cheerful personality. Today's slabs of aluminium and black glass are powerful, desirable, and elegant, but you could also call them austere, anodyne – perhaps even unfriendly.

It's a world away from the Apple of the '80s and '90s. Then there was a playfulness – a playfulness that shaded almost into anarchy – in things as dull as error messages, even in flagship software. True, this was not always welcome, nor to everyone's taste – Exhibit A: Clippy – which is probably why the practice died out as software became more professional.

There was surely, though, no friendlier Apple product than the eMate.

Partly that's thanks to how it looks. It was the first time Apple used translucency, predating the iMac by more than a year, and the swooping curves of roughened green (green!) plastic plus a cute and practical carry handle meant its very dissimilarity to other computers at the time gave it a quirky and non-techy feel.

Much of the friendliness of the eMate, though, came not from its outer skin but from the OS that beat beneath it. This, of course, was a Newton device, running the same operating system that powered the MessagePad line of PDAs. And Newton OS was so very lovely.

Visually, it was simultaneously crisp and deliciously chunky. Cleaner and more coherent than even the Mac OS of its time, little touches of humor and humanization of technology nevertheless permeated throughout. One example: the little newt you saw on the first setup screen as you calibrated the stylus:

But it wasn't just pretty to look at: The thing I always forget I love till I pick up my eMate again is the noises it makes. As you use the stylus to select things on the screen of this, Apple's first and only touchscreen laptop, little confirmatory noises sound, and the joyous thing is that they're not the same sound. Now, this is a tricky thing to pull off – make the sounds too different and you risk people worrying that tapping this checkbox is different from tapping that button, but Apple absolutely pulled it off here.

The effect, as you tap about the screen to format a document and send it by fax, say, is that you get a cheery burble of "beek," "bik," "bok" rather than the same "click," "click," "click" as you'd expect on other systems. It's emblematic of a much more human, much friendlier approach to operating systems than any other I can think of.

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.

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.

It's such a beautiful little machine, so full of character, that I actually feel bad for not using it. It's so perfect, so cute, so sweet, and it feels, when it just sits there, like I'm ignoring a puppy that wants to play. Maybe I'll just have a quick check on eBay and see if I can find the cables I need to hook it up.

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