Freewrite: How NOT to do Software

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The first user reviews of the Freewrite retro word processor are coming in, and that's not good news for the device's maker, Astrohaus.

Author and publisher K S Augustin has graciously responded to my request for user reviews and has agreed to let me post her review.

She's not impressed by the limited software features, and her review has convinced me that Mashable was right in calling the Freewrite "hipster nonsense". I will elaborate on that opinion in the comment section of this post.

O O O

I (or, rather, my hubby) was one of the early backers of the Freewrite, back when it was known as the Hemingwrite. It’s been a bumpy year and a half, but my machine (a belated birthday present) finally arrived late last week.

It’s a nice bit of kit and the keyboard is a joy to type on. But, as a past IT Project Manager who has a husband who was also an IT Project Manager, if there’s a case study of how not to do software, the Freewrite is it.

freewrite-1000px

Firstly, there is an SDK (Software Development Kit) with the Freewrite, so that means that the creators are opening up the architecture for future tweaks. This is good. But I can’t help feeling that the creators are using the SDK as a way of dodging their own responsibilities.

From the beginning, the Hemingwrite (as it was known) was designed to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s way of writing; i.e. one draft, with no editing allowed beyond the use of a Backspace key. The assumption here is that if it was good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for us. Yet, what if Hemingway were around today? Would he still be content with such a limited feature? It’s like saying a company is selling a replica 1932 Chevrolet but, as the original didn’t come with air-conditioning, the modern replica won’t come with climate control either. To be honest, with the current state of technology, such statements are little more than a dodge.

Delay. I’m lucky in that I hardly look at the screen while I’m typing. By now, after decades of touch typing, my fingers know when they’ve misspelt a word better than I do. However, I understand that this isn’t the case for many other writers. And, for them, the time lag between when they press a key and when it turns up on the screen must be very frustrating. Considering that the Freewrite (as it’s now called) was ostensibly made with writers in mind, this borders on unforgivable.

The nagging. The Freewrite was created to be a distraction-free environment. It has wifi capability so that you can sync to the cloud but, obviously, having the wifi feature on all the time drains the battery. Prudent writers would turn it off while typing their draft. Prudent writers would also get incessantly nagged via a status message about the wifi being turned off. Not so distraction-free now, is it?

Security. There are lots of reasons to use wifi. There are also legitimate reasons not to. And, for those writers who tend to be a bit on the paranoid side, they would say that not using wifi is mandatory. So, is there any other way to get your documents off the machine not using wifi? Not yet. The Freewrite didn’t even come with that most basic of functionalities…the ability to plug your machine into your computer and have it appear as a mass storage device, even though this was listed as an initial feature. (I hear it’s coming in a future update which, again, when it was touted as initial functionality is unforgivable.)

Moving on with security, one contributor at the Freewrite support site has set up his network with very fine granularity, enabling router throughput only for devices with specific MAC addresses. Considering that the Freewrite touts wifi as one of its premier features (would Ernest have approved, I wonder), he would like to add the Freewrite’s MAC address to his router configuration. Can he find it without using third-party apps? Three guesses.

Cloud. Another thing I dislike is the Postbox cloud service. It’s here that you can see all the documents you’ve typed (and synced) with your Freewrite. You can send documents from your Postbox to Evernote, Google or Dropbox. Yet, who has access to your Postbox? What is the size limit? What about encryption?

A PDF of your document can also be emailed to your designated email address if you press the “Send” button on the machine. Do you know what this means? You type one document in your Freewrite, and it can appear in several different places. Unless you’re a very organised writer, this can easily translate into Versioning Hell as, a month down the track, you try to remember where the latest version of your document resides. There’s an old software adage that goes: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). This does not mean having several versions of the same document (with no title!) hanging around in Dropbox, Google Docs, your machine and on Postbox. Pick one strategy and stick to it!

Syncing. Let’s say you’re in love with your Freewrite. You can listen to its clickety-clacks all day. But there’s just one teensy thing you need to check, so you use Postbox to send your document to Google Docs so you can check something in the library. Aha! Found it. You correct the word/concept/sentence in Google Docs and now want to send it back to your Freewrite so you can click and clack away again. Not so fast. The synchronisation is only one-way. That’s right, the Freewrite is dumber than the cheapest phone you can buy anywhere.

No way of getting out of Versioning Hell. No, no, you’re saying. A quick way of getting out of Versioning Hell is to number your documents in some way, idiot Kaz! Maybe put a date at the top. Duh! At the risk of repeating myself, not so fast. Not only do you not have the ability to give your documents titles, the Freewrite only allows the chemical method of changing what’s at the beginning. (The chemical (attack) method is slower than the nuclear method, but just as deadly.) To put it another way, you use Backspace/New+Backspace key to erase every letter/word you’ve written.

That’s right, the Freewrite does not allow you to even modify the first line of your document to identify it. The only way you can get to the first line of your text is by backspacing over every line that came after it. They tell me that’s the way Ernest wrote but, by now, you can see that they only pull ole Ernie out of the hat when it suits them.

Working in sections. Let’s say you’re a writer of non-fiction. You don’t want to go through Versioning Hell, so you do the right thing and divide your book into chapters and work on each chapter independently. I’m doing that with a non-fiction I’m writing at the moment. The Freewrite gives you three folders. Using the New+PgUp and New+PageDn keys, you can scroll through all the documents within a given folder, but how tedious! And you need to know the last sentence you wrote in order to identify which chapter you’re working on. If you want to see the beginning of a given document, you can use the PgUp and PgDn keys, but all these problems could have gone away if there was the ability to list the documents in a folder. And the ability to give each document a title.

The name. But all of the above pales into insignificance next to the name. The “Free”write.

freewrite-box-1000pxI’m a Linux user. I use Linux because I passionately believe in freedom. Freedom to use my computer how I want to. Freedom to take whatever stand I wish against whichever corporate interests I despise (and I despise quite a few). The Freewrite takes this definition of “free” and throws it into the bin.

  • You are “free” to write…as long as you sync your documents to a cloud you know nothing about.
  • You are “free” to write…as long as you don’t want to do anything pesky, like changing a word three lines back or creating footnotes.
  • You are “free” to write…as long as you don’t want to copy your documents to your PC via a USB cable.
  • And you are free to delete a document (kinda)…as long as you do it via the chemical method. Yes, the Freewrite doesn’t even give you the facility to delete your own draft. Not on your machine and not in the cloud. The best you can do is change a mistake into a completely blank document by hammering that Backspace key like there’s no tomorrow. Imagine having a few zombie documents cluttering up your Postbox account. Lovely.

Putting hardware together is relatively easy. Oh yes it is. It’s how you run the thing that sets you apart from the competition. What was happening while one of the creators was in China, overseeing production? Were the team members who were left in the United States doing anything for one-and-a-half years? And in case anyone wonders how to develop software on a shoestring, I would add that Google has Summer of Code; KDE has Sprints. There are many other examples. Would it have been too much trouble to open up a “Summer of Freewrite” or “Freewrite Sprint” for local and international Comp Sci students to participate in?

The Freewrite isn’t cheap. For almost US$500, I would have expected something with decent functionality. Instead, I feel as if I’ve been inserted into a straitjacket.

For a writer, as a writer, I would have expected, at the very least:

  • The ability to play/mute sound effects to accompany the typing. I’m writing this post on FocusWriter, for example, and it has dandy manual typewriter sound effects for every time I press a key or hit Return. (I can turn them off if I like, but I don’t like.) It, too, is a distraction-free writing environment, but Jenn Gott hasn’t taken all of the fun out of things. Hold on, I’m about to hit Enter…Ah, there we go! I love the sound of manual carriage returns. It makes me very happy to type on this application, which is donationware. And you get a whole lot of functionality for a minimum tip of US$5. The Freewrite looks gorgeous, but it’s not fun.
  • A directory listing of a given folder to appear the moment two documents have been created in it.
  • The ability to delete documents, both from the machine and from the cloud.
  • A PDF that actually contains line breaks as written on the Freewrite. (At the moment, anything you send to yourself is just one, continuous screed. As this was a named feature, didn’t anybody test this?)
  • Functionality to cater for non-fiction, as well as fiction.
  • Basic formatting/markdown. I thought the Freewrite included this, but I can’t seem to find the page. Maybe it does, I’ll need to investigate.
  • Better documentation. Besides the self-congratulatory note (example: “Welcome to the best writing experience”), a few more technical details wouldn’t go astray. From the tone of the guides available, the Freewrite creators absolutely refuse to acknowledge that there’s anything missing from their product:

“The Freewrite marries the best mechanical keyboard, the best epaper screen from E Ink, ultra long battery life, and seamless syncing to the cloud to provide the best possible drafting environment.”

“There is no way to delete documents from the Freewrite or from Postbox at the moment. The idea being that everything about the Freewrite is designed to make you move forward, not back.”

“Q: I don’t trust my documents in the cloud. Can I still use the Freewrite?

A: Yes, of course! You will have to go through a clumsy process that requires you to directly connect the Freewrite to your computer, but yes, it is possible to use the Freewrite completely cloud-free. However, there is a better way! Using the cloud is one of the things that makes the Freewrite (and this age of computing) really awesome.”

Good grief.

tl;dr For $50, I’m prepared to be an early adopter of very much reduced functionality of a given device. For $500, not so much.

For a product that was advertised for writers, the Freewrite does a meh-to-bad job on everything outside the mechanicals. Almost congratulations to the Chinese manufacturers (I say “almost” because my machine also wobbles (along the upper-left diagonal on a flat surface)); yar boo sucks to everyone else involved. Personally, I think the Freewrite will turn into a Zaurus dinosaur, kept alive only by a small group of enthusiasts. I’ll show it off the same way I show off my old Zaurus and Palm IIIx. That reminds me, I should request access to the SDK myself. Might as well have it on hand when the inevitable happens.

Want some fun writing, free of distractions? Go give Jenn Gott some love (at 1% what you’d pay for a Freewrite) at FocusWriter but, for now, give the Freewrite a miss. As an owner, it pains me to say that but, as a techie, it’s the truth.

24 Comments on Freewrite: How NOT to do Software

  1. As I understand it, the word hipster is used to describe people who take up an activity as an affectation (for show) and not out of any real interest. I avoid using the word because it is often used to insult people who simply have unusual hobbies, but I think it is appropriate in this case.

    Mashable was right. The Freewrite is a hipster typewriter, and not a functional writing tool. I look at the software features and reach the conclusion that it is designed for people who want to take up the affectation of writing and not actual writers who need to get shit done.

    And with a price tag of over $500, that is utterly ridiculous.

    My recommendation: Save your money, and get either a $150 Chromebook or a $50 Alphasmart Neo. They are ten times as capable and a heck of a lot cheaper.

    • Nate, Thanks for posting this review.

      I am so glad I didn’t back this project and waste $500.

      I agree that an Alphasmart Neo is the way to go if you want a distraction-free writing experience that is computer-friendly but disconnected. Its simplicity is what makes it a better option.

      If you really want to go off the grid and get some writing done that doesn’t need to be shared online (at least not right away) go find a decent portable typewriter on eBay. Approx. $50–$300 depending on if it’s in good shape or been restored. And though it’s easy to laugh off typewriters as hipster affectation, they are excellent tools for a long-term projects like novels or a series of poems.

      If you bought an Alphasmart Neo and an old typewriter AND the cheapest Chromebook you’d have three excellent choices, depending on writing project, and in theory you could save about $100 off the price of a Freewrite. And you’d be able to add a title to the top of any of the documents you write on those three devices. And markdown works on those three devices, even on the typewriter!

  2. Michael Anderson // 9 May, 2016 at 12:27 pm // Reply

    Or … spend ~$100 – 150 for an actual mechanical typewriter. That is what we did for my son, and he loves using it to type poetry and essays and other stuff for school, occasionally having to retype into his laptop. Personally I was very happy >30 years ago moving away from electric typewriter to a computer with dot matrix printer … and have never had the desire to return …

    Also – I love your snippet on cloud usage “I don’t want to use the cloud. OK, either engage in an unnecessarily complex and difficult process or … use the cloud! Problem solved.” Sure, but … question not really addressed.

    I was never the audience for this, but seriously, I’m not sure even the original audience is REALLY the audience for this. Of if one exists.

  3. With no down or up arrow buttons, and only 30 days to return it for a refund. And further insult to injury, only a 30 day warranty for a 500 dollar electronic device. I felt something was very very wrong and didn’t order it. Glad I listened to my gut on this one.

    I also spoke to the freewrite people and didn’t care for how they arrogantly tell one how they should type. Hemingway wrote on a type writer that is more time consuming to go back and do edits then it is now. Frankly it is distracting to me to know I misspelled something and cannot fix it.

    They should have looked at what the Neo did. We even invited them over to the thread we had going about the freewrite on the Neo boards. This, is the group they needed to convince who would mostly buy it. They said they would come over to the flickr groups thread that was provide it to them, but they never came. So pretty much everybody wrote them off.

  4. For what it’s worth, it should be possible to find the MAC address really simply. Just have the router’s owner log into its control panel, temporarily disable the MAC lock, and there should be a list of currently-connected MAC addresses. Then connect with the Freewrite, and the new MAC address that pops up in the list will belong to it.

    That doesn’t change how terrible the rest of it sounds, though.

    • This is not simple.

      Having a sticker on the device with the mac address is simple. Having the mac address displayed with the WiFi connection screen is simple.

      Anything involving another piece of hardware is not simple.

      Remember the target audience. Writers, not techies.

  5. Someone posted YouTube un boxing and review to Freewrite. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=2NzaHTkOixw

  6. Thanks for this, Nate. And also to the other commenters who filled in a lot of info I otherwise didn’t know. Hubby and I (early tech adopters, par excellence) will be a LOT more leery of backing future Kickstarters after this. If I could, I’d risk hurting hubby’s feelings and send the Freewrite back but I’m in Malaysia, so it’s a non-trivial task.

    Chris, that’s what the router owner did, but–as I said–not being able to find the MAC address without fiddling with a third-party mechanism? It shouldn’t be that difficult, especially not for writers.

  7. It is too bad the Freewrite developers did not seem to have done a beta test with regular users. It is a decent idea, but the execution is not there.

  8. Peter D. Walker // 11 May, 2016 at 9:33 pm // Reply

    Honestly, the Freewrite would almost be palatable for me if it had arrow keys, a cursor, and a proper file system, ala. the AlphaSmart Neo.

    It’s just too excessively restrictive for its own good, such that you end up battling the Freewrite’s eccentricities more than you benefit from a distraction-free environment.

    Thanks for the excellent review. I considered backing the Freewrite in 2014 for my company, but now I’m really glad I didn’t. I’ll stick with my trusty $40 Neo.

  9. reading through this article, basically all the points were known at the time we brought it. the developer did it that way intentionally, and they explained why and used them as the selling points. public information, and you should know it before you buy, especially if you consider that it is not cheap. through i note that sometimes we enjoy owning a cool item and then complain against it in public media.

    this is not for the vast majority of people, that is clear from the start. this is for those who are, for whatever reason, attracted to top quality traditional mechanical items, in the ditigal age. for these people, their options are extremely limited now. i will compare freewrite with the latest Leica digital M that does not even have a ditigal screen at the back, which is actuallly extremely attractive to a small group of experienced photographers. if you cannot apprepriate it, this is expected, and very reasonable — for possibly the most expensive small format digital camera iin the whole world now, and latest model, the user cannot see the image until they formally connect the M to a computer with appropriate software.

    • Your comment is spot on. While some of the criticism voiced in this review is perfectly valid (such as a number of flaws in the software – which will hopefully be fixed soon), most of it is aimed at properties of the freewrite which were known from the very start of their Kickstarter campaign. The most preposterous point the author makes concerns the alleged perversion of the word “freedom”. Freedom is almost always a relative term: the freedom of one can be the opposite to another. For some it means freedom to have a sheer endless number of features at one’s disposal, to another person it is freedom not to be confronted with constant decisions and abstractions. This device is all about that – and no one ever advertised anything to the contrary.

      • Yes, but –

        Not everyone could find info on those “properties of the freewrite which were known from the very start”, nor did we really understand the scale of Astrohaus’s pigheaded refusal to give customers what they want until after the first units arrived.

        This reviewer got the Freewrite as a gift from her husband, and they regret the expenditure. We are hoping that this review will save other people from making a similar mistake.

  10. Having taken delivery of such a beautifully sculpted object, the Freewrite, it is worth the money in every way. I’ve built both hardware and software, and I understand it is unbelievably difficult to get a piece of hardware (including aluminium, plastic, PCB, components, assembly, testing, and the list of items goes on) constructed and shipped globally. Rightly so, getting this right has been the focus of the Astrohaus team over the past year.

    During the many months of waiting for delivery, I have purchased Cherry mechanical keyboards from both WASD and Das Keyboard (costing USD150 and more), and use them during my day to day work and pleasure. There is nothing even remotely close to the pleasure of having Cherry switches under your fingertips (I prefer Clear and Brown varieties).

    These mechanical keyboards can work with a Chromebook (costing USD300 or more) to produce a functionality similar to the Freewrite. But, then there are two pieces to be transported, and the whole package is not a single writing tool. Spending the time to juggle the package leads to further distractions, and the result is not substantially cheaper than the Freewrite.

    The Astrohaus software game has been mediocre, as this article notes. Hopefully, getting the hardware out the door will allow them to focus on the many minor software shortcomings. As it is just software, it should be easy for them to provide OTA upgrades of the Freewrite firmware to remedy the situation.

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