2013 0002 0017

Laptops are the Stenotypes of Software Engineers

Increasingly, I’ve been asked variants on the question “what will happen to desktops/laptops,” particularly in light of the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. This has resulted in several good conversations, and I’ve begun to use the following analogy when discussing this with colleagues in non-engineering disciplines:

Laptop computers will become the stenotypes of software engineers.

The stenotype is a niche device used by stenographers (most prominently, court reporters) to transcribe dialog in real-time at blindingly-fast words-per-minute rates. Fellow Emacs users might appreciate how the stenotype works: instead of typing single letters, multiple keys are “chorded” together to allow many more combinations with many fewer keys. And instead of producing single letters, many of these combinations produce syllables or whole words. These physical optimizations are coupled with conventions among stenographers to wantonly omit or abbreviate words where there is little ambiguity of meaning, which further improves efficiency—the fewer characters put to a page, the less chance of typos. This leads to the output of the stenotype being difficult to read by those who are not well-versed in the conventions (called “theories”) used by stenographers.

One could describe the typical QWERTY keyboard as the antithesis of the stenotype. Designed to reduce jams in the old typewriting systems—a constraint clearly nonexistent in modern hardware—mainstream keyboards are considered more accessible compared with a stenotype. However, even considering later iterations, such as the Dvorak layout, these keyboards cannot hope to match the ruthless efficiency of a stenotype when used in real-time transcription work.

Few would reach for a stenotype to write a letter to their mother (unless she was a stenographer herself!), and no trained court reporter would care to wonder into the courtroom with a QWERTY keyboard. Despite digital recorders making inroads into court reporting and closed caption transcription, stenotypes are still available (hint: ebay), persisting thanks to an ingrained base of stenographers who remain ruthlessly efficient at these highly-specialized tasks.

Which brings us back to computing.

Software engineers are not your average user. We don’t have an average computing workload and have a completely disparate set of tools and conventions. Dell didn’t even try to lampshade this fact with their Sputnik Ubuntu laptop aimed squarely at developers. And, while tablets have proven to be capable of everything from typical computing tasks to basic software development,

If it doesn’t have a keyboard, I feel that my thoughts are being forced out through a straw.
—Joey Hess

The immanent death of the laptop is greatly exaggerated; after all, the stenotype lives on to this day. However, the fate of the laptop as we know it—available in every imaginable color, style, shape, size, and brandishing shiny logos to reinforce its reputation as a status symbol—is less certain. This fact was made more stark for me when I realized that installing Android x86 on my Eee PC gave it more in common with modern computing platforms than my primary development laptop (Thinkpad x120e with Arch Linux and the minimal xmonad window manager). And I know I’m not the only developer who has, consciously or unconsciously, increased the specialization of my desktops/laptops while using smartphones/tablets for non-work related activities. Who really wants to pull out and boot up a laptop for light internet reading when you’ve got an instant-on smartphone or tablet within reach? I’m becoming more convinced that this is what the real “death” of the laptop looks like.

For software engineers, the role of laptops (and desktops even moreso) is slowly morphing into one similar to that of stenotypes. It’s arguable that this is inevitable: artists don’t use college-rule paper, chemists don’t conduct titrations in a coffee mug, and firefighters don’t roll up in a corolla to put out house fires. Professions evolve better and more efficient methodology, and when professionals outgrow the prevailing tools available to consumers, they develop new tools. This has already been well underway on the software side—you won’t find lawyers writing briefs with vim, after all.

If consumer computing devices become more recalcitrant for software engineers, it makes sense that a professional-grade tool should fill in the gap. The most natural candidate is the form factors we already have: laptops and desktops. But that certainly doesn’t limit innovation to current devices—a positive side effect of this “death” of laptops is that it provides a great opportunity to rethink what sort of device would benefit developers most, without being strictly constrained by a 1980s design that was intended for general computing. And this prospect may not be as far away as it might seem, given the recent rise of hardware startups.

The next time you pull out a laptop in a coffee shop, I don’t anticipate you’ll get the same quizzical looks you might receive if you brought a stenotype with you. But, like the stenotype, I do think that the proliferation of tablets and other more consumer-oriented devices will necessitate a professional class of devices that are less common and more specialized. And in the meantime, that might mean the stylishness of laptops will begin to wane. I’m okay with that.

[Incidentally, you can turn a conventional keyboard into a stenotype-like device with Plover, an open-source stenotype software package.]