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Why I Ordered an M5Paper

Last week I did something I haven’t really ever done before, but that seemed like the right thing given the things I’m aiming to write about in this space: I ordered an M5Paper development kit. It’s a little handheld development board with an e-Ink display (with a capacitive touchscreen) powered by the ESP32 platform.

Interest in this thing has been bubbling up through the little pocket of the fediverse that I have just waded into, and so even though I’m maybe the world’s worst programmer, I felt compelled to buy one–it felt like a device that I’d been waiting a long time to be able to buy, even if the hardware is probably still a couple generations away from the mainstream.

This, then, is really my way of thinking out loud about why this little thing is so intriguing to me, and what kinds of things I might want to do with it.

Why it appeals to me

“Notes on a Writing Device”

Six years ago, GitHub user maxjacobson uploaded a Gist of a blog post I wrote over nine years ago, on one of the many iterations of the personal blog I used to have back when that was a thing. “Notes on a Writing Device” was just a way for me to write down what I wanted that I didn’t see happening. Granted, if you squint at it, I really was describing what later emerged as the Freewrite. But that whole Idea of a Canon Cat like computer where one could write and edit and outline and make task lists and program, all without ever leaving the same app, with an infinite battery and an e-Ink display, has never left me.

That was at the very outset of my Markdown days, before I’d learned as much about Emacs and Org mode. That was before I knew how good some of the existing tools really are at this stuff; I’m writing this in Org right now. But still. A do-everything e-ink device has long been my fantasy.

Remember the Palm Pilot?

In high school, my dad gave me his Palm IIIc because he never used it. I immedately became enamored with the thing, and pretty much mastered Graffiti. I took notes on it, tried writing apps for it, read early e-books (this was even before MOBI files were a thing), started my life-long fascination with productivity apps and systems… and when I went to college, I got a PowerBook, and the serial port dock didn’t work anymore, so I bought a red Handspring Visor because they used USB. Everything was transparent or translucent plastic back then, it was great.

So when I saw other folks talking about this device (specifically @kelbot and @ajroach42 on Mastodon) and @kelbot made the suggestion that the initial goals for the software around this thing could be similar to the Palm days, where things have to be sent to and from the device manually, it conjured up that joy for me: having a little handheld computer friend that kept track of things for me but didn’t have the ability to show me push notifications from Taco Bell.

I enjoyed Palm OS so much that I was a Treo holdout in the days after the iPhone. That was what I wanted and that was what I was going to use… eventually I caved and got a Motorola Droid, though. Freed from the expectations of also having to serve as a functional smartphone, I wonder if there’s still some unexpected usefulness to be found in that old Palm “sync stuff to and from the device when you feel like it” model? This seems like a cheap way to experiment.

ESP32

I didn’t even know what ESP32 was until Steve Lord wrote about it in the context of his great essay on the concept of “heirloom computing”. Since then, coupled with my love of old computers of all stripes and my nascent but growing interest in what happens at the cheap end of computer hardware, it’s been stuck in my mind like a virus. Turning that idea over in my head is part of why I started this blog in the first place.

But, it seems like a great basis for any kind of small computer project, and if we’re being honest, it’s probably more than powerful enough for at least half of the actual, real work any of us do in a given day.

Things I’d like to explore with it

Here’s a laundry list of the kinds of apps I might eventually try to write for this thing, if nobody beats me to it1:

Palm-style task management

In my mind, this means a very lightweight task manager app that can sync to Todoist’s API, probably only when I specifically trigger the Sync function. “Pull down changes and push my changes back” is what most task manager style apps are doing in the background all the time; I want to make it deliberate. First, that seems a lot easier to implement and a lot less resource-dependent on limited hardware. Second, I’m trying to see how close to a paper list an app like this can really be. Is paper really better? What’s the MVP for a “non-paper” task list?

Complicating factors here are the touchscreen (no keyboard) and the relative lack of hardware, but this wasn’t really an issue on the Palm Pilot so it shouldn’t be an issue here either. Palm OS didn’t live long enough to make it to the modern era of task management apps. What if it had?

e-Reader

Seems obvious enough for a touchscreen e-Ink device, but there are a lot of factors here. What’s the ideal for this small of a screen? Syncing across articles from RSS feeds seems like a nice place to start. Maybe there’s a way to convert those to a Gemini site and then build some kind of very simple Gemini client.

Org mode

It’s almost definitely not ever going to run Emacs, but maybe there’s a way to do Org-style manipulation of outlines and lists on the thing, in a way that makes sense on the hardware. If there is, I’d love to find it. Org still seems like the future in a lot of ways, and there are ideas there that seem like they’d translate well to smaller, lower-powered environments designed around doing the things Org does.

Docking and keyboards

How will I get files on and off the thing? Is there a good way to attach a keyboard and expand it to something more “computer-like”?

The waiting is the hardest part

The best Tom Petty song (to me) and also the whole of my efforts around the M5Paper so far. It should be here March 1st, but I won’t hold my breath. My hope is by then some other peoples’ work will be far enough ahead to provide some roadmaps to a novice like me in these areas. More to come.

  1. They probably will beat me to it, and even if they do, I’m still going to explore these areas. My hope is that a nice little development community springs up around these devices and that a rising tide will lift all boats. What I’ve seen so far has been encouraging.