A User's View by Jerry Pournelle

This article appeared in Infoworld, March 5 1990.

"Cambridge Z-88 Portable Benefits Bedridden Computing"

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke died of an infection (blood poisoning) from a scratch from the thorn of a rose. It was ugly, but there is a romantic ring about that rose. I believe Rilke even managed a poem on the subject before he died.

There are many differences between Rilke and me, other than the obvious one that he was a world famous poet and I'm not. The most important one (to me) is that I have antibiotics, and that my wife Roberta knew I needed them when I was too delirious to care, and thus I didn't die. Another is that if this putrid mess does carry me off despite the best medical efforts, it will be damned embarrassing, because I got mine from scratching a bad case of poison oak, and that's surely less romantic than a rose thorn. Fortunately, though, it looks like it's all going away.

The cure for what I've got is antibiotics, aspirin, liquids, and "Stay the hell off that foot!" Meaning that I'm to put my foot up when possible. In practice -- given that I'd collapsed from fever -- it meant days in bed. Now, beds are nice, but they're not designed for getting much work done. I suppose they could be. Hospital beds have all those cranks and things, and even cantilevered tables that hold heavy stuff up off your lap; but we don't have all that here. After they decided I didn't have to be in the hospital ("But stay off that leg!"), it was decided that since this wasn't going to kill me, it wasn't going to last all that long. A couple of days at most, so there was no need to go buy new furniture.

Two days is more than I have free; if I go two days without working, I'll be so far behind I may as well retire to Papeete, which in fact looks better every day. Anyway, after a few hours of reading, and discovering that with a 150-channel set there's still nothing worth watching on television, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to write. After a while it was worse. I HAD to write; I wanted a computer. Any darned computer would do.

We have got a lot of laptop computers around this place. Here's the chance to try them out, thought I, and sent for them all. Heck, this could even be fun.

Maybe not. The Zenith Supersport, while usable in the Bronco and in business class on airplanes, is just too darned heavy to hold on your lap. Now it would be no great trick to make up a table to hold the Zenith, but then it would be no great trick to let the bedridden use a full computer with color monitor and extended keyboard. Ditto with all the laptops. They're okay, but they aren't really very comfortable if you're just there in bed, no special furniture or anything.

Then my eye fell on the Cambridge Z-88. Sir Zed. He hadn't been brought as a serious candidate for the job; he was there because before I collapsed we were in another city at another meetinen using Sir Zed to take notes. For meetings the Z-88 has the great advantage of silence; in one conference Roberta was asked to stop clicking the keys on her Toshiba T1000, although Toshiba-san isn't particularly noisy for a laptop. Anyway, I'd been making notes with Sir Zed and he was there to have his files transferred, assuming I could remember how.

Hah, I thought. The very thing. It really does fit on a lap.

It does, too. The Z-88's little screen isn't particularly readable, but it's aut as readable as normal typescript would be. Even with my wretched eyesight, I can see it, at least if I work at it. The keyboard is full size, too, real keys of decent size. Good for sickrooms, as well, because the whole thing is covered over with a black rubber waterproofing; you can't hurt the Z-88 with spills.

A year or so ago we did a White House briefing, and I'd carried the Z-88 along on that, mostly because it was silent. I didn't think I'd need it, but something about rocket performance might have come up, and anyway, when it wasn't my turn to talk I could use it to make notes. In fact, it made a big hit.

When I wrote about that, I got a nice letter from Arthur C. Clarke, who has a pair of Z-88s and loves them. One goes with him nearly everywhere. The other sits on his desk as his notepad, and can accompany him to the breakfast table and such. Anyway, I'd had recommendations, and I'd used the Z-88 long enough that I knew it could do the job; so the question became, could I master its eccentricities?

Make no mistake: There's no question that the Z-88 has a lot of good points, from its size (smaller than a normal three-ring-binder) to its weight (a couple of pounds; light enough to go in a leather shoulder bag or, for that matter, light and small enough to be stuffed into one of the ubiquitous Wingz bags). It uses standard batteries, or you can plug in any six-volt adapter. It comes with insufficient memory, but you can buy memory cartridges to give it a lot more than you'll ever need. Built-in software includes spreadsheet, word processor, Basic compiler, diary/calendar, and clock with alarm. Lots of good features. But...

But what?

Well, it's British, and the British have rather a different view about technology. Who else would make a magnificent automobile like the Jaguar, then give it Lucas Electric?

What I'm trying to say is that while the Z-88 can do many things, and is potentially quite lovable, you'll never like the computer unless you take the British view, unless you play their game. You don't really need to know what the game's purpose is, and what its stakes are in order to play, but the game consists of taking a system's weakest points and acting as if you love them. It's an extreme form of "That's not a bug, it's a feature!" combined with the ultimate stoicisms that what cannot be cured must be endured, and add to that a positive glee over discovering new defects.

In any event, those who seek to play the Brits' favorite game will have plenty of opportunities with the Z-88. It has absolutely the weirdest and most inconsistent operating system imaginable. The help function is useless, at best duplicating what is already written on the case. The manual is capriciously organized and incomplete, not bothering to tell you how to insert or remove "cards" (that's in the otherwise-useless help file), and not indexing most functions. (You might find the diamond Kill command in the manual if you already know what it does, but if you don't know that it is the ONLY way to erase or delete an "unfinished job," you must search through the manual, where it is casually mentioned once in an inappropriate place.)

And on. I could make a long list of the oddities. But -- if you do play the Brit game and embrace those strange features, great can be your reward; because once you learn this thing (and it must be learned as a set of arbitrary commands having almost no logic) you will find that you have a really neat tool that can be carried nearly anywhere and has really astonishing powers, not only as spreadsheet and notebook but as a real computer with a very powerful and efficient Basic compiler.

In short: I'm glad I had to learn the little beast; and I do like it. But then my Norman family was long exposed to the Brit mentality.

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