Passed a booth at PyCon for the AstroHaus Freewrite, a Kickstarter-backed "distraction-free writing tool" combining a small e-ink screen with a mechanical keyboard in a fixed plastic shell for a whopping $550.

I inquired about the firmware.

"Actually it runs Debian!" said the dude.

"Oh! So I could install ssh and..."

"No," he said incredulously, "we're not going to give people root!"

TFW name-dropping one of the most freedom-focused OSes to sell a device that restricts those same freedoms.

But just then a bro wandered past and chuckled, "Ha ha, nothing's unbreakable! Some clever hacker will root it eventually!"

Which was even worse.

He could have backed me up and said "the right to repair and tinker is important,"
but instead he undermined me,
giving this dude a pass for tivoizing as hard as he could,
happily accepting corporate control as a matter of course,
because hackers are ✨magic✨.

Just because a lot of stuff has been hacked doesn't mean it's easy, or inevitable.

someone crowdfund a little 3d-printed kit that attaches a kobo e-reader (runs linux, easily replaceable firmware) to your favorite mechanical keyboard and drink AstroHaus's milkshake pls kthx

Many of the reactions to my complaints about the Freewrite have been: "it's a dumb device with bad ergonomics, just use a refurb laptop with distraction-free software"

While I might agree, it's easy to find positive reviews of the Freewrite online. Many writer-types enjoy it and even defend the ridiculous price tag.

Which is mildly encouraging: if you can build a cheaper e-ink display + keyboard combo that doesn't needlessly restrict users' right to repair, there's a proven market for it.

@pho4cexa You could probably just attach an Arduino and an E-ink shield to a keyboard and write a text editor for the damn thing and it'd cost the tiniest fraction of that tosh.

@pho4cexa @Jo No need to go as far as eink - a nice and big TN LCD would do just fine ;)

Example: The TRS-80 model 100 from 1983. Main focus was word processing on the go with installable applications. Internal modem and 20 hour battery life on 4 AA batteries.

@polychrome @Jo from my brief searching it seems like the writer's favorite device before the Freewrite came along is the "Alphasmart Neo" from 2003 (pic)

i wish at least some modern-speed tech aimed for old, cheap and open instead of locked-down, high-res, and color

i've got a parts box full of old palm pilots that i hope to someday be skilled enough to scavenge the LCDs off of to re-purpose

that said, i like e-ink too, and modules aren't very expensive:


Alternately, just make a simple Linux distro that boots into an editor directly and put it on a (much cheaper) laptop.

@pho4cexa Why not just the display so people can use their keyboard of choice?

@pho4cexa it is not dumb device and for sure it is better than a refurb laptop.
You do not need to charge it every day and it is distraction free *out-of-the-box*. No additional steps required.

*But* you can connect a keyboard to an e-reader (hell, you can even use it as a remote screen

Still, an integrated&dedicated device is better for creating healthy habits and has better accessibility, especially for elders.

Not everyone can afford DIY solutions/hacks.

@pho4cexa This is very similar to a concept I have partially designed, though I didn't select an e-ink display. My intention was to release the sources (kicad, case designs, BOMs) as CC-BY-SA if/when I had a minimally functional prototype.

This is motivation to revive that effort, though I'd need some modest funding to get the prototype completed and launch a crowdsupply campaign for production 🤔

Sorry if I sound clueless, but I was just barely aware Kobo *had* e-readers and now I'm interested.

@pho4cexa Interesting! I'm not running out to get one immediately, but I think I'll bookmark Plato.

@pho4cexa we shouldn’t live in a world where someone has to crack a kernel in order to fully own our devices.

@pho4cexa as a hacker this whole situation bugs me so much:
1. An embedded word processor running full debian shows that they have no idea how to build an embedded device. Only way I’d excuse this for a production product is maybe if the whole thing was running off a Raspberry PI.

@pho4cexa 2. using Debian and not giving the owner of the device root access, even if it was something they had to request the password for manually is very shortsighted
3. Just because you can maybe hack root out of it doesn’t mean you should have to. Having to hack it adds an unnecessary barrier to modifying the device that the user presumably owns, and is just a huge waste of time. Far from a simple wave of a magic wand.

@packetcharmer @pho4cexa also in Europe at least they are competing with refurb laptops being sold for half that price (as cheap as €120); you can simply install various "low distraction" content editors on them (there were a couple of freeware ones last time I checked), dual boot Debian with Windows (if there is better software on Linux) and shut off the wifi, all of which is still less effort than trying to hack root on a proprietary device.

@vfrmedia @pho4cexa In the US you could get a brand new Chromebook for <$200 and then only turn the WiFi on to sync your writing with the cloud, which is probably way simpler than whatever scheme they have to get your writing off of this device.

@packetcharmer @pho4cexa I feel like the whole thing running off of a Raspberry Pi would almost be worse, because... $500 for a small mechanical keyboard, an off-the-shelf e-ink screen, and a RPi, when custom hardware would've been better-suited?

@bhtooefr @pho4cexa I didn’t even want to get into the price because I figured that was another example of them not knowing what they were doing. “Market research? What’s that?” Honestly done right an RPi based solution would work great, but they don’t even have the experience to know they way they’re doing this is completely wrong. My bet is that their BOM cost is probably 3-5x what you think it is meaning at $500 they’re not even making as much as you’d think.


Eh, I kind of get it. Right now, the price difference between a 16-bit microcontroller and full Unix SOC is about five bucks and full Debian means you get all of the tools.

The savings in dev costs and related aggravations probably make up for the loss of a couple of bucks profit on an $600 unit.

@pho4cexa Did they have a story about how they were going to be compliant with the licenses of the GPL software under the hood of the device?

@cstanhope here's their "ugh FINE we'll do the bare minimum necessary to comply with the letter of the GPL2, have fun digging through gigabyte-large tarballs" page

@pho4cexa Also, thanks for looking that up. I don't know why I didn't go find the site myself...

@cstanhope ah, no worries, i looked it up earlier to see if they had changed their tune since the time this exchange occurred. (pycon was several months ago.) so i had the url handy.

@pho4cexa @cstanhope this is not even a new thing; its been hanging around for at least 2 years (trying to hustle for funding I think) and is itself based on a lot of similar 1980s/90s devices; but all of these were less locked down and could be used as actual computers as well. IMO *not* selling it as fully open device could be why they are finding funding difficult; it would otherwise also be perfect for sysadmins who want to connect to the console of other equipment..

@cstanhope ikr? we kind of have to praise them for doing this little, because it's better than the "you hippies won't get around to actually suing us before we EOL this device" stance of so many others

@pho4cexa @cstanhope This reminds me of my ISP's page. They're nice enough to give code, a cross-compiler and even proprietary binaries...but no install instructions.

@pho4cexa @cstanhope looks to me like they’re complying with the license. Do you really expect more? It’s a business not a charity.

@pho4cexa that's mad, surely its an enthusiast device and people would appreciate the ability to play?

@karlen you'd think so, but their attitude seems to be that they are and must remain the exclusive purveyors of a carefully-curated experience for their target market, who are non-technical writers, authors, and journalists, definitely not tinkers and computer nerds

@pho4cexa @karlen well yeah, otherwise they might sell even more of them. Which would allow them to lower the price, increase their development budget, or both which would of course be terrible.

@pho4cexa @karlen I bet that “carefully-curated experience” ends up being some unreliable auto login script that dumps you into nano or something.

@pho4cexa "We're not gonna give people root!" He says, completely unaware of what's to come.

@masklayer in name only, for it is neither

it's like they're intentionally trolling the community that built most of the software they built their business upon

@pho4cexa argh, I was so on board with the e-ink + mechanical keyboard combo. didn't realize how much I wanted it until this moment.

LB: this is the perfect explanation of what corporations think technology is for

"purified water, like people can get at home, but in a BOTTLE that WE CONTROL"

so it goes

@pho4cexa Apart from the other concerns, the small text, horizontal screen, and no wrist support make this look like an ergonomic nightmare.


"Not going to give people root!"??

More like

"Oh so you mean I get to exercise my info-sec skills to break into it, and get root anyways?"

Sheesh. I got a working typewriter at a thrift store for $45.

@pho4cexa ausgufhh i luv the design on that thing but $550 is at least $450 too much for an eink page, a nice keyboard, and a computer that only needs to be powerful enough to run a bare bones word processor.

would be wanting to scoop one up for cheap on ebay once it flops tho


I wonder if that violates the GPL? Doesn't v3 have some clause forbidding use on hardware locked to a specific build?

@suetanvil yes, one of the big features of GPLv3 is the "anti-tivoization" clause. Unfortunately Linus hates v3 and thinks tivoization is fine. (The kernel is GPLv2.)

So since they post the source code for the GPL2 stuff they used, they comply with the letter of the license, even while they still prevent users from doing anything useful with it.


Yeah, the kernel is certainly okay, but Debian is pretty big. I'd think that there's a good chance they're including *something* with a GPL3 license.



Yeah that's weird. I don't even program (just now learning Ruby) but when I decided I wanted to try to make a similarly distraction free writing environment for myself, I put Tahrpup on a stick and deleted the programs I didn't want. Even that was an overly bulky solution for just a glorified word processor. Why use Debian?

@pho4cexa That is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. It looks like it's from the 1980s.

It should be a clamshell and everything on the top should be replaced with a modern full color display.

It looks like some neckbeard's wet dream of stupid fetishes for old style hardware, without any concern for practical application.

@simba @pho4cexa you're obviously not a writer.

slapping a full color display on it would add zero value when it comes to writing, and would just make it more distracting and expensive (except this particular product is already needlessly expensive). maybe for other use cases it'd be nice. making it open and close would also make it more complicated than it has to be. sometimes less is more, which apparently equates to "old style hardware" in your opinion.

@cardboard @pho4cexa No I'm not but I bet I write better than you.

It looks like garbage. Good luck with your funding.

@pho4cexa let's destroy the one redeeming factor for our device!

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