Wanna help me make a new OS?

An alternative technology can therefore only be successfully applied on a large scale once an alternative form of society has been created David Dickson - Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change

When I read at night I keep a dictionary beside me because I tend to read non-fiction books which are out of my depth. it’s an aspirational thing.

I have an Oxford English Mini Dictionary, the paper kind. It’s about the size of two stacked decks of cards.

I use this dictionary because I prefer to keep my phone in another room at night. The dictionary only does dictionary things, so I can look up a word and then return my focus to whatever I was doing.

Unfortunately, mini dictionaries in particular, have a limited amount of definitions by design. It’s the only way to make a non-digital book which is portable, practical, and convenient.

I would estimate that about 70% of the time my dictionary has the word I’m looking for. The remaining 30% are words which are either very specific to a discipline, such as computing or philosophy, or they are colloquial, Urban Dictionary style, words. Sometimes it’s a new word, too new for my 2013 edition dictionary.

When my dictionary fails me, it can lead me on rabbit-hole, no-lifer, searches for a perfect digital dictionary which lives only in my imagination.

Here’s what I usually imagine it to be:

  • Small, slim, lightweight. Much like the old digital pocket organisers.
  • A considerable storage capacity. Enough to store multiple whole dictionary databases locally.
  • Internet connectivity, but only to keep the local word databases up-to-date or to access online dictionary API endpoints.
  • Legible text and a display large enough to show about 10-20 lines.
  • It is off when I am not using it. I turn it on to use it.
  • It takes an input word and return definitions. Nothing else.

Now, electronic dictionaries are a thing and have been for a long time, but event the most recent offerings are frozen at a level of pre-smartphone tech at best. They deliver on some of my needs but are generally lacking.

They also suffer from feature bloat, where the manufacturers can’t help packing them with non-dictionary features, like games and translators, to try to make things more exciting.

The general sense is that these devices digitise the analog and then try to improve on the analog by adding these irrelevant features. I could, and I will, write whole pieces on this subject in the future.

A screenshot of an electronic dictionary available on line.
Here’s an example which initially grabs my attention but, upon reading the specs, is ultimately disappointing.

In short there are options out there, even some with internet connectivity. But most of them are not stocked anymore or expensive and inadequate.

To be clear, I am not naive to the fact that the smartphone is the reason for this situation. I know that a device which does so little seems like a step backwards. An unmarketable relic.

In addition we don't need to be making more hardware, particularly for single-purpose applications such as this, considering the politics behind the manufacture of our smartphones and other devices.

I can also acknowledge the redditor-like retort of "have you even heard of google?". A perfectly valid response in this world where the www is ubiquitous. Especially if you think everyone uses and reacts to technology in the same way.

But does it mean my desire for this imaginary device is any less valid?

It leads me to a concept which I’ve been throwing around for a while now. That is the idea of mono-tasking operating systems.

Consider an operating system which is dedicated to one task, one application. In this case it would be dedicated to being a dictionary. Let’s call it DictionaryOS.

Then, for example, consider an old smartphone. It has all the hardware, the computing power, and the connectivity needed to deliver the functionality of a dictionary, and it has been rendered obsolete by modern operating systems which demand more than the hardware can provide.

DictionaryOS can be installed on that smartphone, which almost certainly has an adequate display, input method, and internet connectivity, to turn it into a dedicated digital dictionary.

If DictionaryOS is designed and engineered from the ground up so that it is not doing anything which is unnecessary to its cause, it should, in theory, be efficient enough to work on any device.

But for now this is just an idea in my head.

I have experimented with proofs of concept using Ubuntu Core and X11 to boot into an app rather than a desktop environment, and had very crude success in simulating the experience. But even then there is a lot happening which is not necessary for a mono-tasking operating system. That’s why I expect such a thing would need to be completely original.

I do believe that this class of product can exist as software applied to existing, otherwise obsolete, hardware. At least to satisfy the like minded who prefer technology which is applied to doing one thing really well, and justified in how well it does that thing, not in how many other things it can do in addition.

Can you relate? Would you be interested in helping build an open-sourced DictionaryOS? Tweet me @fasterandworse - I’d love to hear from you.

As far as mono-tasking operating systems, this is just the beginning. Imagine what you could do with an old laptop if you had a mono-tasking operating system designed for writing? A TypewriterOS. I have plenty more to say about that, so stay tuned.