David Heinemeier Hansson

April 12, 2024

Imperfections create connections

The engine is in wrong place in a Porsche 911. It's hanging out the back, swinging the car like a pendulum. And that's key to why it's the most iconic sports car ever made. This fundamental imperfection is part of how it creates the connection.

This is true of mechanical watches too. They're hilariously complicated pieces of engineering that tell time worse than a $20 Casio quartz watch. And that's why we love them. The imperfection of timekeeping, the need to manually wind the things, cements the connection.

That's how computers used to feel too. The Amiga, and the Commodore 64 before it, were quirky bread boxes. Using chips named things like Agnus, Alice, Denise, Lisa, and Paula. With clicking, whirring disk drives. The flickering screen when software was loading. As distinctly different from the competition as a Porsche flat-six is from a Ferrari V12.

But the quirky is almost all gone from modern day computers. The mac in particular has been massaged to within an inch of perfection, and has thus become harder to connect with. It's a curious contradiction. We strive to make things better and better, but if we succeed, we reminisce of the quirks that used to be.

The last MacBook I really loved was the original 11" MacBook Air. It was full of compromises. A cramped screen. Chips that weren't quite fast enough. An iconic, wedgy design. It was so good because it was also kinda bad.

I thought that era was simply gone. But over the last month or so, I've developed much of the same affection for the Framework 13. Exactly because of all it's compromises and it's quirky design choices.

It uses an odd 3:2 display, which is almost as tall as it is wide. In a time when most every other maker has gone 16:9 or 16:10. And it's matte, not glossy.

The keyboard has twice the travel of most modern laptops. Giving it almost a vintage feel, which, once you get used to it, is really addictive.

It has interchangeable ports?! You can configure the 4 slots with every combination of USB C, USB A, ethernet ports, HDMI ports, and additional storage you desire. Then swap them quickly and easily. An ingenious alternative to dongle life.

And to top it off, I've chosen to run Linux on mine full time. I started out dual booting with Windows, but quickly realized that Linux ran faster on this AMD 7840U chip, and I found that Linux gave me everything I needed in more of that quirky style that gives the Framework machine its appeal in the first place.

Those are all the good parts, but there are plenty of drawbacks too. Compared to a modern MacBook, the battery is inferior. I got 6 hours in mixed use yesterday. The screen is only barely adequate to run at retina-like 2x for smooth looking fonts. Linux is far less polished than macOS. But somehow it just doesn't really matter.

First of all, 6 hours is enough for regular use. If I'm doing more than that in a single stint without getting up, I'll be paying for it physically anyway. And the somewhat cramped resolution has made me fall in love with full-screen apps again, like I used to do with that 11" MacBook Air.

But this is all picking at the parts when the grand story is the sum. This quirky, flawed machine has created a connection I haven't had with a piece of physical computer hardware in a very long time. That's notable!

I know this testimony isn't likely to appeal seriously to most mac users. Just like it wouldn't really have appealed to me a year or two ago. I just wasn't in the market for a change. And that's fine. Apple makes really, really good computers these days. Damn near perfect ones.

And most people don't care that the 911 has the engine in the back. In fact, they don't care about cars at all, really. They just want to get from A to B, as quickly, cheaply, and smoothly as possible. And they tell time perfectly from their smart phone display. This is the democratization of progress. Wonderful.

But if you're the kind of person who might appreciate a slightly notchy manual gearbox, the click of a mechanical shutter on a camera, the ticking of the escapement in a watch, or, dare I say it, putting on a vinyl record, you should checkout the Framework 13. The AMD version starts at just around a thousand bucks. So it's not like you have to switch your whole computing life around to give it a try.

And, if you're a programmer, I think you should actually give Linux a try as well. I've smirked about "This Is The Year of Linux on the Desktop" for over twenty years, but now that I've been actually running it for over a month, I've realized it's actually here. And probably has been for quite a while. I just run Ubuntu 23.10, and together with ulauncher + tactile, it's a delightful desktop experience (see my whole Ubuntu setup script). I even found a replacement for my beloved iA Writer in Typora!

Make no mistake, there's more fuss. More snags, more imperfections. So if you go in expecting the same level of perfection you'd get from company worth three trillion, you might be disappointed. But if you consider this the work of a worldwide open source community, it's incredible how close it is in most areas, ahead in a few, and not that far behind in the rest.

Dare to add a little imperfection into your computing setup, and you might just find a deeper connection to the bits and electrons running it all. And if you don't, at least you got to see the sun rise in a fun location.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.