The Litl Computer That Could? Boston Startup Tries a New Take on the Home Internet Appliance

11/4/09Follow @wroush

Somebody forgot to tell John Chuang that it’s impossible to create a new kind of home computer these days.

Either that, or he didn’t listen. Because Chuang, a serial entrepreneur who made his first fortune in the staffing industry with Boston-based Aquent, has built a gadget that looks deceptively like a laptop but works nothing like any computer you’ve ever used. From the hardware to the user interface to the activities it supports, the new machine created by Chuang’s Boston-based startup, Litl, rejects three decades of convention and makes the Web, not the computer and all its software and operating-system encrustations, into the real show.

Litl took the lid off its so-called “Webbook” computer today after more than two years of top-secret development work. The device’s purpose, Chuang says, is to take advantage of the Web’s newfound maturity as a medium for digital entertainment and productivity and make it far simpler for people at home to access all those goodies—including photos, videos, news and weather, and Web apps—without having to manage files or desktop applications.

The Litl Webbook in laptop mode (left) and easel mode (right)“We didn’t want to build anything that already existed, or something with just marginal improvements,” Chuang says. “PCs have served a great purpose, but we wanted to take a crack at a different type of computer that would be for and of the Net.”

I visited Litl’s offices yesterday and had a chance to try out the Webbook, which goes on sale today at Amazon and at Litl’s website. (The price is $699, and Litl expects to ship the first units to consumers next week.) Beyond its laptop-like appearance, there isn’t much that veteran computer users like me will find familiar about the device. There’s no desktop, no windows or menus or files or folders, no multitasking, no long lists of third-party software applications to buy. There isn’t even a hard drive or a CD/DVD drive.

While the Webbook is definitely a computer—with a 1.6-gigahertz Intel Atom processor, a gigabyte of RAM, a Wi-Fi card, a Webcam, and a nice graphics chip inside—it’s also got a good dose of TV mixed into its genome. It has a separate remote control, its display can be folded almost all the way back so that it stands up on a table or countertop like an easel, and it has a cord that connects it with no fuss to your flat-screen TV, so you can see what you’re doing on a really big screen.

In other words, the Webbook breaks all the rules of personal computing. And while it may be the perfect machine for consumers who just want to get on the Internet and have no use for all of a traditional PC’s bells and whistles, Chuang is likely to face an initial wave of skepticism from heavy computer users and technology industry insiders. They probably won’t grok how a machine that doesn’t even have software, the way we’re used to thinking of software, could still be useful.

But Chuang doesn’t seem to care much about what the digerati think; his device isn’t designed for them. Or to put it more accurately, it’s designed for their coffee tables and kitchen counters, rather than their offices or their backpacks. “We’re about shared processing, not local processing,” he explains. For tasks that require lots of local processing power, like video editing, power users are still going to want and need a traditional multipurpose computer. But if they just want to … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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