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

11/4/09Follow @wroush

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check the weather forecast, or catch up on their e-mail or RSS headlines, or browse the latest photos their friends and family have uploaded to Flickr, the Webbook could be just the ticket.

“If you go to Best Buy and hang around the computer department, half the questions will be, ‘I just want to get on the Internet, how do I best do that?’” Chuang says. “Well, we are the best way for people to get onto the Internet at home.”

Chuang also seems unconcerned about the towering scrapheap of “Internet appliances”—Web-centric computing devices dating back to the late 1990s, such as Netpliance’s i-Opener and 3Com’s Audrey—that went nowhere with general consumers.

“Today there are a lot of things that are different from back then,” Chuang says. “One, we have pervasive Wi-Fi and broadband. I think that definitely increases the utility of the Net. Two, we actually have stuff to do on the Net that is sort of interesting—we are just at the point that entertainment on the Net is rivaling that of traditional means. Lastly, we have great apps—all of the new, important apps nowadays are Web apps, not [desktop] software. When I look at my kids, I see them solely using the Web.”

John Chuang and the Litl Webbook in easel modeChuang and two Harvard classmates started employment agency Aquent (then called MacTemps) from their dorm rooms in 1986. It has since grown into a $400 million global staffing company, specializing in helping companies find marketing and design talent. But in 2007, Chuang says, he started working full-time on his vision for a new computer. It all started when he was looking around for a better home computer for his kids, and it dawned on him that traditional multipurpose computers aren’t built for today’s families.

“Everything my family uses is on the Web,” Chuang says. “I have kids from 5 to 13 years old. My 13-year-old has never installed software in her life. Everything she uses is a Web app. Yet she’s using a technology that was completely not designed for that. I thought that was a mismatch.”

Using his own resources—Litl hasn’t raised a dime in venture capital backing—Chuang assembled a team of 40 hardware and software engineers and user-interface designers. (About half work from a sixth-floor office at Aquent’s building on Exeter Street in Back Bay; the rest are scattered around the world.) After scrapping its first prototype, the Litl team came up with a matte-white and glossy-black machine that, on the outside at least, bears a strong resemblance to an Apple MacBook Pro. Turn it on, though, and you’ll see right away that this isn’t a Mac, or a Windows machine, or anything like them.

In place of a desktop, the Webbook has a home screen that displays up to 12 boxes that Chuang calls “Web cards.” Some represent Web pages, others represent RSS feeds, and still others represent widgets or “channels” that are the Webbook’s closest thing to native applications—for example, there’s an egg timer widget for use in the kitchen and a Weather Channel widget that shows the temperature outdoors. If you’re looking for analogies to the traditional PC world, think of the cards as … Next Page »

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

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