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

11/4/09Follow @wroush

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tabs on a browser. But Web cards aren’t static icons like browser tab labels or the app buttons on a smartphone; they’re in constant motion, showing a miniature version of whatever is going on inside that card.

The Webbook does have a trackpad and an onscreen cursor; if you use it to click on a Web card, its contents will fill the screen, whether that’s a Web browser page or a photo album or a widget. To get back to the home screen, you press the green “Litl” button on the keyboard. “In Litl OS, everything is always a full screen,” Chuang says. “There is no window management; you never resize anything. Since the screen is the most expensive part of a laptop, we let you use the full screen at all times.”

The “Litl OS” to which Chuang refers isn’t an operating system per se, but rather a layer of custom-built user-interface software with the open-source Linux operating system running underneath. It does things like displaying the Web cards and switching the Webbook into “easel mode” when its screen is pivoted back. In that mode, you can navigate between Web cards using either the unique roller-wheel built into the Webbook’s spine, or the supplied remote control, which includes a smaller version of the wheel. [Correction, 11/13/09: The remote control for the Litl Webbook must be purchased separately, for $19.]

Litl Webbook displaying Weather Channel contentIn easel mode, the Webbook “is more like a TV,” says Chuang. “It’s passive viewing, perfect for a kitchen counter or a nightstand or a family room or anytime you want ambient information and a smaller footprint.” In this configuration, for example, the Webbook can play home videos, or mimic a digital photo frame by going into slide-show mode with your Flickr or Shutterfly photos. (The videos and photos are downloaded from the Web on the fly, of course, since the device isn’t designed to store content).

One crucial point that Chuang emphasizes about the Webbook’s user interface—i.e., the system of Web cards—is that it was designed to be independent of the device itself. “Before we started, everyone built operating systems for a particular device,” he says. “We thought that’s an error, because in today’s world there are a lot of connected devices, and the trick is to build an OS for the whole ecosystem of devices a person uses.” That means designing a navigation scheme that works well whether the display is two feet away, like a laptop’s screen, or 10 feet away, like a TV. “What we have done at Litl is make sure we have built a user interface that gives you a continuous experience between all modes,” Chuang says.

Companies like Hulu, Boxee, and ZeeVee have put a lot of work into video-browser software that makes the idea of using your HDTV screen as an external monitor for your PC more palatable. But the beauty of the Litl OS interface is that it doesn’t require any translation: if you plug an HDMI cable into the Webbook, it will take over your TV screen, and show the same set of Web cards that you’d see on the computer. “The same metaphors and ways of using Litl on a laptop are exactly how you would use Litl on your TV,” Chuang says.

To encourage families to buy multiple Webbooks, Litl has made it easy to link the online accounts associated with each device and share content between them. If you come across a photo or a video that you like, you can easily mark it for synchronization with other linked Webbooks. (In this respect, the Webbook is very similar to the Vizit photo frame from Concord, MA-based Isabella Products, a $250 gadget that I wrote about back in September.)

Externally, the Webbook bears such a close resemblance to a traditional laptop—with the exception of the easel-mode configuration—that it can’t really be described as a breakthrough in … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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