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 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 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 hardware design. It’s the simplified operating environment, and the decision to pull almost everything from the Web, that really set the project apart from what traditional desktop and laptop computer makers, from Dell to HP to Sony to Acer to Apple, have been building for lo these many years.

But I had a question for Chuang: Isn’t he concerned that consumers just won’t get it, and that in trying to carve out a new category for itself, the Litl Webbook will simply fall between the cracks? After all, other entertainment devices such as digital photo frames and personal video players perform similar functions for a lot less money. And for an equivalent sum, a person could could buy a very nice netbook, which will handle not just Web content but also the full panoply of third-party software developed for the Windows world. [Update 11/4/09: Indeed, such criticisms are surfacing in the blogosphere even faster than I thought they would.]

Using the Litl WebbookChuang says he thinks consumers will be willing to pay for simplicity. “We have everything they need and nothing they don’t,” he says. “We think that at $699, we are the best value in the world, because we have things that other computers don’t have at any price. You cannot get a better screen or an easier-to-use user interface, or HDMI plug-and-play like you do here. You can’t get our ability to integrate and display all your online photos and share them and project them onto a giant TV. So we think we’re a really great value.”

It may take a while to tell whether consumers agree. Chuang says Litl doesn’t plan to mount an expensive national marketing campaign, but will instead let the buzz about the Webbook spread by word of mouth, while focusing its internal efforts on creating more channels of content for the Webbook and keeping customers happy. (It’s kicking off that effort with a “caffeine-powered meet-and-greet” launch party today at the Starbucks at 755 Boylston Street, just around the corner from Litl’s offices; the party runs from 10:30 a.m. through noon.)

Recruiting customers who believe in the product is more important right now than finding a lot of them, Chuang says. “We can have a long-term view because we’re self-funded,” he says. “We know we have a great device, and right now we want to make sure we sell it to customers who are buying it for the right reasons.”

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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