Litl Lays Plans for Channel Store to Offer New Kinds of Webbook Content

Litl made a big splash last November when it launched the Webbook. The home Internet appliance may look like a laptop, but it’s actually designed as a delivery platform for Flash-based “channels” that put useful information up front and hide details such as files, applications, windows, and operating systems. One of the clearest signs that the Boston-based startup had cooked up something very different from most computers today was the device’s “easel mode;” in this configuration, the keyboard acts as kickstand for the screen, which automatically reformats its content for “lean-back” viewing rather than “lean-forward” interaction. Observers applauded Litl for creating a device that was more about content than computing.

There was just one problem: there weren’t very many channels to choose from. There was a clock channel, a weather channel, a photo channel, a Facebook status channel, and a handful of others, and you could make your own channels from RSS news feeds. But the variety of custom content that Litl had created for the $699 gadget didn’t compare to the Web itself, or to the tens of thousands of apps available for cheaper platforms like the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. So buying a Webbook was sort of like buying a Blu-Ray player before it was clear that movie studios would release lots of Blu-Ray discs. Consumers had to take it on faith that Litl would work to create additional channels.

Now the startup is following through on its end of that bargain. The company announced last week that it’s getting ready to release a software development kit (SDK) that will enable Web and software developers to create their own custom channels for the Webbook. These channels are all built on Flash, the lingua franca of Web animation and the one type of content that doesn’t work on the iPhone or the iPad.

That’s good news for Litl customers, and it could also benefit developers. “By putting another screen, another kind of experience into homes, we’re bringing a unique audience into the market and giving independent and agency developers another audience to build for,” says Chuck Freedman, Litl’s chief developer evangelist.

The Litl Webbook in easel modeScott Janousek, a Flash programmer who leads Boston-based app developer Hooken Mobile, agrees. Janousek said in a press statement last week that he’s “quite excited” about the Litl SDK, since it “represents a unique opportunity for the broader Flash community to get involved creating content for an interesting form-factor and innovative cloud-based operating system.”

At a time when any mobile-computing platform (think iPhone, Android, Palm, or Blackberry) needs a large selection of third-party applications to be credible, SDKs are the playbooks manufacturers use to orient developers and show them how to exploit each device’s capabilities. The iPhone SDK, for example, instructs developers how to take advantage of the multi-touch screen and tap into the device’s location-finding features. While Litl’s SDK is “dead simple,” in Freedman’s words, it does hold the secrets to a few key tricks, such as adapting content for easel mode. (See the photo here for an illustration of easel mode in action.)

Under development since before the Webbook’s launch, the SDK is being shared with hand-picked beta testers right now, and the company plans to make it widely available starting … Next Page »

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

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