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.
Scott 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 May 14, at the Flash and the City conference in New York City. Litl is co-sponsoring the conference with Adobe Systems, whose Flash Player is the underlying software environment for all Webbook channels.
To understand the Litl SDK and build a Webbook channel, in other words, you need to be a Flash programmer like Janousek. But that’s okay, because there are more than 2.5 million Flash developers around the world. They’re the same people who build video portals, casual games, and rich Internet applications that are flooding the Web today.
“The Flash community right now is known as one of the most creative in the world,” says Freedman, who walked me through Litl’s plans on Monday. “Because our device is built around Flash, it will support the seamless, uninterrupted experiences you are used to seeing on the Web with Hulu or casual games, except that we’ve taken Flash out of the browser and made a standalone implementation.”
By sharing its SDK now, Litl hopes to get hundreds of outside developers working on new Webbook channels. Then, in a few months, it will launch a “channel store” where developers could charge one-time fees or subscriptions for access to premium channels.
“There will be free content and fee-based content, and developers will pull a revenue stream from that,” says Freedman. “There’s also the fact that the device has Flash, which means developers could pull Flash-based banner ads from third-party services.”
The schedule for the channel store’s launch isn’t entirely clear, since it’s being built around the 10.1 version of Adobe’s Flash Player, and Adobe hasn’t said when 10.1 will be ready, only that it’s coming “in the first half of 2010.”
But the general process Litl is going through consciously echoes the evolution of previous platforms such as the iPhone. There were no third-party apps for the iPhone when Apple launched the device in June 2007. But in Februrary 2008, Apple put out an SDK, followed a few months later by the debut of the iTunes App Store. Now, App Store visitors can browse, buy, and download over 150,000 apps.
Given that the Webbook is still a niche product—Litl’s marketing vice president, James Gardner, says the company is “very pleased” with demand so far, but the company hasn’t revealed specific sales figures—no one is expecting that there will be thousands of custom channels anytime soon. But for an example of what these channels might look like, the company points to Bakespace.com, a Los Angeles-based social networking site for home gourmets. Bakespace worked with Litl to create a Webbook channel that lets users search Bakespace’s database of recipes and mark favorites for fast retrieval. In easel mode, individual recipes pop up on the screen in larger fonts, so that cooks can follow along more easily.
“We wanted it to be simpler to see when you’re in the kitchen, so you can cook with ease and joy,” says Freedman. “We’re setting the example for developers with channels like this, and I expect they’ll catch on and see what users are hungry for.” (So to speak.)
So much of Litl’s emphasis is on the channels and their content, rather than on the Webbook itself, that you can almost think of the device as a smart digital picture frame that happens to have a keyboard. In view of the fact that the device is simply a vessel for the larger vision, it might only be a matter of time before Litl evolves from an appliance maker into a content company, supplying Litl channels to a range of devices. After all, there’s no particular reason a Mac or Windows laptop couldn’t display the same Flash content designed for the Webbook.
“The reality is that the software experience is the secret sauce,” Litl’s Gardner admitted when I probed on this point. “We haven’t talked too much about the next-generation Litl device, but maybe we should really be thinking about how we can take this experience and deliver it to people in an enjoyable way that doesn’t have to be tied to this physical form factor.”
Freedman agreed, saying he would eventually like to enable Webbook channel developers to “write once, deploy to many.” “I love the concept of being able to build something and know my user base doesn’t have to be specific or local to one device, but that what I’m creating can be experienced across many platforms,” Freedman says, in a not-so-veiled dig at the iPhone/iPad ecosystem.
But first things first—Litl’s current task is simply to get the SDK out the door. “Rolling out an SDK is like rolling out another product,” says Freedman. “The team needs to be built out and the support in place. We’re accompanying the SDK with sample channels and a lot of sample code that developers can customize and redeploy, as well as some amazing documentation, guides, and videos.”
The key SDK component sucking up the time of Freedman’s team is the Webbook simulator, which mimics the behavior of the Webbook on a conventional PC. “The simulator is really important, since we can’t assume that every developer in our community is going to own a Litl, or if they do, that it will be at hand,” says Freedman. “I have one at home, for example, but usually my wife or my son are using it.” Which probably means Litl is doing something right.
The video below is republished by permission from Litl’s developer site, developer.litl.com.