Boston’s Litl to Bring Simplicity–and Flash—to Big-Screen Televisions

5/12/10Follow @wroush

[Updated 1:30 p.m. 5/13/10 with product images] Litl, the Boston-based startup behind the unconventional Webbook home information appliance, is about to jump into the tumultuous and competitive “connected TV” market. At the Flash and the City conference this weekend in New York, the company will announce plans for a set-top box designed to let people interact with Flash-powered applications on their home televisions through the same simplified Litl OS operating system that the startup developed for the Webbook.

The Litl set-top box, which doesn’t have its own name yet, will come out early next year and will connect both to users’ home Internet service and to their large-screen TVs through an HDMI port, Litl CEO John Chuang told me today. It will have a remote control with a touchpad for gesture-based commands and a slide-out keyboard for text entry. “The whole package is going to be very affordable,” Chuang says, and will, in essence, let users access the same kinds of cloud-based content available to owners of the $699 Webbook, but without a traditional computer in the loop.

We’re looking forward to hearing more details about Litl’s plans when Chuang speaks at the Xconomy Summit on Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship on June 17 at Babson College; he’ll be one of several “Innovator Profile” speakers giving multimedia presentations on their work. For now, Chuang says the Litl set-top box will be driven by the same usability principles behind the Webbook—namely, an emphasis on quick access to content and applications, with a minimum of fuss over file management and other types of drudgery that usually go with operating a PC. But as the Webbook’s close cousin, the set-top box will also be a new type of beast in the connected TV market. The emphasis for most makers of Internet-connected set-top boxes has been on making it easier to access Internet-based video content on big screens (ZeeVee’s Zinc browser, which we’ve covered here, here, and here, is one example). Chuang has something else in mind.

The Litl "Webbox" set-top box“Our vision for what can happen on a TV is perhaps a little different from what’s existing out there right now,” says Chuang. “The major focus for box makers is what I would describe as ‘putting TV on TV,’ whether it’s movies or TV shows, and whether it’s Roku or Boxee or ZeeVee. I think that’s great, and we will certainly be able to play movies and TV, but what we are going to do is a lot more than that. Our goal is building new types of applications and experiences that are much more Web-centric than TV-centric.”

What those experiences might look like isn’t quite clear yet, although early signs are visible in the applications or “channels” custom-designed by Litl for the Webbook, such as a simplified interface for Facebook, a Weather Channel, a Flickr photo browser, and a Bakespace cooking app. As I reported in March, Litl plans to release a software development kit (SDK) this week that will make it easier for any programmer familiar with Adobe’s Flash multimedia format to create more such apps for the Webbook and the new set-top box.

Chuang says Litl won’t spend a lot of time trying to replicate PC- or mobile-style apps for the set-top box. “Our view of the world is that a lot of the apps that are being built, whether it’s for an iPhone or a laptop or an iPad, are really individual-based, meant for one person to use at a time,” he says. “What we’re going to enable to world to do is create a different type of app, that perhaps is more group-centered. That’s what TV is good for—you generally have your TV in a family room with a couch in front of it. The photos and the home movies have a place and that works, but … Next Page »

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

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