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 you could also think about karaoke and other group activities and games that would be very different. Then you can think about how the big real estate on an HDTV allows multiple streams—you could be watching something and browsing something and playing something at the same time.”

Chuang says the set-top box project doesn’t signify a move away from the Webbook for Litl, although it is meant to open up a different and perhaps broader path to market for the underlying operating system.

“A set-top box has this interesting ingredient in that it avoids the most expensive cost item in any laptop, which is the screen,” Chuang says. “But I wouldn’t say that our vision is that we are only going to be on TVs. We believe that the power of the Litl OS is that it can work on all of your screens, from handhelds to laptops to TVs. We’re working hard to get our OS working on all of those things, so that you can really experience the power of Litl.”

Here are a few other interesting outtakes from my conversation with Chuang:

Xconomy: When you say “set-top box,” I either think of the Motorola or Atlanta Scientific boxes that you rent from your cable company, or of the much smaller devices like Apple TV or the Roku Player. What will your box look like?

John Chuang: It will probably be someplace in between those two extremes. For folks who are putting TV on TV, the set-top box tends to have silicon [of a certain speed] to play a TV show or a movie or access Hulu or Netflix. We want to be able to do that too, but we think that the apps that really should be on a box like this should do a heck of a lot more. So therefore the silicon we’re putting in our set-top box will be significantly more powerful than anything that’s built for a set-top box right now. Our silicon is more desktop-class silicon, and it’s going to be able to drive apps that require power. Hence our physical form factor is going to be a little bit bigger [than the Roku or Apple devices]. But it will still be reasonable to stick behind your TV.

Remote control for the Litl WebboxX: How closely will the user interface for the set-top box resemble the interface for the Webbook, and what type of remote control will you build for it?

JC: We obviously work a lot with the user interface, and we think the UI for computers needs to be simplified, needs to go away from file management and more toward content management—getting away from the primary function of controlling the computer and going toward the primary function of interacting with your friends and your e-mail and your content. We are taking that same philosophy to the TV, but with even more exceptions, because the TV interface, we think, needs to be much simpler. So something like what you see on the Litl Webbook in easel mode, one could expect something similar to that on the TV. We’re looking for content that is streamlined, easy to flip through, easy to access, that doesn’t have a ton of menus and icons.

In terms of the remote, that is a critical piece of what we’re doing, and we’re going to be introducing a remote that is unbelievably simple. When you think of a remote today you think of something with a zillion buttons. Our remote will have two modes to it. The first mode that is going to be elegant, clean, and simple, will rely on gestures to move between screens on the TV and control our channels. Then, upon a slide mechanism, it will reveal controls that may be similar to a smartphone or a BlackBerry that allow you to thumb- and touch-type. That’s a form factor that people are used to, and it would enable them to do more Web-based inputs.

X: Your remote sounds a lot like an Android phone with a slide-out keyboard—which makes me wonder how expensive it will be.

JC: We are going to have more information about price later on. This whole package is going to be very affordable. The remote will not have a screen on it. It will have a touchpad, and it will likely have an accelerometer. Most importantly, the SDK will have access to the remote, so that Flash developers can develop some amazing applications that tap into it.

X: I assume you’re going to continue to use Flash as your basic operating environment on the set-top box.

JC: We think the Flash universe is the best universe for now. There are lots of developers, there are lots of existing apps that can be imported very easily, and most importantly, there are tools available to build really compelling applications. Some people look at the Webbook and say, “Wow, this is a Flash computer!” That being said, our browser is certainly all ready for HTML 5, and capable of doing that. But we think the best applications today are in Flash, and we plan to optimize our device to play great Flash on the TV. If you want to build a Flash app for TVs, we are going to be the best mechanism.

X: Do you see the set-top box as a supplement to the Webbook, or an alternative to it, or a replacement for it?

JC: This device works independently of the Webbook, but at the same time plays really nicely with the Webbook. You don’t need a Webbook to work it, and you will get all the great functions of the Litl OS. Everything you can do on a Webbook you will be able to do on this device, except for the inherently portable parts of it. Because it’s one operating system up in the cloud, everything is totally synchronized—if you had a Webbook and our set-top box, everything will sync. When you make a change on one or add a channel, it will automatically appear on the other. Later down the road we see apps coming that utilize both machines, so that perhaps the TV is showing one thing and the Webbook is showing another but together they are forming a great experience.

X: But it sounds like the set-top box would represent a very different path to market for you than the Webbook. There may be lots of households that wouldn’t be interested in having another laptop-style device around the house but might be interested in having something that makes their existing big-screen TV more useful.

JC: We think it definitely expands the market. The intersection of HDMI-capable TVs and broadband includes 50 million households in the US. So this is definitely a different path to market. It’s about the one screen in the house that is crying out for an Internet connection.

X: But a lot of big players have tried to build boxes that marry broadband, the Web, and TV and have essentially failed. Microsoft tried it with WebTV and failed. Even Apple hasn’t gotten much traction with Apple TV. Does that worry you?

JC: That is what creates the opportunity. I think a lot of interesting things are going to happen over the next two years in this space. Who knows what the connected TV will be. Is it going to be a widgety thing [with new TVs coming with built-in software for connecting to Internet video] or a “TV on TV” thing? There’s a lot that could potentially happen, but we are pretty sure that there is going to be a separate, new device sitting next to the TV that gives people the flexibility not to be locked in. We believe in the TV as monitor rather than the TV as software. The replacement cycle for a big TV is very different from the replacement cycle of a set-top box. In the history of TV, nothing has ever really managed to attach itself to the TV—not VCRs, not DVRs, not gaming consoles. They all tend to be separate, because customers don’t want to lock themselves into certain things. So in our view, there is going to be a box.

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

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