Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

WikiReader – “Project B”

Let me start this by saying that I really, really want OpenMoko Inc. to be a raging success. With Android, Palm Pre and other “Linux phones” showing pretty how not to do things (jury’s out on N900 for me still), the properly free smartphone is an idea whose time is very definitely here. Sadly, with the freeping creaturism of the phone market and the need to develop both a hardware and software stack simultaneously, that didn’t seem to work out so well, so OM are now going to their backup plan: “WikiReader“.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Simple. I don’t particularly like the look of this device, but I respect the design: the reduced form factor, the insane battery life, the readable screen. Not sure on the wedge shape (presumably necessitated by the choice of AAA power supply), not sure on the buttons (surely it could have just been one touch screen?), but those are design choices. It has obviously been designed, and that’s excellent.

However, although it has been designed, who has it been designed for? The wedge shape makes it less pocketable, and most adults I know already have phones which beat this device into a cocked hat. So I’m pretty sure it’s not really designed for me. Because it’s essentially an offline device, presumably the people it is designed for are mostly/entirely offline: however, if they’re offline because they can’t afford it, it’s difficult to see how/why they would pay $100 for one of these things. I’m also deeply sceptical of any project which attempts to address the “IT needs of the developing world” in a fashion which involves shipping basic devices that no-one in London or New York or (other “not developing world” place) would actually use.

So, my conclusion is that this device has been designed for children, and probably children in families who have a pretty high income. But, here’s the thing: if I was designing it for children, I would not make a device that was black and white, had no pictures / illustrations / animations, had no music / sound, etc. I mean, this thing is boring. And is adult wikipedia actually suitable for children? I don’t know what the reading age of the site actually is, but I’d imagine you’d have to be into your teens to understand most of it (particularly without diagrams and stuff).

I hope I’m the one who’s dead wrong about this device. I’m thinking of excuses, right now, I can use to buy one. But, it doesn’t have any kind of connectivity: I couldn’t hack it to store contacts or calendar appointments, and putting stuff like a wifi card into the micro-sd slot (assuming that would even be possible – does it have in-built flash? think not..) would effectively kill the battery life. I have this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach that this is a brilliantly designed device implementing a wonderful idea that no-one actually will want. And that would be very, very sad.

“Free hardware” seems like an obviously winning idea. Has anyone actually successfully executed it yet though?

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5 Comments

  1. anzan

    I’ve just ordered one. Wifi is very expensive in Canada and so when I’m out and about I usually have a few Wikipedia pages loaded on an Eee. The Wikireader will be perfect, especially for reading outside in sunlight.

  2. Julian Aloofi

    I think they idea is neat, and I actually thought about buying this, although I’m not sure I will.
    I’m pretty happy with my mobile phone, but it can’t connect to the internet and I don’t know any j2me-based offline Wikipedia readers for mobile phones.
    I quite often think about how great it would be to ask Wikipedia in a specific situation, and this device is the cheapest way to reach that.
    It also is pretty mobile, so I can take it with me wherever I go.
    I even thought about byuing a Kindle for that purpose (before looking at the pricing^^), but this device fits my need so perfectly that I can’t really believe it 😀
    I’m just waiting for more details to become clear, for example how I can load updates onto the SD card or how to use another language.
    I like the idea!

  3. You know what? I think this is a winner.

    Remember how calculators changed maths for the current generation? This could do the same for every other school subject. And maths too.

    Imagine most kids having this sort of device in their pockets. Suddenly the teaching paradigm moves from sourcing information to critical analysis of that information.

    I hear too often about homework assignments that are “go and look up X on the internet and write a summary of what you’ve found”, which seems like total cop-outs by teachers and don’t do much to stimulate critical thinking. If you assume EVERYONE has this information in their pocket, you will raise the bar on the type of assignment that will be set.

    Instantly we go from “here is how to use a slide rule” to “let’s talk about graphing equations”.

    Wow.

  4. Alex

    @Andrew: I would agree, *except* – this unit doesn’t do those things. Graphing calculators were huge, but they were interactive and you could put stuff in them. You could program them, essentially. This is more like the digital pocket dictionary or the digital language lab: these hardly rocked the world, because they’re read-only and essentially fixed.

    This thing isn’t interactive except in the most basic way. It’s basically Wikipedia TV, where you flip between the channels. No cut and paste. No annotations. No editing. No pictures and sounds. No current affairs.

    And are we really saying kids don’t have these devices already? The killer feature of Wikireader is that it’s simple and the battery lasts forever. But kids really don’t care about either of those things, and they probably already have more powerful phones with bigger screens – particularly at GCSE+.

    I hope I’m just being cynical, but this “wow! wikipedia in your pocket!” just doesn’t grab me. The first kid who walks into school with Microsoft Courier is going to ensure no other kid ever pulls out a Wikireader again though.

  5. I bought one, (actually bought two, one for my sister, one for me.) I use Wikipedia daily and this is a handy device that is faster to access the information on than the internet on most mobile phones, *I think.

    It is also possible to upload the entire Project Gutenberg library onto it so it becomes an ebook reader of sorts. I also believe that down the line, it will become possible to upload your own ebooks to it through someones hard work and hacking skill. Wait and see. For under £20 it is super cheap and could become the cheapest ebook reader available.

    In response to a few points you made though:

    I live in zone 2, London and use this on my daily commutes to and from work.

    The only products released that aren’t designed are the ones you flush. Whether they’re designed well or not.

    I’m not sure where you heard that the Wikireader was attempting to address the “IT needs of the developing world” as it would be ridiculous and oxymoronic to make this claim with an offline device. If the makers did make this statement I’d feel quite sick about buying it. Hopefully they didn’t?

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