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?