Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

First thoughts on litl’s Easel.

I’ve been waiting for litl to break cover for what seems like forever. The people seem to be all extremely smart, and it sounded like they had such a great idea, even if no-one knew what it was. However, engadget have seen some FCC information on a new “Easel” product from litl – and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed, because it’s a netbook.

Of course, it almost certainly isn’t. The FCC photos take the extremely strange step of photographing it standing on the top screen edge: a position many netbooks wouldn’t be able to reach (some do, but not many). That, combined with a strange rubber insert along that top edge and a conveniently located power button make me think this thing is designed to spend much of it’s life in that position. Much like a photograph standing on the mantlepiece, this thing is probably designed to sit in your living space and “do stuff”. I could be wrong; the IR detector on the front of the keyboard is presumably needed for something, but there could be another built into the bezel somewhere (the FCC photos appear to show one). Interestingly, it’s designed by FIC apparently – the same people from whom OpenMoko spun out of.

What “stuff”, I’m not sure. It doesn’t look like it has a touchscreen (and it has the keyboard attached), but it does seem to have a webcam. Presumably you can Skype or something through this thing, but to interact with it you have to pick it up and flip it over? I suppose one possibility is that it has insane battery life, a wake-on-wlan function somehow and doesn’t need to be permanently strapped into a power socket, but I don’t know – having an Intel Atom and stuff probably means it doesn’t do that.

Doesn’t seem to have DVD/TV even though it has an HDMI output, doesn’t have 3G, doesn’t have touchscreen, etc. If it’s supposed to do something like a Joggler that would make some sense, except that again it doesn’t seem quite so interactive. Can’t believe it’s any good for gaming.

So, I’m kind of at a loss. If you’re going to all the effort of designing your own hardware, there’s usually a reason – a la OLPC. But this doesn’t seem to have many interesting features, except that it’s totally legacy and peripheral free – it only has one USB socket. Presumably the software has tonnes of interesting features, but in these days of Maemo and Moblin I wonder how close to the state of the art this is, or whether it’s in a kind of Daikatana situation. If it turns out to be another Chumby – well, that’s nice, but again disappointing (Chumby already exists, after all).

We only have around a week to wait to find out apparently, but I’m kind of left feeling “what’s the point”? If this is really just a netbook for accessing web content, I don’t understand it at all. You don’t need custom hardware for that, and people already know how to use web browsers. I hope I’m wrong, but it’s vastly underwhelming so far.


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  1. HUb

    HDMI is the new video connector standard. It is like having a RCA jack for composite video, but in better.

    FWIW, I have more HDMI input on my TV than analog composite video.

    So DVD or not it is still very relevant.

  2. Alex

    It’s potentially relevant. The problem is, if you’re sticking this into your TV, there usually would need to be a good reason: I don’t believe that “showing photos off Flikr” is a terribly good reason. The basic question is, “Why would I plug this into a TV?”.

    I have no problem with the HDMI being an option; I just don’t see the use case. Internet video is about the only possibility I can think of, but (at least in the UK) you probably have better equipment than this thing to play that stuff back.

  3. thinsmek

    Well, litl is out now. What dp you think of it?

  4. Alex

    Well, having had a quick look on their website, the price is now apparently $399 – which is much closer to the mark. However, the store is currently broken, so there doesn’t appear to be a way to buy it at all! I keep referring to litl as a decadent company, and I think this is another good example: they make it really hard to become a customer.

    I would worry a bit that the price is being brought down to shift stock to make way for a new model netbook, I don’t like their TV box offering, but I think there are two major, major problems that remain. litl made two bets with the netbook: the first that Flash would be a good app development system, and the second that a keyboard would be better than a touchscreen. I think they lost both those bets, and if we’re honest if you’re choosing between a $399 litl netbook and a similarly priced Android tablet, are you really going to choose the netbook?

    I think there is also a fundamental problem that Google Chrome, and the Cr-48 system (and other hardware which will undoubtedly come out) is going to eat whatever lunch litl were able to eke out. As far as I know, the TV system they announced last May isn’t out yet, and they don’t appear to have much else in the way of roadmap. I wouldn’t buy into that personally.

  5. I would have thought anyone kids younger than 10 may actually prefer (or suit) a litl netbook better than a pc tablet, iPad, or Google netbook. The litl seems to be what I would place in home on the coffee table for anyone to interact with, or use for very casual stuff (just as they market it).

    Chrome OS is going to be great. But I think the way Google is starting to market to businesses, and talk about speed, security, simplicity etc; these netbooks will be built for productivity and computability with an online lifestyle, rather than recreation. I think litl would be the opposite.

    As for the TV box, I don’t know what to say except that TV in general seems to be heading off the broadcasters and onto the internet “box”.

  6. Alex

    I’m not sure I agree with much of that. I think litl is a bit closed for kids; it’s not going to play many non-trivial games, you can’t play media on it, you can’t plug a camera or printer into it, there’s little educational software for it (there’s stuff on the web I guess), so in that sense I don’t really see why it would particularly suits kids beyond the fact that it doesn’t do much. I always find the “so simple kids can use it!” argument pretty specious – kids are the *most* technically adept and don’t need hand-holding like that.

    I’m not sure I agree with the TV bit either. The broadcasters are moving onto the net for sure, but they’re still in control: see iPlayer, iTunes, etc. The broadcasters have the overwhelming advantage of having contracts in place to rebroadcast a lot of this stuff. The only content a box like litl can access is going to be available via broadcasters.

  7. In both claims, I was speaking from the top of my head : P

    I have never tried a litl before, and I don’t know anything about TV.
    So thanks for clarifying my understanding of both subjects!

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