Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Date: November 4, 2009

Whatever happened to the Chandler project?

Years ago, Mitch Kapor invested large sums of money into the OSAF – Open Source Applications Foundation – to come up with a new personal information manager called Chandler. Having burned through the $8 million they got via various means ($5M from Kapor originally), most (all?) of their developers were cut loose early in 2009 as I understand it, leaving the Chandler project – and associated projects – somewhat in limbo.

On a whim, I decided to have a look at the current state of play: turns out Chandler 1.0 is pretty much dead, and the work is now concentrating on re-architecting the software for Chandler 2.0. Having been in a similar position myself with the Bongo project – though I like to think the work we’ve done has been more evolutionary than revolutionary, except where absolutely necessary (e.g., the Hula store not being able to handle concurrency – d’oh!). The pages don’t seem to say why, although I seem to remember Chandler suffering from various pretty severe performance issues (i.e., being unusable).

It also reminds me somewhat of the situation with Mozilla Messaging and Thunderbird 3. MozMess has had a few millions injected into it, and now their developers are on a spree of embedding “search”, databases, bizarre active folder systems, and “conversation view” into Thunderbird – literally every release in version 3 I’ve been using (and I use it as my main client) has been a step backwards for me.

Clearly the injection of substantial money isn’t any particular driver of success; indeed, on the other hand, it seems to have a negative correlation on those (extremely limited) data points. However, without resources to have people develop, it’s difficult to see how to build up enough momentum to make this stuff happen. It is something of a conundrum.

litl breaks cover – what to think?

So, litl has finally broken cover – I had written previously some first thoughts based on the various tid-bits that had leaked, and I thought it might be interesting to follow up on this. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that I had missed anything particularly big: this is supposed to sit like a photo frame in various places in your home, can connect up to a TV but doesn’t really do any multimedia stuff itself, doesn’t have non-wifi wireless, and doesn’t have a touchscreen. In short, it’s a big Chumby, and very similar to both that and Joggler.

I still don’t get why they went to the effort to design their own hardware. Ok, moving parts are gone – that’s good (although, it has a CF drive? Aren’t those hard drives writ small?). Aside from that, this is just a bit of a bendy netbook. One hopes they didn’t spend too much on the design of that. And the controller: well, ok, it has a wheel and a button, and the Mac-like dispensation with other stuff probably makes it reasonably easy. But infra-red: oh dear. This isn’t like the Wii wand; you need line-of-sight.

The software interface is obviously a bit different to what’s on the market at the moment, but not that far a departure from the likes of Joggler. It’s built around channels, which is a familiar concept from TV. I’m not totally sold on this: the channel concept is beginning to die a death precisely because it doesn’t work in the modern era, and it reminds me a bit of early computer UIs which were designed around physical desks and files (which is partly why we still call them “desktops”). However, I’m willing to give it a go and see if it grabs me – the proof of these puddings is always in the eating.

What slightly scares me is the use-cases set out on the website. “View photos”. “View photos on your TV!”. “Get the weather”. “Get movie listings”. “Access the web”. Etc. Oh, and “plug it into your TV”. Ok, I can see some point (although, I’m not really feeling this). But not a word on the point I made previously: battery life. Being portable and light is great if you can move it around freely. Will the battery life keep up with that? How will it work? If the litl ends up being tethered to the mains for the most part, suddenly most of the appeal I can think of has flown out of the window.

And then, the big, big disappointment: litl want $700 for this. Assuming a decent exchange rate, that’s still £450 with the best will in the world. Plus they want an extra £10 or so for the remote control, which bafflingly is an optional extra. Looking at what that would buy me in on the High Street if I went out this afternoon:

  • £250 gets a 10″ Atom-based netbook with storage built in (yes, it’s a PC)
  • £450 gets me the same netbook but with added mobile broadband, so not only can I take it everywhere around the house, I can take it around the country and still access my stuff
  • £150 buys me a Joggler, which for my money does a lot of what litl does but has a touch screen and is even more portable. It’s not as flexible or powerful I guess, but I could buy three of these for one litl and I can text mobiles directly from it.
  • £140 buys me a Chumby – less portable, less flexible, more interactive.
  • £340 wins me a Fizzbook Spin. It’s ruggedized, the screen’s more adjustable as is the webcam, it has a handle and the orientation adjustment. It also has the important touchscreen.
  • £300 also buys me various TV media centres which play photos, video, browse the web etc. Sure, it’s stuck under the TV.

In reality, how many of these are actually in competition with litl? Probably not many directly, although Joggler comes very close. It depends what you mean by “in competition”, though. I know a couple of people who leave a laptop around in their living room for accessing the web, so I vaguely understand what litl are aiming at. I’m just not sure this is on target, though, and for all the nice design it’s missing (unless I’m mistaken, which I could be) a touch screen and wireless wand – both of which I think are crucial features if you want people to either pick this up or use it from the sofa. A keyboard is entirely useless in both those scenarios.

So, I’m inevitably feeling a bit disappointed. I believe they’re missing a trick: not because they don’t have a good idea; I think it is a good idea (in most respects, anyway) and it appears to have been executed well. However, I think also that times have changed since this thing was on the drawing board. One excerpt from the “software essay” on the litl site stood out for me:

“Let’s say you have a litl at home, a litl in your weekend home, and a litl plugged into your TV.”

Wow, what an assumption to start from. Are they really aiming this device at people with a second home who can afford to drop $2000+ on three netbooks? That’s not the economic climate I see around me today.

And, I think that sums up my problem with this device. What functions it has seem to be well designed. But, it’s a complete luxury device. It’s not enabling me to do things I couldn’t do before. It’s simple, yes, but when I think about it, simple isn’t the first word that springs to mind: the first word I thought of when I saw this was “decadent”. Decadence of design, of implementation, and of product. That’s not a good thing.

Update 12:45 – there’s a pretty enlightening interview with John Chuang up now too; and the absolute last sentence is probably the most revealing: “We can have a long-term view because we’re self-funded. We know we have a great device, and right now we want to make sure we sell it to customers who are buying it for the right reasons.”

Not just decadent design of a decadent product, but now decadent marketing. Buying a product for the right reasons?! Whoa. This just smells of multi-millionaire play-thing, a la Chandler, OLPC, to name but a few.

Update 13:40 – last update I’m making on this. Engadget, who leaked the hardware first, are not impressed by the price either.

The other point I wanted to make in this post but forget: the UI is very similar to the Palm Pre, for me, or the Nokia N900. Both of which devices will be a. cheaper than this and b. much more useful to me. But then, I guess I’m just not the right sort of customer 🙂

Last point – it appears possible this thing runs Ubuntu under the hood. The Crunchbase listing for litl has Canonical down as an OS service provider, and there’s a PPA on launchpad for “bfallik-litl” – bfallik on twitter has not tweeted, but is friends with Peter Teichman (of Hula fame) and other known litlers.

Given Havoc Pennington, ex of Red Hat, is the Director of Operating Systems or something at litl, that’s a bit of a surprising choice for me, but I guess the OS layer is likely to be pretty thin anyway – the stuff on top is Javascript-based somehow, possibly the whole thing is running in a Mozilla window much like the Pyro Desktop.