Litl Lays Plans for Channel Store to Offer New Kinds of Webbook Content

Litl made a big splash last November when it launched the Webbook. The home Internet appliance may look like a laptop, but it’s actually designed as a delivery platform for Flash-based “channels” that put useful information up front and hide details such as files, applications, windows, and operating systems. One of the clearest signs that the Boston-based startup had cooked up something very different from most computers today was the device’s “easel mode;” in this configuration, the keyboard acts as kickstand for the screen, which automatically reformats its content for “lean-back” viewing rather than “lean-forward” interaction. Observers applauded Litl for creating a device that was more about content than computing.

There was just one problem: there weren’t very many channels to choose from. There was a clock channel, a weather channel, a photo channel, a Facebook status channel, and a handful of others, and you could make your own channels from RSS news feeds. But the variety of custom content that Litl had created for the $699 gadget didn’t compare to the Web itself, or to the tens of thousands of apps available for cheaper platforms like the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. So buying a Webbook was sort of like buying a Blu-Ray player before it was clear that movie studios would release lots of Blu-Ray discs. Consumers had to take it on faith that Litl would work to create additional channels.

Now the startup is following through on its end of that bargain. The company announced last week that it’s getting ready to release a software development kit (SDK) that will enable Web and software developers to create their own custom channels for the Webbook. These channels are all built on Flash, the lingua franca of Web animation and the one type of content that doesn’t work on the iPhone or the iPad.

That’s good news for Litl customers, and it could also benefit developers. “By putting another screen, another kind of experience into homes, we’re bringing a unique audience into the market and giving independent and agency developers another audience to build for,” says Chuck Freedman, Litl’s chief developer evangelist.

The Litl Webbook in easel modeScott Janousek, a Flash programmer who leads Boston-based app developer Hooken Mobile, agrees. Janousek said in a press statement last week that he’s “quite excited” about the Litl SDK, since it “represents a unique opportunity for the broader Flash community to get involved creating content for an interesting form-factor and innovative cloud-based operating system.”

At a time when any mobile-computing platform (think iPhone, Android, Palm, or Blackberry) needs a large selection of third-party applications to be credible, SDKs are the playbooks manufacturers use to orient developers and show them how to exploit each device’s capabilities. The iPhone SDK, for example, instructs developers how to take advantage of the multi-touch screen and tap into the device’s location-finding features. While Litl’s SDK is “dead simple,” in Freedman’s words, it does hold the secrets to a few key tricks, such as adapting content for easel mode. (See the photo here for an illustration of easel mode in action.)

Under development since before the Webbook’s launch, the SDK is being shared with hand-picked beta testers right now, and the company plans to make it widely available starting … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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6 responses to “Litl Lays Plans for Channel Store to Offer New Kinds of Webbook Content”

  1. litl_phil says:

    Thanks for this nice summary of litl’s plans for our channels platform. One comment: the Flash developer community is the largest community of app developers in the world and there’s great interest from that community in our channels platform. So, actually, we would not be surprised to see quite a few community-developed channels on the webbook once Flash 10.1 is released. We also have a great relationship with Adobe about our SDK and channel plans – they totally get it. At a time when certain device manufacturers are pushing HTML5 over Flash, litl’s channels will leverage on this huge Flash dev community. See for more info.

  2. Alan Phillips says:

    How many Litl users are there?

  3. Jack says:

    It will be hard for litl to compete if they continue with their current business model. They have a very niche product that’s relatively expensive. The base iPad is being offered at $499 with access to tons of apps. How can you compete with that? Two companies come to mind when I look at litl: Palm and NeXT. Palm has a great new webOS, but their devices have no advantages over the iPhone. webOS can thrive much better in a company with more extensive resources. NeXT came out with some really hot hardware back in the early days, but they were too expensive and NeXT eventually became a software-only company (and how Steve Jobs returned to Apple). litl is like a combination of these two companies: good service/software ideas, but the device is too expensive. Turning into a software-only company is definitely a good option for them.

  4. Bruce Kasrel says:

    I agree with Jack above, Litl is in for some big issues in light of the iPad. If they are banking on its support of Flash as key differentiator then I don’t see much a future for them. Users do not care what software a website is created with, they just want the functionality. Trust me, every meaningful Flash based site (Hulu, etc.) will create a version for the iPad and users will not care. Unless 100% of all of these passionate Flash developers build for and BUY a litl, I just don’t see a business here with the current price point.

    Everyone knows that Apple’s iPad 2.0 will be less money (you can bet it hits this time next year or earlier) so how can litl survive with a product that is $200 more, has no touch screen, 150K less apps, no local storage, and shorter battery life? I just don’t see support for Flash as that critical in the marketplace.

    I have liked the litl since its launch – great UI and ID. But $700 is WAY too much.

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