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The Gizmo Report: WikiReader--simple, singular

Whoever heard of an Internet-based device with no Internet access? Or of a single-function electronic device in these days of the digital convergence? Enter the WikiReader.

It's been years since the concept of a digital convergence was seriously debated. Today, it's rare to see a single-function electronic device.

Digital still cameras can record video, and camcorders can take still photos. Even cheap cell phones include cameras. There are Web browsers in cell phones, cameras, televisions, and digital picture frames. In fact, it seems like it's only a matter of time before everything with a battery or power cord will be connected to the Internet.

So it's a little startling to see a new gizmo that does nothing but display text, especially when that text comes from a preprogrammed memory card...and it's extraordinary when the text came from the Internet in the first place.

Openmoko's WikiReader
Openmoko's WikiReader is a standalone Wikipedia browser with a touch screen and the complete text of Wikipedia on a memory card. Peter N. Glaskowsky

I was initially incredulous when I heard about WikiReader, a $99 device from Openmoko designed solely for the purpose of reading Wikipedia articles. How useful could such a thing really be, I wondered.

The device, which was released about two weeks ago, displays the text only. The user interface couldn't be much simpler. Pushing the power button boots the device in less than two seconds. There's a search button for looking up individual articles, a history button for recalling previously viewed articles, and a button to open a random article from the collection. A parental-control feature allows blocking mature content (imperfectly, as I quickly learned).

And that's about it. It doesn't display images, references, discussion pages, or links to outside Web sites. (The latter point is reasonable enough because the device can't access the Internet anyway.) In fact, all 3 million Wikipedia articles viewable on WikiReader ship on a memory card in the device.

The content on the card is just a snapshot of the active Wikipedia database, complete with whatever errors or vandalism may have been present at the moment each article was copied. But overall, it's still an impressive amount of useful information. (Openmoko will offer quarterly updates that can be downloaded for free, or delivered on new memory cards twice per year for an annual cost of $29.)

Not long ago, distributing Wikipedia this way would have been impractical. Even today, an 8GB Micro SD card is a sub-$15 item in wholesale channels, which is a big chunk of the $99 retail price. Saving money here, however, would have compromised the usefulness of the device. (On the unit I tested, 4.18GB out of 7.4GB was actually used; perhaps some foreign-language versions of Wikipedia could fit on smaller, cheaper cards.)

The other elements of WikiReader show similar trade-offs. In an e-mail exchange, Openmoko President Sean Moss-Pultz told me that the Wikireader design began with the chips commonly used for electronic dictionaries--for example, Epson's S1C33E07 microcontroller. But whereas such devices usually have small screens and physical keyboards, allowing them to hit very low price points (e.g., this $21 device from Royal), Openmoko chose to go with a larger screen that displays about 13 lines of proportionally spaced text--roughly 40 characters per line, 80 words at a time.

Further, WikiReader has a capacitive touch screen, enabling the use of a virtual on-screen keyboard rather than a separate physical keyboard. The touchscreen--equipped with a tempered glass face that resists scratches better than plastic--also handles touch-drag scrolling and selecting links to other Wikipedia pages. As a result, WikiReader is smaller than most electronic dictionaries, but has a larger screen and is easier to use. (Click for more details on the WikiReader hardware platform.)

WikiReader is also more expensive than most electronic dictionaries, but again, the higher price was essential if WikiReader was to accomplish its mission. That mission is simple to express: make Wikipedia accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time. At $99, this device may not be affordable by everyone in the world. On the other hand, it's a lot more affordable than even the least expensive laptops, including the original "$100 laptop" from the One Laptop Per Child Foundation, which is still priced at $199 two years after it first went on sale.

Although the comparison is hardly fair, it's still relevant since the number of parents and schools in the world that can afford a $99 WikiReader is a lot larger than the number that can afford a laptop plus the necessary supporting infrastructure such as an Internet connection and power source. (By comparison, Openmoko says that two AAA alkaline batteries--cheap and widely available--will run the WikiReader for up to a year, and that's the only recurring cost to keep the unit operating.)

I expect the cost of manufacturing WikiReader will come down slowly over time, and the product itself may become more valuable as third-party developers begin to work with the WikiReader's open-source software. Openmoko began as an open-source cell phone project, and while WikiReader has nothing in common with that earlier work, the company still has some visibility in the open-source developer community.

WikiReader and a cat
WikiReader isn't quite easy enough for a cat to use. Peter N. Glaskowsky

The WikiReader software load is very simple. There's no OS, not even Linux; just one application to run the Wikipedia browser, for example. All of the software, along with the compressed Wikipedia database, is provided on the Micro SD card. There are some diagnostic programs, and there's even a simple four-function calculator "Easter egg" that comes up in response to a History-Power button combination.

The lack of a full OS is a matter of necessity, but this is the kind of necessity from which virtue is created. The near-instant boot time and ultra-low power consumption couldn't be matched with any flavor of Linux. Software development isn't as easy as it would be for a Linux PC application, but then, the device is simple, so it wouldn't be too difficult to develop new functionality for the WikiReader hardware. I'd like to see the usual combination of dictionary, thesaurus, and language translation found in many other devices, along with a more-advanced calculator.

In the meantime, WikiReader does the one thing it was meant to do, and I think that's good enough.

(My thanks to Pat Meier-Johnson of Pat Meier Associates for bringing WikiReader to my attention. Also, thanks to Openmoko for providing a review unit and answering my questions.)