We've become accustomed to video games morphing into films and British sitcoms getting the Hollywood treatment, but here's a whole new cross-media transformation that will annoy fans of the original: Wikipedia is the first Web site to get made into a gadget, the $99 (£60) WikiReader from Openmoko.
To hundreds of millions of students and journalists worldwide, Wikipedia is homework in a can, delivering good-enough information on a breathtaking range of topics, in over 250 languages. But how on Earth can you replicate its interactive editing features, rough-and-tumble rewrites and global links on a tiny, offline gizmo?
You can't and, frankly, the WikiReader doesn't even try. Weighing just 120g and sporting an 89mm (3.5-inch) monochrome LCD display, the 100 by 100 by 20mm handheld WikiReader actually feels like a cut-down ebook reader, albeit one without an e-ink display and wireless link.
Power up the WikiReader and you're presented with a search screen and a virtual keyboard. Type on the capacitive touchscreen and a list of matching entries flashes up, letter by letter. Strangely, you can't scroll through this list, which can make it difficult to find articles with titles that have multiple meanings, such as 'Washington' (the US president, city, state, aircraft carrier or Denzel?).
The articles themselves -- over 3 million of them -- have gone through an automated process to scrub them of photos, graphics, tables and external links, leaving just paragraphs of running text and Wikipedia links. The main casualty is the contents box, meaning you have to scroll through entire articles instead of skipping straight to the part you're interested in.
As the 240x208-pixel display shows only 11 lines of text (about 75 words) at a time, navigating longer articles is time-consuming. We noticed that the scrubbing process has occasionally also removed other critical elements, such as numbers, from articles. The display lacks a backlight too, making for difficult low-light reading, and automatically times out after 2 minutes to save power.
When you wake it up, you can hit the 'history' button to get a list of previously visited pages, and the WikiReader helpfully remembers your place in the article. Parental controls can restrict articles with an adult theme, although it's not clear how those are identified. The final button, 'random', aims to replicate the effect of the daily featured article on Wikipedia's home page. Sadly, all this really does is illustrate just how many painfully dull small towns, minor-league sports teams and obscure medieval composers have their own Wikipedia pages. It's a touch too random.
Naturally, the WikiReader is instantly out of date -- it doesn't have an entry for WikiReader, for example -- but you can download semi-annual updates for free or pay about £18 a year for them to be posted to you on microSD cards.
With two AAA batteries that promise up to 12 months of use before they need to be replaced, and the ability to work miles away from the nearest phone tower, the WikiReader isn't so much aimed at busy urban professionals as the 75 per cent of the world's population that lives entirely offline. But the price of this low-cost, low-power, low-impact device will have to fall a great deal to fully penetrate its target market.
Until then, it's difficult to see a viable audience for this charming, if basic, device beyond schoolchildren in developed nations who are too young for mobile phones -- if such youngsters even exist nowadays.