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WikiReader Puts Wikipedia in Your Pocket

I haven't been able to lay my hands on one of Openmoko's cute WikiReader devices yet, but given my 10-year-old son Tristan's proclivity for reading Wikipedia over nearly everything else there is to do on the Internet, I may be checking one out in person for a Christmas present.

The concept is simple - embed all of Wikipedia in an inexpensive handheld device. Designed by Thomas Meyerhoffer, a former Apple designer, the WikiReader measures 3.9 inches (9.9 cm) square and 0.8 inches (20 mm) thick, and weighs in at 4.5 ounces (127 g). That's about the size of a squared-off iPod touch, and although it's twice as thick, it's half as heavy.

For viewing, the WikiReader features a scratch-resistant glass touchscreen. It's grayscale, but I haven't yet been able to determine the resolution or how many shades of gray it can display. As far as I can tell, there's no backlight, so it won't work in the dark.

Most of what you'll do - scrolling, entering search terms, clicking links - happens on the touchscreen, but there are three physical buttons that do exactly what you'd expect: Search, History, and, for a little serendipitous browsing, Random. WikiReader reportedly uses only open software and Openmoko will be posting their source code shortly.

Power comes from a pair of standard AAA batteries, which can run the WikiReader for - get this - about a year of normal usage. It's such a joy to hear about a device that doesn't need constant recharging.

Of course, the reason for the miserly power usage is that the WikiReader has no connectivity at all. Instead, all three million articles of the English-language Wikipedia are stored on a microSD card - presumably 8 GB in size. Users with microSD card readers will be able to download updates for free, but since the updates are over 4 GB in size right now (and will only be growing), Openmoko also offers a $29-per-year update service that mails you a new microSD card every six months.

The downside of this update mechanism is twofold. Wikipedia evolves constantly, correcting mistakes and adding new articles, whereas the WikiReader can show only a snapshot in time. Also, Wikipedia provides numerous links out to original sources on the Internet; you won't be able to follow those.

But of course, eliminating the need for connectivity enables extreme battery life, ensures that the WikiReader works anywhere, and eliminates much of the concern some parents have with letting children browse the Web unattended. Apparently, WikiReader includes additional parental controls as well, since there are certainly bits of Wikipedia that some parents might not want their kids to read.

There's no question that an iPhone or iPod touch with a Wikipedia app will provide a more up-to-date and colorful experience than a WikiReader, but Openmoko may have hit a sweet spot with the WikiReader's price, size, and lack of flexibility that will make it perfect for kids of a certain age.

Although the WikiReader is available only in English at the moment, if it proves sufficiently popular, Openmoko could come up with versions that include other languages. Or, perhaps an international version could embed an even more capacious microSD card that could hold all Wikipedia articles regardless of language.

The WikiReader is available for $99 directly from Openmoko.


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Comments about WikiReader Puts Wikipedia in Your Pocket
(Comments are closed.)

I don't get it. We already have devices. Just sell the cards. They are lucky at the moment that the size of wikipedia is a roadblock to downloading it. Leverage the cards. I assume the device is a simple Linux XML reader and suitable apps could be written for the many laptop, netbook, smartphone, and tablet-like devices out there.
As a followup to my post, this device seems to not have any means to input text to do a search. How do you search? Poor res onscreen keyboard? As I said, sell the cards, like the OED and other reference works in the latter days of the OS5 standalone Palms.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-16 07:21
From what I can tell, you press the dedicated Search button, then enter your search terms using the onscreen keyboard.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-16 07:20
I think the point is that there's nothing really special about providing access to Wikipedia unless you have a dedicated device to do it. Otherwise, it makes much more sense to get to it online, and most handheld devices these days will have wireless connectivity.
Tonya Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-15 15:28
Given the price of a low-end iPod touch ($199), I think the $99 is a little high, even though I understand that what's cool about this device is that it is a one-trick pony that works where Internet access does not. I wonder how much of the price is profit... (regardless, I do agree that a certain hard-to-shop-for ten-year-old would ADORE this device).
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-15 15:48
I suspect there's not a lot of profit at the moment - they're probably paying a lot per unit because there's no scale as of yet. The base materials don't sound like they're all that expensive.
Jeff Carlson  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-15 15:34
I wonder, though, aside from a specific 10-year-old in New York, is there really a market for this? Is any kid going to say, "Hey, wow, an almost-instantly outdated encyclopedia!"?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-10-15 15:48
I don't think many people care that Wikipedia is constantly updated. Or rather, if you use Wikipedia like an encyclopedia, reading and moving on, rather than returning to the same entry repeatedly, you won't care.

And it's not like you're buying a set of paper encyclopedias that will never see an update. The updates are just a little less frequent, which is likely to affect largely the news-related entries that won't be of interest to kids anyway.

Just you wait until Ellie starts lecturing you about the specs on modern warplanes at dinner...

Seriously, I wouldn't be surprised if these proved popular in some schools, particularly if they can get the cost down with manufacturing scale.