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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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