What follows is a summary of the information I’ve been able to glean about the Litl computer on the public internet.  I’ve yet had a chance to lay my hands on the device personally, but if someone were to provide me with a loaner/demo unit I would be more than happy to post a more in-depth write-up…hint, hint, hint…

Last week I was turned on to the Litl computer by John Gruber over at Daring Fireball.  The Litl fits so nicely (alongsideHaiku) in my vision of the future of computing that I could hardly believe it existed as anactual, shipping, product.  Here’s what I’ve learned about the device in the last week…

The Litl is the only computer I’m aware of that has been designed exclusively as a “home computer” in at least 20 years.  To accomplish this, it has a custom operating system designed to aggressively eliminate anything that unnecessary for the home user.

Booked as a “Webbook“, most of the Litl’s functionality comes in the form of web-based applications.  These applications are not installed on the Litl and require an internet connection to operate, however the Litl’s operating system treats web-based applications the same as other systems treat “native” apps, allowing the user to switch between them seamlessly.

The Litl does away with icons and windows (in the traditional sense) and replaces these with “channels”; in fact the television metaphor is carried throughout the software which may make the system actually easier to use for novices than for those with extensive computer experience.

The hardware begins with a “laptop” form-factor with the added ability to flip the screen almost completely around, allowing the Litl to be placed on a flat surface like an artist’s easel.  From this position a wheel and a button (located on the hinge of the screen) are easily accessible and, due to the “channel-based” navigation of the operating system, most functions of “Easel-Mode” can be carried out with just these two controls.  In addition, a remote control is available which duplicates these controls wirelessly.

At the heart of the device is Atom processor, currently running at 1.86Ghz with 1GB RAM and 2GB of local compact-flash storage.  Litl downplays the hardware specs and reasonably so; there’s no apples-to-apples comparison to make between this device and other laptops, and this allows them to change the hardware details when improvements make sense instead of based on marketing cycles, etc.

The software, while often billed as a “new” operating system isn’t quite that, but from the users’ perspective it certainly appears that way.  Under the hood is an optimized version of Ubuntu, which as far as the user is concerned might as well not exist; all interaction with the unix core is handled automatically.  At first I found this disappointing but I’m re-considering that opinion (after all, I considered NeXT to have it’s own O/S even though the kernel wasMACH).

Continuing with the “Webbook” design, while Litl comes with 2GB of local storage (as noted above), user data is stored “on the internet” via Amazon S3.  Updates, maintenance and the like are downloaded from the internet and installed locally on the machine.

I have a few outstanding questions for the folks at Litl, for example:
  1. As a “Webbook”, what functionality is available when the Litl cannot connect to the internet, and if a connection is required, will there be a more “pervasive” network (for example, 3G) network available in future models?
  2. Does the operating system support offline-capable web app technologies (Google Gears); allowing the device to be useful when not connected to the internet? 
  3. Is there an api/sdk that will be made available to third-party developers to extend the operating system/environment, or will this be kept in-house?
These questions aside I think there is allot of potential for this device and it’s bold creators.  Even though I personally don’t see myself as the target audience for such a computer, it is a critical part of my model of the future of computing, where companies are open to the idea of producing specialized machines for different types of users and applications, opening up the possibility to go beyond the limits imposed by the need for “general purpose” computers and allowing entirely new categories of applications to be developed.