Walt Mossberg

No File! No Icon! Litl Is a Big Idea, but Still Cloudy

One of the hottest ideas in the digital world now is the notion of dumping the traditional personal computer, where most programs and data are stored locally, for a stripped-down device that would operate primarily as a gateway to servers on the Internet, where your programs and data are accessed remotely. This approach is often called “cloud computing.”

In fact, the original netbooks, the small laptops that have become very popular, were designed around this concept of relying mostly on the Web. They used low-end processors, shunned Windows, and had very little internal storage. But a combination of consumer sentiment and industry maneuvering pushed them back into the fold, so that today, most are simply cheap, small conventional Windows laptops.

Now, a small Boston company, called Litl, is taking another shot at this idea, with a different twist. It is selling online a highly unusual laptop it classifies as a “webbook,” which attempts to meld cloud computing with a TV-like viewing experience—for the home. This shiny, colorful computer, named the Litl, is larger and more expensive than a typical netbook. It’s about the size of a small standard laptop, with a 12-inch screen and a weight of 3.4 pounds. It costs $699, or about twice the price of a netbook, at litl.com.

Yet the Litl doesn’t use Windows, or directly run word processors, email, or photo or music programs. It can only perform those tasks via Web sites and services like Gmail or Flckr, Google Docs or Pandora Radio. About the only local program it has that can run without an Internet connection is a virtual egg timer. It has no hard disk or any other way for a user to store anything locally.

The Litl’s user interface is a radical departure. There is no task bar or dock, no folders, no icons for files and programs; no traditional desktop. Instead, the Litl’s screen is filled with small cards that contain various kinds of Web content, from photos to news headlines, Facebook status and favorite Web sites. Click on a card, and its contents fill the screen.


The Litl webbook

And the Litl has another big difference from standard laptops or netbooks: something called “easel mode.” You can flip it around so the machine takes the form of an inverted letter “V,” with the screen facing outward. In that position, the machine can be used like a small Internet-based TV to display headlines, the weather, photo slideshows or videos from the Web. The company sells a $19 remote for controlling the computer in easel mode. You can also control it with a wheel built into the hinge.

I’ve been testing the Litl and I have mixed feelings about it. Some of the bold concepts behind the machine are refreshing, including the cloud-computing idea and the very simple interface and operating system, which demand much less work and attention from the user than a traditional PC does. The company also is promising many improvements, delivered via frequent over-the-air updates, including iPhone-type apps developed by third parties. It even offers a two-year money-back guarantee.

I was able to set up cards for Gmail and Yahoo Mail, and to send and receive messages. I also set up a card for Google Docs and was able to create and edit documents. I tapped into my Flickr account and could view slideshows of family photos I had previously uploaded. And I was able to watch TV shows via Hulu, both in easel mode and on my big-screen TV, once I connected the Litl to it.

But, in my tests, I found the device a bit clumsy and unsatisfying to use. For instance, as you add cards for your favorite Web sites or headline feeds (called channels), it becomes more difficult to scroll through screen after screen to find the one you want. There is no easy way to organize things.

In easel mode, when you see a headline that interests you, there is no way to click on it to read the whole story. Videos in easel mode too often stuttered. Worse, if you’re watching a video in easel mode, or through a TV, the Litl’s remote doesn’t let you pause, fast forward or back up. And the Litl doesn’t allow you to upload photos or videos to the Web.

The battery life is awful. The company claims 2.5 hours. In my tests, it conked out in less time. The company says that isn’t a problem, because the machine is designed for home use and will likely stay plugged in.

The company claims it is working on improving the Litl’s shortcomings. For instance, it plans a photo-uploading function and smoother video playback. So, it will likely get better. But, as of now, for $699, my feeling is that a standard laptop could perform many of these tasks in a more familiar, more versatile manner.

Cloud computing may one day be the standard way of doing things digitally, but the Litl, at least in its current form, isn’t the answer.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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