"The idea for Litl really came watching my family use computers around the house," says CEO John Chuang, a serial entrepreneur best known for founding and selling Aquent (aka MacTemps). People aren't after hardware; they're after content, and that content lives on the web. The best home computer, therefore, is one that comes closest to completely disappearing. Based upon that insight, Chuang took almost three years to develop the Litl, which begins shipping this week for $699.
Your typical computer is performance oriented—when's the last time you saw Dell or HP advertising a computer's user interface (which is ruled by Microsoft anyhow), rather than the processor speed or screen inches? The Litl is designed around how people actually use their computers in the home. As such, it's not really a laptop or a netbook or even a smart TV. It's a hybrid unto itself.
The computer they produced has no hard-drive—the idea is that you don't need one, since your average at-home computer user just needs web access for getting at their content. The OS, therefore, is dead simple, and utterly devoid of clutter—web pages each get a "card," which you can click on to enlarge. The case, meanwhile, is suited to calling up content, and then sitting back to consume it: There's a traditional laptop mode, and then it flips over to an "easel" mode, suited to passive viewing. If you need a bigger screen, the device has an HDMI jack, for connecting to your TV.
On paper, the Litl may not look like much—your typical netbook is similarly powered, works offline, has a hard drive, and is $200 cheaper. But Litl isn't selling hardware specs; they're selling a stone-cold brilliant design. And to appreciate it, you have to be able to play with the device.
But for now, Litl is only being sold online. And therein lies the problem. Without handling it, you'll never appreciate the thoroughness of the design language—the scroll wheel on the laptop, echoed in the scroll wheel of the remote; the perfectly weighted hinge which doubles as a handle and hides the battery; the sturdiness of the case; the brightness of the screen; the way the packaging and branding looks domestic but not quite feminine; or even the fact that when the power pack is plugged in, a tiny, embedded LED illuminates the dot of the '"i" in "Litl".
The computer really does disappear in easel mode—you can barely see the keyboard behind, because of the black and white color contrasts of the case. All while occupying a tiny footprint, meaning that you can set it down on a nightstand, a couch, or a kitchen counter.
It all amounts to a massive gamble: Sure, computers should be better suited to how we actually use them. Litl shows they can be. But will people really appreciate the problems it solves? Or are they content with making due? The venture is self-funded. Chuang hasn't brought in venture capitalists. He wants the company to be able to tolerate risk in a way that investors would not.
As for sales, Chuang argues that if users finally get their hands on the Litl, they'll appreciate what lies behind the premium price. Meanwhile, the company is also backing up the device with a two-year money-back guarantee, on the idea that seeing is believing. And if that still doesn't convince people? James Gardner, Litl's chief marketer, offers the hard sell: "How much is it worth to you, to never have to fix your mother-in-law's computer?"