Wikipedia in your pocket

At times Wikipedia can seem like the most amazing thing ever, or the dumbest idea imaginable. The same can be said of a new device which puts the entirety of Wikipedia into your pocket.

The WikiReader is a $99 handheld device which contains what’s effectively a copy of the entire website (thought it is “limited” to around 3 million entries). Users can browse the site using just three buttons (search, history and random) plus an onscreen keyboard.

However, because it doesn’t have web access, the entries aren’t automatically updated. Instead there are quarterly updates which users can either download from the web free of charge or receive in the mail as a replaceable plug-in memory card for $29 a year.

So on the one hand, it’s an awesome device, giving you an immense sum of knowledge at your fingertips, and on the other, you not only lose all the benefits of timeliness that give Wikipedia an advantage over printed reference books, but the links to original source material which are theoretically the basis of every article are inaccessible.

To make things worse, the device doesn’t appear to give access to the history or discussion pages for each entry. That means that each entry is frozen as a snapshot of how the page appeared at the moment the data was loaded onto the device. So, to give an extreme example, if the download happened precisely a second after some joke edited a page to say that Germany won the second world war or that the Earth is flat, you’ve got a device that doesn’t reflect the community vetting process that keeps Wikipedia together,

Another obvious problem is that Wikipedia can, by definition, be viewed by any phone with a web connection. Given that it’s largely based on text with a very simple formatting, it will work just fine on virtually any handset. If you’re willing to go for a service agreement, the $99 the WikiReader costs will make a pretty decent dent into buying a new phone. And if you prefer to stick to a prepaid model, $99 will pay for a fairly substantial amount of web use.

The device seems to have a disconnect between its natural markets and its minimum feasible retail price. It would make a decent entry for the type of Christmas gift catalog aimed at buyers who like the idea of gadgets but don’t really know what’s going on in the real world. And it would be a very viable option for people in developing countries where web access is impractically expensive, particularly in schools. Unfortunately, in both these cases, $99 may be too much.

In summary, it’s an overpriced, inherently flawed technical solution to a barely existent problem.

But if somebody offered me one free of charge I’d bite their hand off.


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