WikiReader is a handheld device for people who rely on the information contained at Wikipedia more often than they have access to the Internet. The offline, "always on" unit is designed to deliver information in an easy-to-read format and fit snugly into a pocket or handbag. The manufacturer, Openmoko, says it's an uncomplicated, unconnected experience that can be used just about anywhere, like on a plane or at the beach. Hey, you could even use it in the library!

"Like a good book, we wanted something that could be enjoyed most everywhere," says Openmoko CEO Sean Moss-Puitz. He explains that the inspiration for WikiReader came from electronic dictionaries. "But instead of an electronic language dictionary, we thought, let's use Wikipedia. Let's make it offline." Moss-Puitz says his designer, Thomas Meyerhoffer, created some prototypes and within a few weeks the handheld unit had taken shape and the WikiReader was born.

"It was clear that those of us who are excited by learning, and believe that knowledge is power, and enjoy the process of self-discovery through learning, would love WikiReader," he says.

"Never forgetting that 75 percent of the world is offline, we removed all unnecessary elements to reach a low price point. We wanted to contribute, in a small but meaningful way, to Wikipedia's own goal of providing a 'free encyclopedia to everyone on the planet, written in their native language'," says Moss-Puitz. "We never saw WikiReader as a programmatic project, but rather as something intuitive and spontaneous. Making something 'new' played a less important role than the 'transformation' of something pre-existing."

The device uses a capacitive touchscreen and is powered by AAA batteries because they are accessible easily around the world. Openmoko also chose one of the lowest power CPUs it could find to power Wikipedia and support open software.

"We even removed paint from the manufacturing process to save costs and minimize the harmful effects on our environment," says Moss-Puitz.

Videos on the website show how to access information on the WikiReader via the Search, History and Random buttons.

Updating the reader

The device costs US$99 but being offline means that the content needs to be updated manually, like maps on GPS units. Openmoko has devised two methods to give users the latest information.

Firstly, users can subscribe to purchase two new memory cards a year with the latest updates for a total of US$29 (plus taxes and shipping) per annum or visit the Openmoko shop for a free download (I know which method I prefer).

The online version is approximately 4GB so, depending on your download speeds, it could tie up your computer for a while (around four to eight hours, say Openmoko). You will need a microSD card reader to copy the downloaded file from your computer to the WikiReader's memory card but apart from that, updating your information is easy.

Wikipedia currently contains more than 14,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.