Wikipedia in your pocket

Mark Gibbs checks out a device that puts all of Wikipedia (the text portion at least) in your pocket.

Many people are dismissive of Wikipedia. For example, back in 2005, as quoted in the Ideas in Action blog, Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, argued: "Many revisions, corrections, and updates are badly done or false. There is a simple reason for this: Not everyone who believes he knows something about Topic X actually does; and not everyone who believes he can explain Topic X clearly, can."

Even so, from various comparative content reviews such as the one that was conducted by Nature.com in 2005 (as reported on Arstechnica, it would seem that the error rates of Wikipedia and Britannica were remarkably close, with Britannica only slightly in the lead: "Working from a statistically small sample of 42 randomly chosen science articles … Wikipedia had 33 percent more errors, with 162 'factual errors, omissions or misleading statements,' as compared to 123 for Britannica. In terms of egregious errors involving inaccurately explained concepts or misinterpretations of data, the experts found four instances in each of the two encyclopedias."

The takeaway from all this wrangling is that no matter what 'pedia you use, you always have to cross check your sources.

Even so, whether you love it or hate it, Wikipedia is immensely useful and its scope, currently some 3,322,838 articles, makes it about 15 times larger than Britannica. It is also a crucial resource when it comes to answering trivia questions.

Better yet, it is convenient. For example, sometimes going online to resolve a crucial issue such as the birthday of Led Zepplin's Jimmy Page (Jan. 9, 1944) or what is the more usual name for the West African primate called the "softly-softly" (the "potto") is just too much aggravation or impossible if you happen to be in the middle of the Kenyan rain forest. This is where the WikiReader from Openmoko might be extremely useful.

At just 4 inches square and 3/4 inch thick and weighing next to nothing, this dedicated device is tiny. Its two AAA batteries will last for months and its monochrome, touch-sensitive screen is not bad at all even in daylight.

What's interesting is that the WikiReader has just four buttons: Power, search, history and random (I could live without the "random" button).

When you press "search" you get an on-screen keyboard to enter your search text (this is a little on the small side so those of us with fat finger syndrome have to be careful) and as you enter each letter a list of matches appears giving you a clue about possible hits … nice. When you see a result that looks like it fits your query, you just press the on-screen entry with your finger to display the related content. Dragging up and down with your finger scrolls the content -- completely intuitive.

Priced at just $99 the WikiReader can be updated, at no charge, by copying the latest content release to the micro SD card or, for the low price of just $29, you can receive two updates per year pre-loaded onto micro SD cards.

What would improve the WikiReader? The next level up would be graphics, after which it would be audio then video … all of which is asking for a lot of additional technology that would push up the price considerably.

I love this device as it is and this is what I want in my rucksack if I'm ever stuck in the Kenyan rain forest with a primate identification problem. As unlikely as that may be, I'll give the WikiReader a rating of 4.5

Gibbs lives near the desert in Ventura, Calif. Send your jungle drums to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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