In 2009, the world met WikiReader, a single-purpose gadget that contains all 6.5 million articles on English Wikipedia, from eradicating cockroaches in post-Soviet countries to list of lists of lists.
Perhaps you’re stranded on the world’s most remote inhabited archipelago with no internet and want to read about the 18th-century woman who convinced doctors she had given birth to rabbits. Or maybe the list of US state dinosaurs. All you need are two AAA batteries and your trusty WikiReader.
The aesthetically unobtrusive eye-catching gizmo measures 4 x 4 inches and has a resolution of 240 x 208 pixels. It’s got an E Ink display with a fairly jerky touchscreen that’s better suited to a stylus than a finger, and its outer body has just the WikiReader logo and three buttons for search, history, and random. It’s easy. Some would even say it’s perfect. And it’s been off the market since 2014, when parent company OpenMoko shut down WikiReader operations.
But the device didn’t actually die, thanks to a very private and hugely dedicated person named Jack who keeps the usefulness of the decades-old device alive. Jack sells SD cards with updated content for $34, or $29 for a digital download (without the new SD card, your WikiReader’s content is completely out of date). Set up the Ubuntu environment and repair the Wikipedia download so it can be processed for WikiReader. “It took 5-6 days to process the Wikipedia download into a WikiReader database. So each test cycle lasted a week,” said Jack Entry in an email. “It was all very time-consuming.”
He continues to make yearly updates even though he “only sells a couple a month.” The 2022 update has been available since July.
“A lot of buyers are older people or 50-year-olds buying it for their 80-year-old fathers,” he said, adding that many keen WikiReader fans “don’t use a computer or the Internet (think 90-year-olds). He continues, “You wouldn’t think there’s a market for it, but there is a small one. I’ve sold to the Philippines, the UK and Australia.” He says some of his other buyers want offline Wikipedia access for travel or planes. Other customers have been inmates living in facilities that allow small electronic devices.
There is a WikiReader subreddit with 189 people, and Jack believes he is the only person in the world who is “making the update and making an update that works and has all the articles (at least the articles that show up on the WikiReader can become). ” Its SD cards are sold on eBay, Amazon and jacksuniversal.com, which are plastered with the appropriate slogan: “We specialize in everything WikiReader!”
For WikiReader owner Ryan Michael Moberly, constant access to Wikipedia is crucial: “The grid’s out, massive blackouts, tornadoes, but I need to know about the history of the horseshoe sandwich!” he jokes.
Although the WikiReader was not created through Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Foundation — the nonprofit organization that maintains Wikipedia — issued a statement condoning the device when it was released in 2009. “Wikipedia content is freely licensed so anyone can copy, modify, and reuse it for any purpose, including commercial uses,” a Wikimedia Foundation representative wrote in a public post. According to the official WikiReader website: “Socrates was thinking about more important things than bandwidth. You too.”
gone but not forgotten
Like so many of these late-night Internet gadgets, WikiReader is banished to dusty shelves or storage bins in the basement. Take Kin, for example, a social networking device that Microsoft spent $1 billion developing, only to be pulled from the market two months later due to poor sales. There was also the legendary Twitter Peek, a cyan handheld device made just for Twitter – which sounds more like a torture device. For an $8 monthly fee, you could get Internet access… but only for Twitter.
The Twitter peek drew widespread criticism (it’s on a number of “worst product” lists). Not long after the launch’s failure, Twitter Peek terminated the service in January 2012, abandoning users who paid $299 for a “lifetime service.” whoops Today, the Twitter Peek graces collectors’ shelves—and the Museum of Failure. Perhaps one of the reasons the Twitter Peek failed to generate interest is its appalling user experience, which requires you to click on a tweet to read more than the first few words, defeating the purpose of a site full of bite-sized posts.
But the remarkably surviving WikiReader remains relevant. I bought one off eBay a few months ago and have pulled it out on the subway when I start wondering something and need to scratch the itch. Unfortunately I’m addicted. i am a lost cause This device has suddenly become indispensable to me. I spend less time scrolling Instagram and more time scrolling through the Wikipedia article on Mondegreens. The online encyclopedia is great, but the offline encyclopedia is sometimes even better.