The Lightbook: A $20 eBook Reader

martin woodhouse
Martin a few years ago

I apologise deeply for my absence from these pages for more than a month now. I have spent the intervening weeks in completely redesigning and rebuilding my website which isn't quite finished yet but is up and running and contains 120 or so fairly entertaining ( I hope) pages.

What the Lightbook is not

One thing is now clear to me, in any case. The solar powered e-book reading device which we have re-christened the Lightbook is not a computer, any more than a pocket calculator or a portable phone or indeed an electric toothbrush or a gas cooker is a computer.

I make the point light-heartedly and even nonsensically, here. But to persist in even looking at the Lightbook as though it were a 'computer' is not merely to miss the point but, damagingly, to adopt a mind-set in which yes, of course, it's an inferior, a 'pared-down' version of something which it isn't and was never intended to be.

No, you can't read the Web with it. You can't play shoot-up games on it, nor take photographs, record MP3 tracks on it, any more than you can with a paperback book. In fact, I dare say, the Lightbook shouldn't really be appearing on this site at all --- except that it does what Nicholas Negroponte originally intended; namely, it brings education, knowledge, learning, to those billions of human beings in this world who lack electricity, let alone a connection to the Internet, who have never read a book, but whose lives would be improved immeasurably by the ability to do so at negligible cost.

May I summarise the Lightbook again?

It will consume about a fifth of a watt in power while reading the pages of a book out of a (physically tiny) memory bank and placing the corresponding data as pixels in colour on a screen. If that screen is backlit -- which for much of the time it need not be -- then overall power consumption might rise temporarily to around one watt.

The Lightbook reads books of all kinds, of any genre from novels or textbooks through children's story books to full-scale, wholly pictorial comic books, in colour, in any language and using its own typefaces and layouts. Its own proprietary page format --- to be issued, and taught, free of charge to any user who wants it --- is called "Illumination" and has been in (error-free) existence for twenty years now.

It is this format, together with the Lightbook's own operating system and interface, and its hardware configuration, which accounts for a power need so low as to be supplied from its own inbuilt solar panel --- just as a pocket calculator is powered.

Its manufactured cost will be that of:

  • its simple, slow, low-powered CPU and associated circuitry, including local memory and screen output 'card'
  • its case with four buttons and a reading 'slot' for the small external SROM units which will each hold around a thousand standard-length electronic books (in "Illumination" format),
  • a screen, roughly 6" x 4-5" and probably 800 x 600 pixels, roughly similar to to the screen designed by Mary Lou Jepson and her team at MIT and as used in the XO
  • a solar panel of the same size, together with the controlling circuitry which will keep two standard AAA cells trickle-charged and thus provide several hours of use in the absence of daylight.I have already costed this, in consultation with several first-class practical electronic design and production engineers, and our consensus is that the entire unit, produced in runs of a hundred thousand or so, will cost less than US$20 and will probably eventually get down as low as US$10 per unit.

    This is virtually a throwaway or drop-in-the-mud price.

    And it needs no costly infrastructure to support it. It will never need to be upgraded or updated --- the twenty or so Illumination books created between 1990 and 1994 are still perfectly readable today. It will rely on nobody except ourselves, its makers, who will also have set up the truly massive, world-wide, multicultural, international publishing house which will supply it with reading material.

    (Oh. And its lifetime carbon footprint must be rather less than that of a very small field-mouse.)

    As I say, it's possible that a device which is not a computer in any sense of the word may be out of place on a site devoted to One Laptop Computer Per Child.

    I hope, though, that it can remain here for your interest, consideration and criticism and, just possibly, so that as a project it may attract that financial support without which the Lightbook won't get launched.

    Which will be a very great pity indeed, for a few billion people.

    Lightbook: Website | Forum

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I think that such a device is needed especially in developed nations (like the US) where we consume huge amounts of paper in the form of books, magazines, newspapers, and manuals. That's a huge number of trees that I see being thrown away (relatively little is recycled) on a regular basis. Kindle might be getting all the attention, but at $400 I don't see it displacing paper books for the average consumer.

Here I am at home "playing" with my two recently acquired XOs. It did not take long before I found myself speculating on the likelihood that many XOs would become and remain "book readers". The XO, used in this fashion, would be under-used. Something like the Lightbook would serve this purpose far better and would do so without introducing the risk of theft etc. If it could, in fact, be produced at the anticipated price point, it would reach a large audience. I have been in schools and in homes in some countries where the Lightbook or something similar could actually be within financial reach of families and small schools. The Lightbook would not replace the XO or any other low cost computer, but it would certainly complement it in education.

I think a simple $20 E-book reader has the potential to be far more valuable than the XO.

Perhaps the OLPC people could wise up and produce a stripped-down version of the XO, utilizing their new screen technology. That's far more affordable and simpler to manage that the XO.

It would not need all the hype (and subsequent let downs) surrounding the OLPC project.

It would not need the huge financial risk that the XO currently represents.

It would not need the costly infrastructure required to just begin to implement the OLPC Program (internet access, school servers, solar chargers, installation, localized software development, etc, etc.)

Charge $40 a pop, or a less, and I'll buy 10 of them for friends and family next Christmas.

At $99 - those things would fly off the shelf. But then, so would the XO :)

I'm still working on figuring out the best way (and quickest) to make the XO an ebook reader - at least for reading self made books/curriculum.

Where would you get the actual e-books? Project Gutenberg (

So I looked at the sites referenced and can't see any spec for Illumination or source code to use to read it. That's no good. I'd be glad to port that to other platforms given that info. Don't make me reverse engineer it.

This is a non-starter with a proprietary format. Open that up, and everyone will want one.

Other than that, I'm excited about the project. I'd love to have one, and I think it'd be a great candidate for a G1G1 sort of program for early adopters.

Please include ilumination program screenshots. If it's going to use low-res(800x600) it needs to do aliasing well.

How are you going to paint letters? Do you have VHDL or Verilog working code?

Are the letters vector or raster?

IMHO,If it can't read PDF nobody is going to buy it.

I definitely like the pricing and the idea--with Amazon's Kindle running $400, this thing would sell like hotcakes for twice or even three-times the price. However, as an American (we're well-known for being shallow and petty) I have to suggest you work on presentation.

I don't mean any disrespect at all--I admire you for designing a site unlike any seen these days, but websites are commonly understood to work a bit more quickly than yours does. Sites need to deliver information almost instantly and when you're looking for support on a project as important as this, it's my opinion that interested supporters need to get the information they are looking for as quickly as possible.

I'd have emailed you about this, but I couldn't find an email address on your website, even after a few minutes of searching for a "contact" link.

Good luck to you and to this project. I definitely agree that the Lightbook has immense potential.

No proprietary formats thank you.

This is such a great idea. You should get some funding together for it.

The Lightbook is neat idea, and it wouldn't surprise me if it became a major success. However, it doesn't solve the developing world's education problem the way XO might.

In order to make use of the Lightbook, you have to know how to read, and that is the problem. Developing world countries often have illiteracy rates above 50%, and furthermore they lack the money needed to employee all the teachers required to educate the whole population.

This is where the XO comes in. Load it up with self-instructional software for reading, writing, math, and other subjects, and you have what Negroponte calls "a schoolhouse in a box." Distribute it to the population, and literacy rates would go up. No, wouldn't be ideal eduation, but it would be eduation at a much more affordable price.

ok, one question about the interface: If it has only four buttons how do you actually choose a book that will go in there?

If the book can potentially store thousands of book (and connect to another million thouh the internet) how do you browse those thousands of titles with no more than a basic navigational (up-down-menu-back or top-bottom-left-right etc) pad?

I guess we can think of a solution, but you seem to have overlooked this very complex problem.

Where would you get the actual e-books? Project Gutenberg (
a library card and (they're international)

Hello all

-- and first of all, thank you for your comments, all of which I badly need, keep them coming. I also apologise for various shortcomings in my Web site; it isn't quite finished yet, I will again take all comments about it on board, I just wanted to get it up there before the end of 2007 !


The only reason that Illumination is "proprietary" is that as an OS it can put a picture-book in colour up on a screen using such a small amount of memory and processing power --- let's say, thirty times less, and hence thirty times less energy per page than for instance PDF/Windows --- that it can be run on solar power. I think you will find that this is impossible under Windows and similar front-ends

Hence I needed (in 1988) to write the entire OS from scratch, using only a small subset of MSDOS as a base. So, naturally, yes, it's 'proprietary', but only in the sense of being unique.

Illumination Publishing Ltd (a.k.a myself, my cat and the bloke across the corridor) are perfectly happy to give Illumination free to anyone who wants to write a book with it, and indeed teach them to do so. We've already done this, back in 1990, when an artist who had never even seen a PC before wrote a complete SF comic book called NERVOUS SYSTEM using it, in around four weeks from sitting at the keyboard we lent him.

Further:- I'll be happy if someone wants to rewrite Illumination in Linux or whatever. Indeed, if the engineering department of some bright university cares to redesign the Lightbook itself from the floor up, I'll be happy for that to happen too. It's just that I've got as far along the road as using Illumination as an OS/interface to create twenty or so actual, working books, which I suppose represents a head start of a year or so over anything else, in the design sense, right now.

I do assure you that my only interest lies in getting picture books in front of the of the children of the desperately poor --- of the powerless, therefore, in both electrical and economic terms --- thereby empowering them and even, later, turning them into users of the XO and similar tools.


Cheers, Martin

( Alexandre : You can run a 'list' of any kind, including a contents page or a list of books in a library, using only three buttons, and Illumination already does so. You do it the same way it's done on (say) your 'phone : the list is displayed on screen, you trolley up and down it using a pair of 'Up' and 'Down' keys and when whatever item you want is highlighted, you press a third, 'Accept', button . . . .

You can actually do an awful lot of things this way. )

great work! keep it up!

if you need a programmer to
help you branch out from windows,
give me a call...


Hi Martin,

the idea is nice but seems a bit naive. I have read a few of your previous posts and looked at your site, here are my conclusions:
1. Great idea, no concrete plan of implementation
2. To strong a use of emotianal arguments instead of logic.
3. Propriatery format instead of open txt/ xml should be a no go in my opinion
4. Prototype please?
5. Confusing webpage. I want to know about the project/ reader not anecdotes and poems...

Sorry if I was a bit blunt, but going on like that, your project will never see the light of day...

Cheers and all the best,

For me, the frustrating thing about e-books is that they stick too slavishly to the concept of a book as a single pre-written text with predefined content.

Let me cite Universalis (") as an example. This is effectively an e-book with a dozen pages per day - every day - for ever. The pages are

[sorry, the Mac keyboard did something strange]

The pages are synthesized on demand, based on the current date (and on calculations of the liturgical calendar). No two days are ever the same.

With the e-book-as-version-of-paper-book approach, I'd have to decide that a Universalis download was for three months at a time, which would mean about 1000 pages. Users would have to discard the old edition and download the new one three times a year. This is a waste of effort.

Even a tiny - practically Javascript-level - degree of programmability would mean that an e-book could hold an infinite number of pages within a moderate 4MB or so of data. This is precisely what the existing Universalis downloads do: an intelligent e-book would be just one more platform, but a cheap and all-pervasive one.

What applies to Universalis would apply equally to many other works, especially reference ones, where a tiny amount of sandboxed programmability would make the e-book not just more compact than a paper book but measurably superior.

Hello Martin

The programmable e-book notion looks sound and a good idea, except please remember that you can't 'download' to the Lightbook. I actually envisage something more akin to getting a copy of a magazine from your local bookstall; you just buy (or are given) "this week's RAM stick" holding this week's content.

(or, in our Western world, you carry your own RAM stick around and plug it into a slot on the magazine vending machine, pop in your 10 cents or your credit card or whatever, and the machine downloads this week's content onto your RAM-stick . . . )

Cheers, Martin


The text characters in Illumination are all bitmaps, and a new font is created using Illumination itself. This means among other things that we have true universality of language -- you want to write in Cyrillic, then simply create your own Cyrillic bitmaps and attach each one to a key of your choice.

(Please remember, again, that the hardware and software used to write and illustrate an Illumination book is of course not the same as the reading program itself --- which only takes up 40K or so and is contained within every Illumination book along with the page data --- but is more complex and requires a keyboard and (ideally) a drawing device like the Wacom tablet.)

Cheers, Martin

What is the software going to be? I assume an open source solution to keep the costs down.

Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. What kind of processing power does it take to drive this display, some cheap amtel processor?

This looks really rough. Any more specifics?

duffolonius --

answers to these questions are in the forum which goes with this article.


Please note that the XO "Read" activity will not open PDF ebooks that you purchase online. PDF ebooks that are purchased are protected by DRM and read will not open DRM PDF documents.

It seems to me that the solar panel is a major expense in this reader. I wonder how cheap it could get if the screen was a b+w ebook screen (that used no power showing a static image) and the power to change pages was supplied by a slider or knob that generated just enough power when activated to change the page image. This would be necessarily a low computational power device, so content would probably need to be translated to a very easy to read format by another device.

So, when is the Lightbook going to move from concept, to reality? I'd buy one today, if it were available

First of all: my thanks to all of you for your comments.

The Lightbook will move from concept to reality just as soon as some philanthropic and well-heeled person or organisation provides the support which allows this to happen.

Hence: Not Quite Yet; Sorry About That . . .

(but, Bowerbird and others: I have your names imprinted on my mind for when the time does actually come.)



This really should be circulated in the Linux community. One of us would pick it up just to stem the tide of proprietary ebooks.
Send it to Richard Steadman or Mark Shuttleworth for input.