Chumby: Is it as good as I’d hoped?

I’ve been monitoring the Chumby project since I first saw the device on an episode of Diggnation over a year ago… Kevin had been given one of the alpha prototypes at FooCamp and gave a quick description. I’ve been waiting since then for the device to get a public release – I guess that shows the power of product placement even though I’m sure no cash had changed hands for it to appear on the show. People who know me or have read my thoughts on this before will know that I think there’s a lot of potential for an “ambient” device that provides up-to-date information from the online world without the user having to be sat in front of a PC. I was disappointed with the Nabaztag because of limitations with the user interface, but eager to get my hands on a Chumby as it seemed far more advanced. The Chumby was originally pitched as a new take on clock-radio for the internet enabled 21st century but I think that description groslly undersells it (and at $179, it’s an epensive way to wake up in the morning).

Chumby

Put simply, the Chumby is an always on device with a 3.5″ touchscreen and a wifi connection to get online and is manufactured by Chumby Industries. It runs Linux (but without the user having to know anything about Linux), has (stereo) speakers, 2 USB ports for future expansion (or for connection to additional storage or an iPod) and built-in acelerometer that can be used by Chumby software as an input device. It’s all packaged in a padded leather housing so is squishy to hold. In fact the housing contains a “squeeze sensor” as an additional input. The great thing about the whole Chumby project though is that it’s OpenSource – that’s both software and hardware. If you’re really keen you can download the parts list and schematics and build your own Chumby from scratch!

The Chumby runs flash-lite widgets (aka gadgets, aka portlets in old money). Users log in to their account on the Chumby website, select & configure widgets from the catalogue and the device connects to Chumby.com to download it’s configuration and the actual widget swf files. Widgets can be grouped into “channels” so that the user can easily switch between widgets, and in operation the device cycles through all the widgets in the current channel (I currently have News, Games, Photos and Test channels). There’s also a “VirtualChumby” on the website so you can get a feel for the widgets before downloading to the device. The only software that’s included in the firmware is the Control Panel used to set alarms, switch channels, etc everything else is downloaded each time the device is switched on so without an internet connection it’s pretty dumb.

The device hasn’t been launched outside the US as yet (it has FCC aproval for the US but needs the equivalent for other territories) so I got mine from eBay. First impressions were very good – it comes packaged in a branded canvas bag rather than the usual moulded plastic/polystyrene and upon turning it on for the first time plays an animated flash movie with voiceover by the development team that explains exactly how to get it connected to your wifi and activated on the Chumby site. I know this experience has been rehearsed and revised through an invitation only trial launch that’s been running for a couple of months. You definitely get the feeling that this is a small dedicated company run by people who are passionate about the device rather than a big faceless corporation. I’m not normally one to read instruction manuals anyway, but the Chumby really doesn’t need one anyway – the setup was super simple and worked flawlessly.

There’s a wide range of widgets from the basic clock (I was happy to find that the obligatory binary clock widget is present) and RSS news reader to streaming audio widgets, to personalised widgets that display the latest status updates/notifications on your facebook account and the number of bids/current price of any eBay auctions you’re watching. Although Chumby Industries do provide some widgets themselves, the majority are contributed by the community so they cover a very broad spectrum from useful, to fun, to perculiar (hypnotoad?). Because the widgets are flash based they generally look very slick – probably better than could be achieved with html/javascript widgets but for me as a developer, being flash-only is a barrier to entry. I don’t know how to write flash and I don’t want to invest hundreds of pounds in Adobe Flash tools so that I can learn. There are open source compilers available that will take ActionScript source code and convert to a Flash swf and I’m playing around with those at the moment (more on that soon, in a future post). The Flash sandbox also comes with its own cross-domain policy that prevents a Flash movie on one domain from retrieving content from another domain unless the content provider hosts a crossdomain.xml file to explicitly allow it. Potentially this is harder to circumvent than the JavaScript XmlHttpRequest cross-domain policy which could be a pain for developers but is better for end users concerned about security of their data.

Chumby Industries have stated that their policy will be to roll out all software updates and new features as automatic downloads for free so that the device “will be even better next year than it is now”. This is a highly commendable policy and I applaud them for it, though it does make me wonder how they ever plan to turn a sustainable profit. The software and hardware are opensource, but the company exists to make money. They don’t charge for software updates and there’s no subscription for using the service or widgets. In theory Chumby Industries could release “premium” widgets for which they could charge but I’m sure the community would quickly develop free alternatives. Chumby Industries could inject adverts into the channels for playback between the widgets but I suspect there would be a big backlash to that approach if they introduced it now because it wasn’t part of user expectations at the start. I’m not sure how else they can monetize the Chumby except for a small overhead they might make on each device sold.

If there has been any compromise with the device it’s that its forever tethered to mains power. It has a small 9V battery just to preserve its settings but cannot operate without mains electricity. So far I’ve found that I want to move the device around: in the kitchen to catch up on news and friend statuses while cooking in the evening, in the spare room next to the computer while working, in the living room on the coffee table when listening to music etc. If it could run from an internal battery, even if only for 30-60 minutes, it would be a lot more convenient. After about 2 weeks of use, I’m still very impressed with what the folks at Chumby Industries have managed to achieve: the novely hasn’t worn off yet, I’m still using it every day and it attacts a lot of interest from everyone who sees it (though I think most dismiss is as just another of my geek toys!). Only time will tell whether the Chumby and devices like it have mass market appeal but this is the best attempt at this category of device that I’ve seen so far, and I hope it catches on.

Leave a Reply