Technology

Chumby: A Cute but Challenged Device


0602_chumby
Editor's Rating: star rating

Developed with input from Apple alumni, and relying on the world of widgets, Chumby—part toy, clock radio, and Web appliance—is altogether annoying

Just looking at the cuddly thing, I really want to like Chumby. But I don't.

Designed in part by Apple (AAPL) alumni, Chumby is essentially a cross between a clock radio, a Beanie Baby, a digital picture frame, a handheld game, and that elusive grail of the Web era, an Internet "appliance." Well, it does make for a good clock radio.

If nothing else, you've never seen a device like this. Chumby is soft all around except for its touchscreen and a rear panel with a power button and ports for USB connections and the power cord. On top, there's a button hidden under the soft leather that you squeeze to control certain functions.

Using Wi-Fi, Chumby will connect to your wireless Internet router and fetch all manner of content from the Web—so long as you decide in advance what sort of stuff you'd like. Forget spontaneity. Chumby is not designed for Web surfing or even basic two-way communication like e-mail and instant messaging. Instead, Chumby is all about an overblown Web 2.0 fascination with software widgets, open-source idealism, and building a new community around them. Chumby users are encouraged to customize the device by hacking software and hardware, and then gab about it with other Chumby enthusiasts on Chumby.com.

Well, that's plenty ducky if you know how to hack. But if you're a peasant Web user like me, you're in for frustration. There's no browser and no typing in Web addresses, a maddening limitation for anyone who's been living, breathing, and searching the Internet for the past decade. Instead, you use your computer to visit Chumby.com and choose from long lists of widgets—more than 600 at last count—to display on the device.

Widget Windfall

These widgets, developed both internally and by Chumby hobbyists, serve up news, games, photo slide shows, video clips, live Webcams, and plenty of offbeat distractions, such as a belligerent cartoon bunny who'll insult you in French and a pug who licks the screen from inside. There's also a built-in music widget to play Web radio, podcasts, or music direct from your iPod, though not your copyright-protected iTunes.

At first, there's an alluring novelty to the widgets. I found a module that would replay David Letterman's nightly Top 10 List, another with Will Ferrell clanging his cow bell on Saturday Night Live, and one with Orson Welles clapping like a zombie in Citizen Kane. The Webcams included a "PandaCam" at the San Diego Zoo and one overlooking the crosswalk on Abbey Road where the Beatles strolled. I also chose modules featuring headlines from The New York Times (NYT) and CBS Sports (CBS), and local updates from the Weather Channel. I also picked some games that exploit Chumby's built-in motion sensor.

I was excited to try them all. Alas, I calmed easily. Chumby will cycle continuously through your widgets, which gets tiresome. Do you really want to see Orson or an intersection or a game you're not playing flash up again and again? Sure, you can make Chumby hold on a single widget or organize your widgets into different channels so that, say, games or irreverent rabbits show up only when you want. But I found using the control panel a chore, especially since Chumby's primitive touchscreen can require multiple taps to get where you're going. Before long, I wanted Chumby to shut up.

There are widgets to view e-mail from a Web service such as Yahoo! (YHOO), but don't get any fancy ideas about replying to or even deleting messages. This is read-only. I was irked, especially when I discovered a MySpace (NWS) widget for Chumby with a virtual keyboard for posting updates or replying to messages. The company says a more robust e-mail application is in the works, but there's no rush because few users have expressed interest. Maybe I'm odd, but I think a device that sits on your nightstand offers a perfect way to handle e-mail without booting up your laptop.

A Great Feature Gone Wrong

For me, Chumby's very best feature is Web radio. I've never dabbled in Web-connected home theater systems, and I've never been big on listening to music on a computer—all of which means I've never really availed myself of Web radio. But with Chumby next to my bed, the barrier to entry was low, and I found myself exploring radio stations around the country.

Yet it was that enjoyment that led to further disappointment. I don't spend my life in bed. So when I decided I wanted to keep listening to Chumby in the kitchen, boy was I surprised to see it shut off after I pulled out the power cord. No battery? I was certain it was broken, or not sufficiently charged. Nope. Not only would I have to bring the plug along, but I'd need to reboot the little fellow in the next room, and then go poking through the menus to find the same radio station.

Sure, most clock radios aren't portable. But this is a squishy device that's meant to be grasped as you poke its touchscreen. And it costs $180. The folks who created Chumby seem to understand this, as there's a 9-volt battery connector stashed within a slit on the bottom. And yet that hookup is intended for future use; there's no software inside to tell Chumby how to cope with a 9-volt battery, so inserting one makes it buggy and burns out the battery in short order.

Flawed Logic

The company sees Chumby as a wondrous work in progress. But what they've really done is bring an unfinished product to market. A company manager counseled patience: "Remember, just because it's not a widget yet, doesn't mean there won't be one later on. That's the beauty of the Chumby and our network." The beauty? The company may see these challenges as the charms of an open-source initiative, but there's a flaw in that logic: Early versions of open-source software are certainly prone to warts, but they're usually free. Chumby is not. I don't want to wait for a Chumby zealot to write an e-mail widget.

Maybe it's me. After all, a bunch of venture firms just handed Chumby Industries $12.5 million in new funding. Chumby's followers may regard my complaints as those of a dolt who doesn't get social media or open-source communities. To them I say this: Just get cracking on a widget that'll let me type in a Web address or reply to an e-mail. Otherwise you'll never build the critical mass of users needed to save Chumby from extinction.


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