Switched On: The Chumby challenge

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

In their 1997 song Tubthumping, Chumbawumba sang, "I get knocked down but I get up again," describing well the daily cycle of sleep and awakening. For many of us, that cycle renews with the aid of a nightstand staple now targeted by Chumby, likely not named after the one-hit wonders. Depicting a clock radio on their Web site, Chumby's developers ask, "Um, this is the Internet era, isn't it? Why is this still sitting next to my bed?" The answer is that primarily there haven't been many alternatives until now, but also because alarm clocks are cheap and have easily understood and compelling functionality.

That is not yet true for Chumby, a broadband beanbag for Flash developers that promises a flexible feature list and exterior. According to, Chumby has a 266 MHz ARM controller, 32MB of SDRAM, a 3.5-inch LCD with LED backlighting, stereo speakers, a headphone jack, and an ambient light sensor. It runs Flash Lite 2 (roughly equivalent to the functionality of Flash 7), and has a USB port and a squeeze sensor. Chumby looks a bit like a soft-shell TomTom Go, and its casing can be personalized, BeDazzled, encrusted with Swarovski crystals or even replaced entirely with what could be -- if it ever reaches iPod-like popularity -- an ecosystem of enclosures.

When Chumby comes to market in 2007, it's expected to cost less than $150 with "no hidden fees." Chumby Industries is one of the first companies to hit upon the cost reductions enabled by focusing on Web feeds, which open a world of relevant information without needing a demanding and complex Web browser. Yet, the Chumby is still quite pricey for an alarm clock. Even the iHome iH5, which combines a clock radio with an iPod charging dock, can be found for about $100 (without the iPod, of course).

Still, the Chumby can do a lot more than then even an iPod-enabled clock radio. It can access your Flickr photos, display a Google calendar, or even stream enough of a Webcam feed to enable Dallas residents to alert Liverpool authorities. Chumby Industries is reaching out to hardware and Flash hackers and even crafts designers to expand Chumby's functionality, which is sure to increase its appeal even more with early adopters. It even includes a "chumbilical" cable that connects to a hacker-friendly daughtercard. Who could take chumbrage at such creativity?

As one of its developers notes in its discussion forums, though, Chumby eventually wants 90 percent of its users to be ordinary consumers. That doesn't mean that it needs to design around the Wal-Mart customer immediately or that the company needs to "chumb down" the device's functionality, but it will need to hone its value proposition. The clock radio gets you up in the morning. Why should you pay five times that for a Chumby? The history of the Internet appliance has had more dips than Chicken McNuggets. And if Chumby is cursed with an amorphous lifestyle name like "bedside companion," some careless customers may be in for quite a surprise.

If Chumby can't make its value easily understood, it could turn into one of those devices that geeks buy to send bits to nontechnical friends and relatives, such as the Ceiva digital photo frame or perhaps MSN TV. Unlike those products, Chumby won't put off consumers by requiring a subscription, but its developers also hope to sell premium channels for which it will need a large installed base. So, hack away, Chumbians. In your quest to make these pliable portals a jumping jack to Flash, may you happen upon the compelling benefit or two that answers the question, "What can a good digital chum be?"

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at