Switched On: Channeling Chumby (Part 1)

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

For nearly as long as the Internet has had value to average consumers, companies have sought ways to deliver its infotainment more conveniently. Early efforts such as WebTV, the hackable Netpliance i-Opener, and the MSN Internet Companion suffered from slow dial-up access and unsavory subscription plans. Portable wireless efforts using inexpensive distribution networks such as the paging network (Ambient Dashbard) or FM radio (MSN Direct watches) have struggled with information presentation interfaces and breadth of content.

While most of these devices have been marketplace failures, the quest clearly continues. Much of the attention yesterday around Android and the unveiling of the Open Handset Alliance revolves around getting a better Internet experience into the mobile phone, the clear payoff for Google.

Chumby, the open source, Wi-Fi-savvy, touch screen-enabled, accelerometer-equipped bit bag represented by what appears to be a mutant octopus, has been tossed onto this treacherous trail of Internet appliances. Chumby resembles a portable GPS device such as the TomTom Go or Garmin StreetPilot C330, but with a rear that hasn't been to the gym in a couple of years. Instead of displaying directions, Chumby can display Flash Lite widgets from scores of content providers. These include, for example, movies from, weather updates from The Weather Channel, "news" from MTV, and even SAT vocabulary words from fear profiteer Kaplan.

Like many opportunistic Web-related offerings of late, Chumby ties into Facebook, and has a widget devoted to status updates, although it resulted in an API error on Facebook's site when I tried to use it. Unlike drab weather forecasting devices, Chumby can play video and Chumby Industries describes the product as an IPTV device, but most of its infotainment is delivered in Flash Lite. The Word of the Day widget scans text in a mock dictionary before being presented. And the Chuck Norris Facts widget features an animated caricature of the Walker, Texas Ranger star punching each "fact," which results in a puff of smoke before the next one appears. (By the way, the mushy exterior of Chumby was made of solid granite... until Chuck Norris gave it a roundhouse kick to the face.)

Chumby seemed to begin life as a hackers' playground, but it has really come together into a fun consumer product that could become increasingly useful as more content and service partners sign on. The company has moved away from its notion of customizable shells as BeDazzler fodder. Chumby combines a well-executed Web interface used to configure widgets into channels, and the device's glanceable interface is like a miniature version of "push" products such as Pointcast from the mid-'90s. Chumby Industries' Web site features a virtual Chumby for watching and previewing channels that runs nearly in sync with its physical counterpart.

Channels cycle through widgets, some of which can take advantage of interaction. These include simple games and other amusements as well as some channels with scrolling content. An experimental Chat widget requires a stylus to activate an on-screen keyboard. However, Chumby's light weight can result in its touch screen being difficult to activate if the device is not positioned against something restraining it; it is unlike fixed ATMs or cell phones or PDAs that use the resistance of hands holding them. Consumers may find it easier to pick up Chumby for tasks that require using the touch screen, which could use some improvement in its calibration accuracy.

Next week's column will discuss Chumby's control panel and size up whether Chumby is worth more than chump change.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at Views expressed in Switched On are his own.