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 FimCritic.com, weather updates from The Weather Channel, "news" from MTV, and even SAT vocabulary words from fear profiteer Kaplan.