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The gadgets that refuse to die

Goodbye doesn't mean forever.
Nicole Lee, @nicole
March 3, 2020
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Nicole Lee / Engadget

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I have a drawer in my bedroom that's filled with defunct tech. It consists of old PDAs, bricked smartwatches and wearables that no longer work. Like many of you, I've realized that gadgets don't last forever. As Engadget Senior Editor Devindra Hardawar recently pointed out, every smart device you love will probably die, whether it's because the device can't be updated anymore, or the company goes out of business -- this is the reality of modern electronics.

Or is it? Turns out, it doesn't have to be. Sometimes, if they garner enough of a fanbase, it's possible for so-called obsolete gadgets to get a second lease on life. Sometimes, thanks to the combination of open-source software and a passionate community, beloved gadgets can live on for years after they've supposedly run their course.

Rebble: Pebble's return

Pebble Time

One of the best examples of that is the Pebble. Having raised over $10 million on Kickstarter, the smartwatch effectively put the crowdfunding site on the map (it remained the most funded project on Kickstarter for years). And that was just the original; subsequent iterations like the Pebble Time and the Pebble 2 would also break Kickstarter records. The latter raised over $12 million while the former raised a whopping $20 million, and is still the number one most funded project on Kickstarter to this day. Despite the arrival of the Apple Watch and Android Wear, it's clear that Pebble had a devout following.

David Groom, known online as "ishotjr," was one of them. He was an early backer, and eventually acquired every single Pebble device that he could get his hands on. When the company announced that third-party developers could create smart straps for the Pebble Time, he was especially excited. "I was like, no way," Groom, a self-described hardware hacker, told Engadget. "I could interface my Pebble with an Arduino and stuff! I was freaking out." He was so excited about it that he traveled all the way from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan to a hackathon in Boulder, Colorado. The long trip was worth it, however, because he wound up winning the contest. "That was the turning point. I met all the Pebble people, and everyone was so awesome. I was deep in it."

Groom ended up throwing himself into the Pebble community. He helped organize local events, curated the app store, and even co-authored a book on Pebble development. "I was doing the maximum amount of Pebble stuff I could," he said. He would also spend a lot of time in Pebble-related Slack and Discord channels. "We have this community, mostly thanks to Pebble's amazing developer relations team."

Pebble Time Round

In late 2016, however, the tide turned. Groom and his friends heard of layoffs at Pebble, as well as rumors that it would be shutting down. Then the news broke of the Fitbit acquisition. "That really accelerated the level of freakouts," he said. "We all panicked." After all, a smartwatch isn't much use if the apps won't work.

But instead of suffering quietly, the Pebble developer community took action. "We were downloading everything we could," said Groom. "People wrote scripts to grab all the SDK, the documentation, all of it." Two days later, Rebble, a resource site for all things Pebble, was born. In Rebble's inaugural blog post, Groom wrote: "The aim of Rebble is to bring the many disparate efforts under a single banner, concentrating energy and enthusiasm to maximize the likelihood of continuance and resurgence of Pebble as a platform." From then on, the crew got to work reverse engineering APIs, writing documentation and attempting to build a new home for users.

Fitbit did support existing Pebble devices for a while, but the company ultimately pulled the plug on June 30th 2018. Mere months before that, however, Groom and co. introduced Rebble Web Services, a replacement for Pebble's soon-to-be shut down servers. Surprisingly, Rebble even worked with Fitbit to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Pebble 2

Katharine Berry, a Rebble co-founder, said in a blog post that the team was grateful for Fitbit's support: "[Fitbit has] been keeping the Pebble servers running even longer than they'd originally announced, and they've given us some needed extra time to come up with a solution for you. If Fitbit had not purchased Pebble, it's likely that the Pebble servers would have shut down with no notice at all."

Several years later, and the Rebble website is still going strong, with over a hundred thousand or so users still making use of their Pebbles. Rebble is able to keep it all going thanks to Patreon donations and the work of a handful of volunteers. When asked what sort of technical skill I'd need to load Rebble onto my Pebble, Groom said all I needed was the ability to click on a link. "There's a how-to section and an FAQ as well," he added. There's even customer support. "We have a whole customer service system," Groom said. "There's a support ticket system, and a Discord channel where people can ask for help."

Chumby's resurrection

Chumby

Pebble is not the only gadget that has survived long past its expiration date. Remember the Chumby? The cute smart alarm clock debuted in 2006, long before Amazon revealed its Echo Show smart display. It offered quick, glanceable information like the weather, Facebook and Twitter posts, RSS feeds, digital photos and video streams. "The Chumby was introduced shortly after WiFi was introduced," Andrew "bunnie" Huang, Chumby's founder, told Engadget. "To rewind to those times, there were no smartphones, and if you wanted to use your computer away from your desk, it meant dragging an ethernet cord to your bedside."

Despite its adorable nature, the Chumby was really more of a proof-of-concept for the underlying software which was meant to be run on TVs as well as PCs. In fact, Sony used a modified Chumby OS for the now-defunct Sony Dash, which was similarly dubbed as a "personal internet viewer" designed to sit on your nightstand.

With the recession in 2008 and the arrival of the iPhone, Chumby's days were numbered. Plus, instead of using Javascript/HTML5 for its widget framework, it used Adobe Flashlite, which grew out of favor with developers; Adobe eventually retired support for it. Still, Huang said that nearly 100,000 Chumby units were sold (Sony Dash sales, however, are unknown). Without the service, they would be effectively useless.

sony

But this was another case where a beloved gadget found new life. Duane Maxwell, who was the CTO and one of the founders of Chumby, continued to support it long after Chumby ceased operations in 2012. As the primary author of the control panel, he said he knew more about the overall system than pretty much anyone associated with the company.

"A couple of volunteers, including myself, continued to manage the system for about a year until the money ran out to support the back end," Maxwell told Engadget in an email. "There was a company hired by the creditors that was supposed to sell the assets of the company, and although they did manage to find buyers for the furniture etc, they did not have the expertise to sell the intellectual property or electronics."

So, Maxwell formed a company called Blue Octy LLC, and made a cash offer to the shareholders. It was accepted, which gave him ownership of the physical servers as well as the software, domains, databases, documentation, trademarks and copyright. After some time completely rewriting the backend to "more contemporary software standards" he's managed to update about 100 widgets and added almost 30 more.

Chumby, an open-source touchscreen Internet device.

"By the time I was done, from a user-facing standpoint, the new system was functionally identical to the original Chumby backend service," said Maxwell. That said, it cost a lot of money to host the server and keep it running, and he was only one person. So, he created a tiered subscription. If all you wanted to do with your Chumby was to use it as a cute alarm clock that played music, there was no cost. But as soon as you wanted to add widgets back into the mix, that would cost $3 a month. Thankfully, that subscription is per user, so if you had more than one device, that price would cover all of them.

"We also provide email support and occasionally repair devices," said Maxwell. "The new system came online in 2014 and has been running continuously since." When Sony discontinued the Dash, Maxwell was able to allow Dash owners to use its service too.

Further, Maxwell's wife manages "The Chumby Store," which sells replacement parts such as power supplies. "Some users donate devices they no longer want, which we refurbish and sell as well. Those folks that don't want subscriptions, but still want to provide financial support can also buy charms, stickers and other swag."

The night of the living dead... gadget

Nabaztag

The Pebble and Chumby are just two examples of so-called obsolete gadgets that have been brought back to life. There was the Nabaztag, a WiFi-enabled robotic bunny released in 2005 that conveyed information through wiggling its ears, changing colors and making sounds. It officially died in 2011 when the Mindscape company ended support for it, though it was resurrected later through open source means. Last year, the original design team even ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to bring the Raspberry Pi-based version of it back to production. Still, this appears to be a one-time project, and it's also clearly meant for those with quite a bit of technical know-how.

Little Printer

Then there's Berg's Little Printer, which was a strange yet adorable internet-connected receipt printer that debuted in 2012 but shuttered in 2014. The idea behind this quirky gadget was that you could print out the weather report, to-do lists and your daily schedule, all on physical paper with little fuss and low cost. Berg did turn the printer's commercial code into an open online platform called Sirius, but unless you had some technical knowledge, your Little Printer was still a brick. In 2019, however, a company called Nord Projects resurrected it with a brand new iOS app plus a new feature: you could use it to send and receive messages from other Little Printers. Think of it as a text, but in physical form. At the point of this writing, the service still seems to be up and running, so existing Little Printer users can try it out if they wish.

There are likely other devices that have survived obsolescence -- maybe even some of your favorites -- but they're obviously a pretty rare phenomenon. For the most part, we still caution most consumers that their favorite connected gadgets won't last. But who knows, if their fanbase is passionate enough, and if there's someone out there willing to spend time and energy keeping them alive, then it might be worth it to hold on to your old gadgets just a little while longer. Not only is that good for the environment, it's good for the pocketbook too. It could even mean a less cluttered junk drawer.

Images: Engadget (Pebble watch); Getty Images (Chumby with coffee): All others are press images.

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