Wed Dec 23 2009

How the Chumby blew an opportunity to be a huge commercial success

Remember the Chumby? I sure do, as I just saw mine in one of my miscellaneous electronics drawing. In it it lay, quiet and turned off. Chances are it won’t be getting turned on again unless in a totally different form, torn apart, serving as middleware for some other random system during a random electronics hacking session - for I don’t see any other use in it except scavenging material.

It sure did have potential, however. I remember when it was first announced everyone at Foo Camp was totally excited about it. The possibilities, the mistery, the sheer awesomeness of what could be the perfect open platform - a PIY ( program it yourself - I just totally made that up) tool (and cute looking too). Alas, it failed. Why? That is what I attempt to explain in the following paragraphs.##The open platform… that never was

Imagine this: wifi, powered, touchscreen device that runs Linux and packs one headphone and two USB ports. Sounds awesome, right? It does, and I’m not describing the next Apple tablet, JooJoo or OLPC. I’m describing the Chumby as it was three years ago (and still is today). Allowing such a device to be hacked at by developers around the world would create an ecosystem of applications running on bedsides and desk tops everywhere.

All it needed was the ability to run, say, Ruby, Python or Perl code. It might even work well with just a browser and people would build web-apps for it (like this other device, the iPhone, did for a while). But no. In order to build apps (they call them widgets) for the Chumby, you needed to use Flash. Flash, with all its merits, is not the platform you want to build embedded device widgets on. However on the Chumby, it was your only option.

And so started the limitations. Real developers gave up on it (not that those that did not aren’t “real” - they are just patient enough to deal with flash, which is “unreal”), and that made the widget catalogue look like a glorified clock theme download platform. Which is what it is to this date [1].

##When a great device becomes a clock

I find it hard to believe that at least some of the people working for Chumby aren’t bitter for how things turned out. After all, it was one of those ideas that you knock your head against the wall for not having. Open, hackable, affordable, good looking device? Sign me up. Well not now - now we’ve got the iPhone and Android.

When you believe you’re changing the world and you end up with a cutely-shaped alarm clock/paperweight, you have got to rethink things and see where you went wrong. Not seeing the potential in the platform is where the Chumby failed miserably. They had 3 years to date to realize this, and still haven’t. Apple once said no third party apps would ever run on the iPhone, and then corrected their mistake - now there’s companies like TapTap making a million dollars a month on it. I wonder where good old Chumby might be, if only they opened it up just a little bit more.


[1]: At the time of this writing, the all-time most popular widgets are the Weather Channel, two widgets for the New York Times, Roboclock (a clock widget) and David Letterman’s Top Ten. No joke.