At first, I just didn't get it--the Chumby, that is. This little LCD display wrapped in a hug of padding looked like a bizarre cross between my car's antiquated GPS device, the throw-up of an OSX dashboard, and a big plushy hunk of love. To its genius, that's exactly what the Chumby is... and so much more. And did I mention that it's open-source as well?
Contrary to most of the open-source hardware projects I've mentioned on Maximum PC, the Chumby is ready for your attention the moment you pop it out of the box. But that doesn't mean that you can't tweak and tinker beyond its simplistic exterior. Although cracking open the soft, loveable digital toy will violate your warranty, the official Chumby site is more than happy to give you a listing of the device's full hardware and accompanying schematics. From there, only your conscience toward ripping open friendly, plush, communication devices stands in your way of complete hardware transcendence.
If hardware hacking isn't your thing, however, the second best part of the Chumby is the comprehensive list of software widgets that you can display and interact with on the device. To find these, you can go the official route and download apps directly off of Chumby's main site or you can scour the internet for custom, USB-deployable software to stick into your device.
Is the Chumby ultimately fun to use? Well... yes and no. I must confess, I gave solid thought to replacing my standing alarm clock with a Chumby. But the more I downloaded apps, the more I realized that the Chumby was inherently giving me much of the functionality that's already ingrained into my daily routine.
For example, do I need a Chumby to tell me the latest New York Times news? No. For that, there's my iPhone, my RSS feeds, my Web browser, et cetera. Do I need the latest round of images from I Can Has Cheezburger displayed on this desk-side device? Not really, but the case gains some ammunition. Do I want to scroll through my email on my Chumby? I could, but the touchscreen functionality is just slightly quirky enough to make me want to prod at a mobile phone instead.
But then... then there are the neat community widgets. I can display a live feed of the San Diego Zoo's panda enclosure on the Chumby (Shamu the whale, too!). And, of course, there's the Chumby WiFi Sniffer--perfect for seeing what your wireless-leeching neighbors are up to on your connection. True geeks will appreciate the Server Uptime widget, which checks the status of your Linux server and sounds a large, red alarm if it can't connect to your system. Perhaps best of all, a Chumby forum user is actively testing a new widget that transforms the Chumby into a full-fledged iTunes Remote.
Users aren't just hacking the Chumby's internal components and software. Aspiring designers are creating full, artistic frameworks for the squishy Chumby to rest in (or wear). The more mad scientist-like developers are finding ways to integrate the Chumby's Wi-Fi capabilities and accelerometer as the brain of larger projects, including toy car navigation, vehicle tracking, automated home lighting... and that's about it.
One of the larger issues surrounding this community-driven device is its lack of a rabid, enthusiast (and sizeable) fan base. Just survey the message boards. There's a gap of months between the first and last posts on the primary Chumby "Widgets" forum. I realize that's the most unscientific measurement of interest one can make, but it actually holds a little more weight given that Chumby actively promotes and collects third-party widgets on the official site. In a sense, this is the Chumby App Store. And unlike Apple's variety, where one can grab an near-infinite number of applications and games on an ever-increasing basis, Chumby development--especially from hacking community--doesn't seem to be as widespread as one would assume for such an open device.
That's the biggest shame of all, because the Chumby is actually a compelling little product. Its build-in functionality is akin to an alarm clock, a miniature display, and steroids mixed with a beanbag chair. Beyond that, the possibilities for modifying its Linux-based interior (or cute-based exterior) appear endless in construction and complexity. I'd much rather hack around on a Chumby than an Arduino controller, which makes it a shame that Chumby development seems to have dropped off since its early 2008 launch. Here's hoping the new deal that puts Chumby widgets into Broadcom televisions, set-top boxes, and Blu-ray players will encourage some additional interest in this lonely little octopus. But I fear that advancements in mobile technology might have singlehanded eclipsed the need for a $200, widget-based device.
David Murphy (@ Acererak) is a technology journalist and former Maximum PC editor. He writes weekly columns about the wide world of open-source as well as weekly roundups of awesome, freebie software. Befriend him on Twitter, especially if you have an awesome app or game you're dying to recommend!