Archive for August 29th, 2006

Why we invented the chumby

August 29, 2006

We invented the chumby because we, like most people we know and especially like most younger people we know, have at least two often-incompatible lives. We have our real life: being with our family, friends and co-workers; doing activities; running errands; making dinner; enjoying our morning coffee while looking out the window; brushing our teeth; scolding the dog. We also, and increasingly, have our Net life: answering email; posting to our blogs; sharing digital photos or the latest joke; finding out if the Padres blew it in the ninth-inning (do we even have to wonder?); seeing who’s IM’ing us; scanning for the latest buzz on digg or Slashdot; trying to know in advance if it’s going to rain tomorrow; discovering how much traffic there is on the way to work; and just letting Web whimsy wash over us.

Lacking time travel or self-cloning (Chumby Industries’ next product ideas!), these two lives are somewhat hard to reconcile. Attention spent on one is attention not accorded the other. I like my real life, so I’m trying hard not to give that short-shrift. But my Net life is really interesting too, and getting better all the time – and my friends and family are sometimes there too. But, on the other hand, there’s a “Kodak moment” happening right now with my kids in my yard and I’m missing it because I’m working on a blog post. But, on the third hand, bunnie Huang just messaged me with a cool idea for Chumby and is dying to know what I think about it – and I don’t want to wait until tomorrow to discuss it with him. I’m sure that those of you who are reading this post presumably know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t need to “get a life,” I have too many already. I just need to reconcile, to “synch,” them better.

We’re hoping that the chumby will help reconcile real and Net lives for some people. We designed the chumby for all that Net life stuff that’s important, but not so important that you need to be fully-focused on your computer or hyper-thumbing your cellphone. It’s an attempt to try to integrate a lot of that Net life stuff into your real life. It’s meant to be passive. It’s “sort of” what’s going on in your Net life, with the occasional alert for when you do need to put your real life on hold and engage completely with your Net life (“She posted that about me?!?!?”). But, by occasionally providing the comfort of some passive and “continuous partial attention” to your Net life, it’s what allows you to reengage more fully with your real life. I don’t want to have to hear again, “Daddy, why are you still tippy-tapping on your computer? The puppet show is about to start!” Frankly, I don’t know if it will really accomplish this goal or not (maybe I’ll now be staring at my chumby in the living room and still missing the puppet show), but it’s an attempt.

So, think of it this way. If you were typing away on your computer and someone in the house let out a scream, you’d leap up from your chair and run to find out what was happening (please say that you would!). But, assuming you’re in your real life, how can your Net life “scream” for attention? Or say you’re happily typing away on your laptop, enjoying your Net life, while your kids are playing nearby — you’re focused on your Net life but still enjoying a happy glow from your real life. Think of the chumby as the way your Net life can sometimes get your attention from your real life and the way you can bask in the happy glow of your Net life while living in your real life.

We invented the chumby because we’re not familiar with any other product that finds the right balance in providing passive continuous partial attention between our real and Net lives. Computers, Net-connected gaming machines, and cellphones essentially require our full attention when we’re using them. They’re anything but passive. And, as we all know, they can be downright anti-social. You must think, decide, pull down information you want to see, digest it, decide what to do next. This takes work, it takes continuous focused attention. You are ignoring other people around you when you interact with these devices — wake up, people, are you too far gone to see this! :^). Other attempts we’ve seen at passive or “ambient” information devices seem to us to be lacking the level of depth and granularity of information we need from our Net lives. They quickly fail to capture any of our attention, not even some of it, and they can’t be easily modified to serve anything other than the specific limited purpose for which they were designed. They seem to us to have limited value and limited attention “shelf life.” But for those of you designing and selling these devices: we’re all on the same team, we have a lot in common, we all are going after the same problem, and let’s “let a thousand flowers bloom” in trying to solve it. Let’s find better ways to integrate our two lives!

Some people on blogs and blog comments have discussed the chumby relative to some other device and, based upon what they think they know about the chumby, have found it lacking. Well, okay, first I encourage them to visit the Chumby Industries site where they can get the facts, like that it is, in fact, Linux-based and it is a plug-powered, not mobile, device.  The skeptics observe that the chumby can’t compare in many ways to a laptop, a PDA, a cellphone or a portable game player. Some of these other devices can do, or can do better, a lot of things that the chumby can’t do at all or can’t do very well. To be sure, if you were willing to scatter wifi-enabled laptops around your house, you really could hands-down outperform a group of similarly-placed chumbys. But I don’t know too many people who can afford to do this or who would want to move into the Uber-Geek Hall of Fame by doing so. Do you really want a laptop whirring away on your nightstand, right by your head, all night long? Will your significant other really let you get away with it? And when your laptop sits next to your sofa, what about when guests inadvertantly spill their drinks into the keyboard?

The chumby is designed to blend in with your life (both of them), your personal style, and to fit in with your surroundings. Your chumbys shouldn’t seem out of place in a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, or even a bathroom — or anywhere else in your house. And if you don’t like the look of a chumby for where you’d like to put one, we’ve made it easy for you (hopefully for a whole cottage industry!) to change the look of your chumby so that it does look the way you want it to.

Lastly, we’re hoping that people find ways to enable the chumby to make all of their other devices even better and to do things these other devices can’t do very well. For example it’s a great way to share photos from your cellphone: email/MMS shots from your camera phone to a photo-sharing site (we’re doing this on Flickr right now), and have your chumby constantly pull down and display your photos from your account. This simple process (we’re making it even simpler) takes just a few moments, so your friends can see themselves on your chumby while the party’s going on! And because your chumby can pull photo feeds from multiple accounts, everyone’s photos from the party can all be shared on one chumby in real time. It’s tremendously entertaining.

I’ll be writing more about how the chumby will hopefully fit into your life(s) and play nice with your other stuff soon.

There are a bunch of other reasons why we invented the chumby, getting more into our desire for open-ended, hackable products. But bunnie has already covered some of that and we’ll be discussing it in other posts.


Why we gave away chumbys at FOO Camp

August 29, 2006

[NOTE: Many thanks to all of you who are blogging about us, commenting on our Forums and who are contacting us on our site. We’re getting lots of good wishes, lots of interest for different business aspects, and many of you are, thankfully, coming to us to help us make chumby better and to try to resolve problems you might be having with your prototypes. We’re all just sort of straggling back into San Diego from FOO Camp and are a bit overwhelmed. We’ll try to respond to every one of you as quickly as we can, but it may take a few days, so thanks for bearing with us!]

The whole Chumby team just got back from Tim O’Reilly’s FOO Camp in Sebastopol, CA. And, between all-nighters to get everything together leading up to FOO and the processing of a whole bunch of fantastic conversations with other FOO Campers over the past few days about what we’re doing, we’re kind of fried right now. At FOO Camp we introduced the prototype (!) version of a new wifi device that we’ve been working on, called the “chumby”. We obviously received a lot more attention on the blogs about this than, frankly, we expected or were prepared for, which is why our corporate server is toast right now (well, it’s up and down sporadically — we should be in much better shape in a day or two). So we’re drinking even more coffee and Red Bull and getting serious about finding a co-location provider and better supporting our new user-base of a couple hundred chumby users from FOO Camp and, apparently, quite a lot of people who have questions, comments, and suggestions for us. I’ll also try to set the record straight on a few things because blog speculation seems to be running a bit wild.

The chumby is, at best at this point, alpha-level hardware (i.e., still very much in development) and it is not currently for sale, though it hopefully will be by the second quarter of next year. Our whole reason for sharing the chumby at FOO Camp with a bunch of smart and curious people versus, say, launching it at CES with glitz and “booth babes,” is that, in addition to the fact that it’s still a totally incomplete prototype (!), we absolutely admit, loudly and clearly, that we’re still trying to figure all of this out, and we don’t have all the answers for what this product should be, who it should be for and how we can float a self-sustaining company around it. Upon further reflection, except for the admitting uncertainty loudly and clearly part, maybe we aren’t that different from a whole lot of product launches at CES. And, well, we unfortunately don’t know any booth babes.

It seemed to us when we started Chumby Industries that we could certainly try to develop a consumer electronics product the traditional way. We could hire an expensive brand-name industrial design firm, develop a list of “product use cases” from nationwide “focus groups,” construct multiple expensive design models, hold further focus groups to elicit feedback about the design models and use cases from members of our “targeted demographic” whom we’d ask to imagine themselves using such a product, take the most promising product candidate from this process, and then develop the product through a variety of semi-finished states, testing at each step, in order to arrive at a final product which we would then launch with enormous fanfare, and carefully timed for the holiday buying window, in a wonderfully-crafted marketing campaign (which itself required extensive testing and refinement) and supported by an awesome public relations blitz, all orchestrated months in advance.

Or we could do it a different way. We could discuss among ourselves the product we wanted to create and thought other people would probably want to buy (and double-check this by asking a few people to make sure that we were not dangerously abnormal), build the actual real thing quickly and cheaply and in such a way that we, and others, could pretty easily modify it, and then give it to some of our smartest friends to see how they liked it and what we might change about it. Seemed a lot cheaper, a lot faster, and the feedback a lot better because it’s a real product in real use in real lives. I guess this is the “hacker model” of product development. Build, run, fix, run, fix, works?, then play with till breaks, fix, etc.

We’ve seen a lot of products at the grand Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that are presumably developed the traditional way by big consumer electronics companies. Most of these products stink. Apparently a lot of other people think they stink too because many of these products (most of them?) are unsuccessful. These companies must lose a lot of money on these failed efforts.

We decided to develop the chumby the other way, the hacker way, because, a.) we’re hackers and b.) we can’t afford to lose a lot of money and have a stinker. We obviously still don’t know whether the chumby will be a success or not — again, we’re still developing it and no one has been asked to buy one. But we’re certain that we’d be slaughtered if we tried to take on the big consumer electronics companies by doing things their way. And I think we’re having more fun doing it our way.

FOO Camp was a great place for us to share our early thinking and chumby prototypes. Most FOO Campers believe the same things that we believe in, i.e., open is better than closed; “hackability” is better than a sound product warranty; passionate users are the best customers but “co-creators” (hackers, makers, crafters, artists) are the best of all; open, early and honest discourse is better than stealth; viral is better than orchestrated; etc. This canon is, by now, pretty well known. But FOO Campers are also known for brutal honesty. If they thought what we were doing was lame, we’d be sure to hear it. We’re happy with the reception we received. For sure the chumby is far from perfect and there are some things we’re definitely going to fix and add, but we seemed to get validation that we’re on the right track. This also seems to be reflected in most of the blog traffic we’ve been seeing.

We hope to have our site back up and running in a few days and with sufficient professional hosting that it stays up. Once that happens, those who wonder what the chumby is or what we’re trying to do can get a lot of answers straight from us and not from reports of FOO Camp or what someone may be speculating from a picture or an inaccurate blog post (though a grateful tip of the hat to several bloggers from FOO Camp who have done a pretty good job of describing the chumby — and arguably a better job in many respects than we even do ourselves on our own web site). We’ll try to keep our Forums up and monitored, at , so we can address any questions directly.

Like I said at the top, we’re pretty exhausted right now (yipes, 2AM as I write this), but soon I will try to address in some more detail what the chumby is. I will follow that with why the chumby is, i.e., who we think it’s for, why we think it’s different from, and possibly additive to (!), a cell phone, a portable game machine, a laptop, a PDA, an MP3 player, a clock radio, or anything else that someone might already have. I want to explain why the chumby is hackable and open (though not, strictly speaking, completely “open source” in the full meaning of that term) and what we hope to accomplish with this. I’ll also write about the people involved with Chumby Industries: I’m awed to be working with them. So as often as I can on this blog, yet while keeping Chumby Industries marching toward the chumby’s real launch, I will try to explain what we’re doing.

But let me be totally clear about one thing before closing this first official chumby blog post (and, I confess, my first personal blog post ever). We really do appreciate your comments and questions, whether here, on various blogs, or hopefully on our Forums. We’re currently a very small start-up company with only about 6 full-time people and several more part-timers, and we know for sure that we don’t have all the answers. Maybe you’ll help us figure this out.

We don’t want the chumby to be a product that ends up in your box of techno-crud. We are determined to make the chumby something that will be worth more to you than what you pay for it, and that will make your life a little better and more fun.