Living and prospering in a world where everything does what everything else does

April 10, 2008

From the very beginning, we’ve heard from many people whose questioning basically runs as follows: “Why would I need a chumby if I already have a ___________? [insert name of another electronic screen-based device]”. Strangely they never ask this question once they have a chumby and see how it completely transforms the way they experience the internet and makes their life better. But, yes indeed, that’s the fundamental marketing issue — not just for us, but for the wide world of connected consumer electronics. The shared “electronics DNA” among smartphones, PDAs, tablet computers, digital photo frames, and a rapidly-emerging world of screen-based, internet-connected devices is probably closer than our extreme human genetic similarity to chimpanzees.

It’s tough to find electronic devices these days don’t have screens, connect to the internet, fetch media of one kind or another, and have some kind of input capability. Given the common electronic components in all these devices, the functional overlap is significant. Okay, I am capable of sitting in a tree and eating a banana. And naturally I like to think I’m capable of doing a lot more than this (though some would challenge me on this assertion), though I must confess that I find the tail-swinging aspect to be a bit tricky — but even though I can sit in a tree and eat a banana it’s probably not what I was optimally designed for or am uniquely good at. Most smartphones can browse the Web, my laptop can function as a VoIP phone or play a podcast, my cellphone can wake me up with an alarm in the morning, my LCD TV can display digital photos streamed off of my computer, and my digital photo frame can play video clips (or so the manual says, though I’m not quite sure how to pull this off). These devices all have screens (some are touchscreens), they have some kind of microprocessor with media functions and memory, they all have an operating system (some more rudimentary than others), they have some level of internet connectivity, and they they may have speakers or headphone jacks.

So with each of these devices sort of able to do what the others do, each has to define itself not on what it’s capable of doing, but what it’s uniquely good at doing — in short, what it’s designed for. The process of design, then, is one of definition and is particularly marked by what the product designer says, “No,” to. It’s the process of emphasizing certain features and demoting or rejecting others that enables the designer to shape a product for a particular function, at a particular price point, and with a particular style.

At Chumby, we’ve obviously said, “No,” to a few things with the chumby device, especially to keep it affordably priced at $179.95 delivered. We chose to make it small, sort of “grapefruit-sized.” This way it sits comfortably on an end-table, a nightstand, a shelf, and can be easily tucked next to your computer on your desk. While we think it’s a great way to view and share digital photos, it’s not really a digital photo frame — different screen size, not in the shape of a photo frame, etc. We gave the chumby decent speakers and emphasized audio features — we recognize that, because it’s often sort of a passive device, something you’re not always starting at or interacting with while you move around your environment, it makes sense that it should be able play music and podcasts to entertain and inform you. So it is an “internet radio,” and we think a very powerful and cost-effective one, but the chumby also has a touchscreen and a very different non-radio look. In fact we’ve chosen to emphasize audio features over video ones — you already have other more-powerful devices with bigger screens that make for better video viewing environments. A little quick video “snacking” on your chumby? Sure. With more to come. But if you want HDTV, there are better places to turn.

But I guess the biggest choice, from Day 1, was to make the chumby open in every way we could imagine. We recognize that some of you may disagree with what we’ve said, “No,” to in our design choices for chumby — so, unlike almost every other device you’ve ever owned, with a chumby you (given some level of ability in technology or craft) can say, “Yes,” to design alternatives. We’re delighted that many of you are taking us up on this. You’re going in different directions with content than we would have ever imagined; you’re making incredible functional or case modifications like this wooden TV-style chumby mod (great job, Pauric!):

and bunnie’s new hack of a chumby into a digital photo frame form-factor with a larger VGA screen and a traditional photo frame bezel:

Okay, so not all of us are adept with soldering irons, and maybe our crafting tool of choice is a sewing machine, so how about these chumby case “reupholstering” efforts happening in Japan:

Denim chumby cover


If you want your chumby to have a battery and be completely portable, a hack for this has already been done and published on blogs, and a more polished “official” battery accessory from Chumby Industries will be coming in the future. It was an original design choice that your chumby would just sort of get set somewhere and plugged in — and obviously the ongoing access to power is important if your device is meant to be on all the time so that its content is available at a glance, which is the whole point of Chumby. But many of you want to tote it around. Okay, we’re listening.

Our User Forums are always open and everybody at Chumby Industries hangs out there and reads and posts all the time — we take it very seriously. Duane Maxwell, our head of software engineering, takes the Forum incredibly seriously — he seemingly lives there. If you have any questions, comments, gripes, and especially compliments for us (!), please visit. A lot of what Chumby is today and where it’s going is being driven by the discussions happening there. We consider it our best “feedback loop” to make your product better and adapt it to your needs. It’s just amazing when someone makes a great suggestion on the Forum and it becomes reality in their own product quickly thereafter — and I think it amazes some of you who own chumbys to watch them improve over time due to this community feedback loop. We really hope that this model becomes the “new world order” in the connected consumer electronics industry.

But I guess the most important thing we can say about how Chumby Industries intends to prosper in a world where everything does what everything else does, beyond turning over a high level of product control to the Chumby community, is to remind you that Chumby Industries does two things. We make the chumby device. And we run the Chumby Network. The Chumby Network was designed, by virtue of our choosing Linux and Adobe Flash Lite, to be ported to a wide range of relatively inexpensive, screen-based, internet-connected devices. The first, and we believe the best, way to tune into the Chumby Network is through a chumby device. But there will be others. I think the real magic of Chumby is how we’re able to squeeze “10 pounds” of your favorite personal internet into the “5 pound bag” of relatively inexpensive screen-based devices that don’t look like, or cost like, computers — the rich media types of video, animation and streaming MP3 audio; your favorite social networks like MySpace and Facebook; your favorite internet content and services; big-name media brands like CBS, MTV and The Weather Channel; the top photo-sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket; cool new media services like Animoto, Albino Black Sheep, and Mediafly; funky user-generated creativity and madness resulting in some of the best widgets on Chumby. The Chumby Network is not a highly limited content service for connected photo frames or ambient devices — it’s “10 pounds” of the real internet, it’s a wide open publishing model that is vast and growing fast, and it’s designed from the beginning for easy media sharing with friends and family across Chumby’s “Chums” social network.

So how will Chumby live long and prosper in a world where everything can do electronically what everything else does?

(1) We bring a unique design sensibility — we say “No” to certain features, we design to a particular function, and we create something with design passion, not yet another ultra-mobile computer;

(2) But we leave the device and our content network open so Chumby only keeps getting better — we allow (in fact, encourage) chumby owners and the community behind Chumby to say, “Yes,” to other design choices if they’d like — after all the customer is always right and maybe we can actually learn something from you;

(3) We embrace other products and other form-factors — our goal is to put the Chumby Network on any internet-connected, screen-based device that you want to buy.

(4) And we never forget to ask you to buy a chumby, so what are you waiting for?, do it now :^)


12 Responses to “Living and prospering in a world where everything does what everything else does”

  1. Chumby happy dane! Says:

    Hey there Chumby folks greetings from Denmark (yea you know the little country that grabbed itself some somewhat unwanted attention with the Mohammed drawings) I ‘m only here to remind you of our small country… I would really hate to have to wait for say 2 years to be able to order a Chumby, so therefore please don’t neglect our country because of its size! Other than that good work!

  2. PenguinSix Says:

    Why do you need X device when you can do it with a PC (or whatever)?

    The easiest answer is ‘you can make toast in an oven or you can make toast in a toaster.’ Which is easier?

    Network devices have to become the toasters of our age (or probably more accurate, the toasters of our age should all become networked).

    Just my two cents.

  3. moonstudio Says:

    Thank you very much. This was a great help.

  4. Ed Says:

    > so what are you waiting for?

    Still waiting for you to sell them to Canada :-)

  5. […] Living and prospering in a world where everything does what everything else does […]

  6. […] wags the long tail of attention May 8, 2008 As I attempted to discuss in previous posts, the chumby, while it may contain similar electronics, is different from other internet-connected […]

  7. Jillian Says:

    Hilarious. I want to see a knitted Chumby warmer :)

  8. […] Previously, I teased you with pictures of some of these craft efforts. […]

  9. Grant B Says:

    “We gave the chumby decent speakers and emphasized audio features…”

    Understatement of the year. I haven’t tried the line-out yet, but the built in speakers do a great job. I can actually listen to the radio (NPR and CBC) and the conversations/music come through really well. Better than the ghetto blaster Chumby has replaced.

  10. […] been especially delighted with emergent chumby “craft hacks,” a phenomenon fairly unique to chumby.  One of the main reasons that we made chumby soft and malleable, was the encouragement […]

  11. […] The marching song was “warranties are for wusses!”  And some people did some amazing things.  But we really didn’t make this easy for our hardware hacking and “case mod” […]

  12. […] Oh, and chumby products are also several times cheaper than the iPad.  And chumby products are open and hackable so that you can do with them what you like or what clever developers can enable them to do.  And […]

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