The birth of Chumby

Last night, we had our first ever “product launch” at FOO camp. (Joshua Schachter says he almost showed del.icio.us at the first FOO in 2003, but wasn’t quite ready, and released it a few weeks later.) We normally try to focus on pre-commercial technology at FOO, since by the time there are lots of startups, you’re much further from the cutting edge. However, there are so many interesting aspects to the Chumby that we were excited to get behind it, and invite a whole bunch of the chumby team to Foo for the launch:

  1. Web 2.0 meets low-end consumer devices. Chumby is a kind of web-enabled wifi clock radio, with user-generated konfabulator-style info-widgets. There is an initial set of widgets, but the goal is for the community to extend the set. The value of the device is in the service of delivering new net-connected widgets, not in the hardware, or even the software.

  2. Open source hardware. This is a major emergent theme at FOO. (Remember that we don’t organize the program around concepts so much as we organize it around people. We find cool people, and they tell us what they’re doing, often surprising us by the things they do that we didn’t know about.) As there’s more Make: style hardware hacking, there’s a need for new tools for sharing the details of projects, for thinking through licenses, and the like. (A great example of FOO cross-fertilization: Colin Cross, also at FOO, is working on a linux-powered open source hardware mobile phone, the TuxPhone (project coming soon on SourceForge.) He was excited to meet the Chumby folks to pick their brains about their license.)
  3. Open source software. In a session on forecasting, Paul Saffo remarked on the importance of paying attention to anomalies. The example he gave was a highway road sign that stated “Leaving emergency road side phone service area.” This shift from communications being the exception to communications being the norm alerted him to the idea that communications, not processors, would be the driving force of technology in the 90’s. So I think it’s fascinating that Chumby puts a sticker on the back noting that all the software is open source except flash, which they use for some functions.
  4. Soft hacking, aka Craft:. Chumby CEO Steve Tomlin remarked that Chumby is a device that “you can hack with a seam ripper.” Unlike most other consumer electronic devices, it comes with a bean-bag style case (complete with various kinds of sensors so that squeezes and bumps control activity) that can be modded with a sewing machine. Want a hello-kitty version? It’s up to you.
  5. They wanted to see how a hacker audience would respond. The device is designed to be hackable on every level, so this is a great alpha group for seeing where a hacker community will take a device like this, as well as whether or not they respond. The prototypes are still under development, and the people at FOO who’ve gotten their hands on them thus become co-developers of the product before manufacturing goes to scale.
  6. The idea was born at FOO. Key members of the Chumby team met at previous FOO Camps, and the idea was an outgrowth of the ferment we encourage here. So it’s a great proof point of what we’re trying to accomplish: pack enough smart people into a compact space that they create enough heat that ideas boil over.

Christine Herron gives a great summary of the product launch. The Chumby site has lots more info.

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  • http://www.winmarkets.com Nilofer Merchant

    Ideas can be generated from loads of places but the fact that you’ve cultivated a place where smart people get together and then open themselves up to spark new ideas and collaborate is fabulous. Just think, you’re the equivalent of NASA without the government funding associated with it.

    Good job!

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Re. the license, Simon Phipps of Sun immediately picked up on an important thing about the Chumby that’s NOT open: you may only connect to Chumby’s own services. (I wasn’t aware of that, and it makes me a bit uneasy (even though it confirms my thesis these many years about the open source paradigm shift — people will give away hardware, will give away software, with the most open license possible, but will then seek to monetize something new, now web services.) It’s Clayton Christenson’s “law of conservation of attractive profits” at work. It’s actually at the heart of most Web 2.0 strategy. But usually, it’s not been so bare-faced as to actually have a license that forbids connection to other services. I’m not sure that’s going to work… Far wiser to rely on network effects to get to some kind of value in your services that others have to play catch up with.

  • http://8stars.org/ Adam Rice

    Kinda reminds me of the
    Nabaztag/

  • Angela

    I am a dedicated soft hacker…and thanks to chumby I have an opportunity to really have fun with my skills. I love operating in the nexus of hi-tech and lo-tech…I am a bit of a hacker but at heart I am a crafter. I know this is a gadget that will attract both genders, but due to its craftability it finally feels like the day a girl-oriented gadget landed on the planet! I am rejoicing!

    Thanks…great work!

  • Graeme Merrall

    I’ve uploaded some photos to my flickr photo stream of the chumby.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/dasfreak/tags/chumby/