Chumby received a rush of blog-licity when the firm handed out these portable Wi-Fi thingamabobs at O’Reilly’s Foo Camp to alpha-geeks: The device, in prototype, is small, designed for the “kids,” and sports a Wi-Fi adapter, an AC power plug, a small, color touchscreen, and an open architecture. The company wants people to hack the software, hardware, and even the device’s case with their own modifications. It’s not precisely open source, but it’s all open. They hope the device will ship in the second quarter of 2007 for about $150. They also expect that it could be licensed or replicated in many forms—they have released or shortly will release the parts list and schematics among other parameters—and they’re curious what results. In this podcast interview with Avalon Ventures partner and Chumby Industries chairman Steve Tomlin, we talk about how having a device that’s designed to be open affects what gets developed for it. We also talk about how Chumby, as a general-purpose appliance, make available many kinds of applications—it’s not just another picture frame, just another music player, or just another RSS display. In its current iteration, the Chumby has a touchscreen but no keyboard interface. Tomlin expects someone is already working on that.
This is fascinating in so many different directions that I can’t really hope to address more than a few, even partially, but here goes.
The market researcher in me (he lives down next to my liver) is just giddy about this for the frankly revolutionary idea that the product embodies. That is – it’s a product whose entire existence is premised not on any particular consumer need but appealing to a strongly culturally-identified demographic first and then, literally, letting them decide what it is that they’ve bought, and bringing the product into existence.
I’m no alpha-geek but I already definitely know what I’m going to get my Chumby to do (it’ll be my cookbook – think about it). And that’s the exciting thing about the product: we all get to be product testers, researchers, engineers AND members of a bleeding-edge community at the same time.
This entire enterprise – which included a perfectly-timed kickoff at uber-geek happening FooCamp – seems to have in its DNA (in its very existence) one of the best understandings I’ve seen of contemporary identity, consumer culture and the intersection thereof.
And if you still don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, what this “thing” is and/or why you should be excited – that’s kind of the point. Or rather, that’s part of the point. Most identities are, in some measure, exclusionary – deciding what’s not included, or what you aren’t, or what you’re better than is part of determining what you are. That last part is especially important in understanding tech culture, as the 1337 component is one of the core elements of the identity (both in defining, and defining against). Put another way: if you are an alpha-geek, or know how they think and operate, it’s actually surprising that a Chumby or Chumby-like product – one that you have to hack on some level in order to make useful in any way – didn’t already exist. Ownership of Chumby and its ideological descendants will be a proud badge of identity because it will be a tactile representation of the statement, “Look at the cool stuff that I can do.”