Chumby CEO looks forward to hacker input


Author: Lisa Hoover

Most CEOs would faint dead away if you said you’d taken a prototype of their new electronic device, ripped off the housing, reconfigured its innards, hacked your way through its code, and then sewn the whole thing into the stomach of a Teletubby doll. Steve Tomlin would shake your hand and say thanks.

Tomlin is CEO of Chumby Industries, creators of chumby, a small tabletop device, not much bigger than a coffee mug, that connects wirelessly to the Web and uses a collection of widgets to gather information. With it, you can keep abreast of traffic and weather in your hometown, breaking news headlines, stock quotes, and video feeds. Set it to connect to your Flickr account and chumby will show you a constantly rotating selection of photos. It can also play streaming music and receive instant messages.

chumby – click to enlarge

When chumby hits the market during the second quarter of next year at an expected retail price of $150, users will have access to not only the code that powers the device, but also all the schematics necessary to turn chumby into whatever they fancy.

If you don’t care for the chumby’s plastic and fabric housing, the company provides patterns that allow you to sew a new cover for your device. Adventurous testers of prototype models have incorporated their chumbys into everything from stuffed Eeyore dolls to footballs and pumpkins. Participants on the company’s message boards have discussed putting a chumby into a lunchbox or a purse.

Tomlin says one of the most ingenious uses that he has heard of for a chumby comes from a hacker who wants to equip it with a GPS device, plant it in a tote bag outfitted with solar-powered panels, and use it to access Web-based map services while cycling around town as a bike messenger.

The idea for chumby began to take shape about a year and a half ago when Tomlin noticed venture capitalists were showing an increased interest in supporting digital technology within the home. Tomlin says that while media PCs and TV set-top boxes are “overreaching approaches,” consumers have clearly embraced Wi-Fi and devices that allow them access to information without tying them to their computers.

It took developers about eight months to engineer a batch of working chumby prototypes. Company officials handed out nearly 200 to delighted hackers at Tim O’Reilly’s FOOCamp in August, and declared it to be a device “you can hack with a seam ripper.” Tomlin says he was “blown away” by the response. Hackers fell in love with the device almost immediately for its expandability and openness.

Chumby is aimed squarely at the connected youth market whose members have grown up surrounded by technology and are comfortable using it. Tomlin looks forward to seeing what new and inventive ideas they come up with. Widgets that connect teens with the things they care most about — cell phones, social networking sites like MySpace, and Internet messaging factor highly on Tomlin’s wish list.

“I’m most enthused, though, about things that have some social benefit, things that keep families connected,” he says. One example he cites is the ability to purchase a chumby for an aging parent to keep families in touch remotely. He envisions a chumby sitting on Grandma’s kitchen counter displaying a rotating selection of photos of the grandkids along with an occasional personalized message or reminder to take medication. Chumby’s interface relies on an easy-to-use touch screen that makes the device approachable, even for technophobes.

“Provided that we keep it simple, chumby will have an enormous benefit to people who haven’t grown up with technology,” Tomlin says.

chumby bear – click to enlarge

Guts and innards

Chumby is meant to complement a home or office PC, not replace it, so huge amounts of memory and storage capacity aren’t necessary. It does, however, house a respectable 32MB DRAM and 64MB NAND of flash memory. The prototype has a 266MHz Freescale MX21 ARM9 processor, although the production unit is expected to have a faster processor and a 3-axis accelerometer. The prototype version currently uses embedded Linux running the 2.4.20 kernel, but will ship with a later version. According to Duane Maxwell, head of software for Chumby Industries, “We’re planning on moving to Linux 2.6, not sure yet which version, but we’re trying to get as close to the latest version while still getting stability on our processor.”

All the software developed by Chumby Industries has been released under the GPL or LGPL licenses, and all other open components are covered under their original licenses. Flash Lite Player from Adobe is the only closed software included with chumby. The device is powered using switching power circuitry that will accept from 6V to 14V DC and includes a 9-volt battery to ensure the clock continues to run in the event of power loss.

“The hardware specifications, which includes full schematics, CAD files for the plastics and circuit boards, and flat patterns for the soft components, is covered by a different license, which allows people to examine and modify while preserving our patent and trademark rights,” says Maxwell. “We expect that people will be making peripheral devices, and we want to make that as easy as possible. The primary conditions that we’re placing on the hardware is that you can’t use our designs to create a device that excludes people from using that derivative device with our service. This is the layer of protection that we have to have to protect ourselves from the Big Fish out there.”

No matter how much work goes into smoothing out the bumps of an innovative product like chumby, updates will be expected and bug fixes may be required, but developers are prepared for both. “The chumby has an update mechanism based on BitTorrent. On power-up, the chumby will check the server for an update and give the user the option to download and install that update. If that option is chosen, then the chumby uses BitTorrent to fetch the updates and install it,” says Maxwell.

Developers chose BitTorrent for its reliability when downloading large files and its ability to effectively manage corrupted files without requiring a full redownload. “[Also],” Maxwell says, “the chumby devices will collaborate to update the installed base, resulting in a much faster update than having each chumby individually and separately downloading big files from our servers. We also have the ability to update individual components without downloading a complete firmware image.”

Updates can also be done via one of two USB 2.0 host mode full speed ports to boot from a thumbdrive.

Like Tomlin, Maxwell is interested in seeing what creative ideas hackers have in store for chumby. He says he’d like to see more applications that allow the devices to interact with each other (something that’s already possible on a limited basis) as well as ways to make the chumby work with personal video recorders, music servers, and webcams. “We’re never going to think of everything — this is a new device category and it would be naive for us to think we know exactly what’s going to happen to it. I suspect we’ll be very surprised what people do,” he says.

Since chumby is unlike any other product, its difficult to judge how well it will be received, although if the early responsefrom the open source community is any indication, it is eagerly anticipated. Maxwell admits, though, that the launch of chumby is a “grand experiment.”

“We’ve taken a very different approach to creating a consumer electronic device,” he says. “Rather than layering DRM and fighting a losing war with hackers attempting to repurpose the device, we’ve decided to trust the community to an extraordinary degree. The anti-DRM crowd has waved the ‘trust the customer’ banner for a few years now to no avail, but we’re actually going to do just that. At this point, the hackers, developers, and users can destroy chumby by doing exactly what the big media companies are deathly afraid of. So this is a grand experiment in trust to which we’ve committed our careers and millions of dollars.”

Maxwell likens the situation to the owner of a small grocery shack he encountered while sailing around the British Virgin Islands. The store was filled with food and supplies but the owner routinely left the door open and a jar on the counter to collect money in his absence. Although customers could have robbed him blind, they never did. “By all measures, this should not work, but it does,” says Maxwell. “When presented with an opportunity to be trusted, in that community at least, people seem to rise to the challenge.

“So the question is this — will it work here? Are these guys ranting about ‘trust’ for real or are they full of crap? We’ll find out.”