Chumby The Clumsy Goes Global

Chumby is a cute little digital device with a strange story. Duane Maxwell, Chumby’s co-founder and vice president of software development, laughs as he says it began a couple of years ago when Steve Tomlin, a managing member of San Diego’s Avalon Ventures, was staying in a hotel. “They always have an alarm clock on the bedstand and nobody can figure out how to set it. There’s no way to tell if it’s already set and the alarm’s going off at 3 or 4 in the morning ’cause the previous guy needed to catch a plane.”

Lesson No. 1: The alarm clock had become… well, ridiculous. Lesson No. 2: All the hotels have Wi-Fi and a clock radio at every nightstand. Conclusion: Why can’t that device be Internet-enabled? Why not display weather, restaurants, news, and other information that’s important to hotel guests? So Tomlin contacted his friends and says he has this crazy idea…

“You can’t get any attention if you make another chrome-and-plastic, hot-tech, iPod-looking machine. So we intentionally created a very controversial package when we developed a soft electronic device, ” Maxwell explains.

The device they created is Chumby. It’s a funny, small, light embedded computer. Xconomy’s Wade Roush has defined the Chumby as one-quarter clock radio, one-quarter video and music player, one-quarter web terminal and one-quarter stuffed toy. It is a touch-screen device that entertains and informs. Its widgets can provide your music, pictures, games, net sites. And because Chumby is partly made of soft leather, it also is reassuringly squeezable.

Duane Maxwell and Chumbies

Duane Maxwell and Chumbies

“A lot of people hate it. A lot of people love it,” Maxwell says. “We have a lot of people who really love it because they were tired of the standard shiny hi-tech device. ”

Sure enough, the Internet is full of passionate debate over the Chumby—between ardent fans and strident critics.

But the controversy over the Chumby is exactly what its developers wanted. Maxwell says they never spent a dime on marketing. “This is another net phenomenon. We didn’t have the budget for Apple-style mass marketing, but it turns out that word of mouth—particularly among hackers and technically sophisticated people—carries a lot more weight than advertising. So we made an effort to target them.”

“Chumby the Clumsy San Diegan” got its premiere in August 2006. The place was Foo Camp, an annual hacker conference, where Chumby people gave … Next Page »

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