Monday, April 14, 2008

...Chumby Decended from Audrey, Cornelius?! Heresy!

I read an interesting article in Wired the other week, which claimed that a growing amount of traffic on the internet was from "hidden devices." Meaning that non-obvious consumer products were using the internet for various reasons: updating information, exchanging status data, accessing internet radio, etc.

This idea was presented as though it was a new trend - but the practice has been around for quite a while - TiVo and ReplayTV being a few of the first consumer devices to "hide" their internet activity. In the mid- to late-90's, these little gizmos were called "Internet Appliances," a term that has been revived by the now popular "Chumby."

For those of you living a reasonable life, reading the New York Times and eschewing anything to do with any pop culture relavence for the past 6 months, "Chumby" is a cute little device with a screen that looks like a digital picture frame. It's encased in what can only be described as a "beanbag." It's adorable, really.

So, what does Chumby do? Anything - sort of. It's a WiFi enabled, fully web configurable internet device that can do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display Twitter Tweets. It will dock to multiple iPods, playing the content through its cheery little speakers. The API is extremely open, and has become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who want something cushy next to the Sanyo coffee maker. It's captured the imagination of a lot of people, and has gotten quite a bit of media attention. "Why didn't anyone think of this before?" decried one reviewer...?

...they did. Allow me to (re) introduce you to "Audrey," which was manufactured by 3Com (remember them?) during the heyday of the dot-com era. (1999-2000.) Audery was, well, a fully web configurable internet appliance that could do everything from simply display the time and digital pictures, to play internet radio and display email. It would dock to multiple Palm Pilots, happily aggregating and resync'ing the families address books and calendars. The OS was a Linux varient that could be accessed via an xterm window, and had become a plaything not only for weekend hackers, but also soccer moms who wanted something friendly next to the Krups coffee maker. (The device got its name from the daughter of one of the designers, and the thing actually giggled when you turned it on.)

The difference between the two machines? Chumby's exterior is squishy, Audrey's is kitchen-appliance sleek. Oh, and Chumby appears to be poised for commercial success, while the Audrey contributed to the downfall of 3Com. Why? Oh what a difference 10 years makes...

Back in the late 90's, dot-com companies were everywhere, and promising to change your life via the internet. Few companies made good on that promise, of course - but several companies attempted more than just new takes on shitty web site concepts...a few tried creating actual, physical products that did specific tasks. The problem with 99% of these products was that they did those specific tasks extraordinarily badly. While their aim was nobile enough (i.e. be as easy to use as a piece of stereo equipment), the consumer electronics industry didn't have the experience under its belt to create easy-to-use internet devices, and the animosity between the CE manufacturers and the computer manufacturers practically guaranteed mutually assured destruction if these two worlds ever tried to cooperate. (There were exceptions, of course, such as TiVo and the iPod - both of which filled a niche that no one realized needed to be filled, and both did so with an exceptional user experience coupled with a slick, seamless connection to the net.)

The Audrey was a device that stands nearly alone in that it was a machine that provided a slick, user friendly experience, and filled a distinct need in the home (it functioned primarily as an "always on" computer, aggregating information about the user family's daily life so that the home could exchange information as easy as could an enterprise business. Preprogrammed websites could be "dialed" into via the single knob on the front, to display new, weather and movie times.) It was relatively inexpensive (tallying in at slightly less than $300 vs. Chumby's $180 price tag), came in about 12 colors to fit in with most home kitchen color schemes, and was waterproof incase little Muffy spilled the orange juice on it.

So what went wrong? Classic, really: the device was too early. In 1999, which was only 9 years ago, computers were still large, expensive, confusing things...iPods were just catching on...and Palm Pilots were still considered nerdly toys. In other words, most family members were not part of the digerati, and most homes were not wired for allways-on internet. (A requirement for both Audrey and Chumby.) Essentially, no one needed what it offered...yet. Today, however, Audrey would be quite happy nestled into the kitchen, giggling away as the family sync'ed their iPods to it, its glowing touch pen happily shining green whenever a Tweet appeared.

So - be proud of your ancestry, Chumby - you have much to be thankful for...


Fred Schechter said...

Hey, found you on twitter through Trachtenberg. Finally someone mentions Audrey!!! I have a buddy that was with 3com->Palm->etc. been a fan of Hawkins work forever. A re-release on the Audrey would be great! (I also used to write for coolest-gadgets, designer at Sharper Image too)

Cheers (keep up the great work)!

RocketMan said...

Dude, excellent. I had two of those things, and a bunch of like-minded, nerdly friends of mine had them as well. We hacked them open and taught them all sorts of fun tricks, including controlling my MP3 audio system (which was a Turtle Beach Audiotron at the time), controlling the light system via HomeSeer, email reading, news articles, etc. Really a slick little device...oh, and I got rid of the "giggle" and replaced it with a "moan." Sophomoric, yes, but very fun. Finally got rid of it when smaller, faster wireless devices became easier to use and I wound up having less time to fool with it. Still miss them, tho.

Terry Thorsen said...

We've been suffering along with our Audrey for almost a decade. It worked great until Javascript became the norm. Too lazy to hack it. Thank goodness Chumby can finally take over the job.