The MySpace crowd gets chummy with Chumby

Once a sci-fi dream, the Wi-Fi home is within reach, thanks to a menagerie of new cuddly gadgets.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Bedside buddy: Part clock, part Web portal, Chumby could be a Wi-Fi 'Trojan horse.'
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Chalk it up to quirkiness. When the Chumby – a small, square mound of Wi-Fi enabled plastic – first hit shelves, gear geeks voiced skepticism about the gadget's raison d'être. After all, the Chumby, priced at $180, performs many of the same functions of a plain old computer, from tracking baseball scores and browsing Facebook profiles, to streaming Internet radio. And it offers few functions that aren't duplicated on other household appliances. One blogger wrote off the product as a "glorified alarm clock."

But since its February release, the Chumby has sold surprisingly well, boosted by a burst of blog buzz. There are now a variety of Chumby accessories, or "charms," which can hang on the outside of the device. In late March, Chumby Industries, the device's manufacturer, announced that it had secured $12.5 million in additional funding. The influx of cash, Chumby executives say, will allow them to continue building the online Chumby Network – and maybe pave the way toward a Wi-Fi home.

So what's behind the success? On one hand, says tech journalist Glenn Fleishman, the brains over at Chumby have been very smart about their marketing techniques.

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The Chumby's circuits are enclosed within a plush shell – like a miniature monitor wrapped in a beanbag. Its graphics are conspicuously cute; its mascot is a blue octopus with round, cartoon eyes.

"It fits perfectly into the [age] 14 to 25 demographic and it's well within the budget of many teenagers," says Mr. Fleishman, who runs wifinetnews.com.

In this way, the Chumby is similar to the Nabaztag, a rabbit-shaped Wi-Fi device that delivers weather forecasts and news headlines and lets users know when e-mails or fresh RSS feeds have arrived.

The Chumby, which has no keyboard or mouse, relies on a touch screen for basic functions. It can be programmed to feature an assortment of widgets, including updates from VH1 and MySpace and a game called Chumball. Best of all: a wide selection of Internet radio stations pipe through its small speakers with startling clarity.

"People are realizing, 'I'm paying X amount for my broadband, and I have Wi-Fi,' " says Steve Tomlin, the CEO of Chumby Industries. "Is there something they can do besides check Internet by the pool?"

The trick, he adds, is designing gadgetry for the home that "adds benefit to our lives and doesn't make us crazy."

Fleishman calls the Chumby "something of a Trojan horse" – a gadget that could make way for a fresh wave of Wi-Fi devices. For instance, wireless digital picture frames, which cycle through a user's uploaded images, are already hot sellers. How far behind can an Internet-connected refrigerator really be?

Jack Rieger, the worldwide product manager for digital picture frames at Kodak, says the demand is high for Wi-Fi capable devices that fit into the home.

A Kodak frame like the Easyshare "allows families a place to connect that is in their living space, and not on your computer," he says.

It's a perfect confluence of trends: more intuitive devices, increased wireless availability, and what Mr. Rieger calls a deeper "awareness of the product category."

In other words, consumers are learning to expect a certain level of connectivity among their quiver of gadgets. "It's not science fiction – you don't have to look five years into the future, that's for sure," says Mr. Tomlin, of Chumby Industries. "For the most part, it's already happening."

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