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Chumbied
May 6, 2012 9:22 AM   Subscribe

Six years after the initial release of that tiny, hackable, beanbag-esque touchscreen piece of hardware, the doors are closing on the chumby.

Ten months ago, chumby moved from hardware to software in the form of flash-based apps for big-screen TVs for brands like Insignia, LG, Best Buy and Sony. In mid-April, Chumby's webstore "closed temporarily", and within a day the news was out: Chumby as a company is no more, and the employees are now at Technicolor while Chumby's assets are being shopped around.

Today, the wiki (http://wiki.chumby.com/) and forum (http://forum.chumby.com/) have gone dark. Thankfully, a dump of the wiki (sans images) is available at archive.org, and you can still buy Chumby Hacker Boards from Adafruit while supplies last.

A moment of silence, please, for both the concept, the product, and the cute rounded word that was so fun to say.

"Chumby."
posted by subbes (35 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by slater at 9:25 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bunnie Huang blogs about this.
posted by brennen at 9:40 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Aw, that's sad. I never bought one, because I never knew what I'd do with it, but it always sounded like a device with great potential. I feel like the logical evolution of Chumby should've been in using its expertise to create tiny wearable content displays, rather than a "Chumby network of apps" for TVs. The Pebble watch display and the Twine networked sensor cube are going more in the direction people want, I think. They're portable and tiny and flexible, whereas the Chumby always felt more like a cross between an alarm clock and a programmable external display. (I could be wrong, of course, but if so, I bet I'm wrong in the same way a lot of people must've been in their perceptions of it.)
posted by limeonaire at 9:45 AM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I guess this means no Chumby Furby Kirby Flowbee Derby.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [11 favorites]


This is significant, because I realize that it is the first FPP-worthy-coming-and-going-of-a-gee-whiz-tech-thingy that I managed to avoid hearing of during its entire life cycle. See these hands? They used to build Slackware servers. Now I run meetings and internally roll my eyes when I tell young people "we'll think about it" after they describe the New Thing that we all need to embrace. I had two startups and neither of them made it through The Bubble, but I was right to bet against PointCast.
posted by cgk at 9:46 AM on May 6, 2012 [9 favorites]


But yeah, Bunnie Huang is awesome; I remember reading this post as he did detective work on weird MicroSDs he was getting as he sourced cards for the Chumby. I can't wait to see what he does next.
posted by limeonaire at 9:49 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm annoyed. I've had my ChumbyOne for only a few months, but I use it every day as an alarm clock, a radio player, a white noise generator to put the baby to sleep, a newsreader, and my wife uses it as a bedside game player.

There seems to be some action on an offline firmware here:
http://sourceforge.net/projects/zurk/files/

I'm still reading the Google cache of the forums trying to figure out how to grab widgets before they disappear, too.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:17 AM on May 6, 2012


Back in 2007, a sweeping series of Daylight Saving Time changes hit the country - Congress decreed that the start and end days would be moved so that DST would be extended for around a month.

We had a bedside alarm clock radio that had a neat feature - it would grab the time over the airwaves so it would always be accurate, and would also adjust automatically to Daylight Saving Time. Unfortunately, the designers of the clock appear to have neglected the possibility of any change to daylight saving time, and set the start and end days as hard values in the device. The clock began to show the wrong time for what would end up being a month every year. I looked at the manual, looked at the device, opened every panel and hatch - there were no adjustments, no switches, no firmware upgrades. Thanks to Congress, we owned a clock that was just going to be wrong for a part of the year unless Daylight Saving Time switched back to the way it was.

A normal person would have learned their lesson, and switched back to an alarm clock that had manual adjustments. But shortly after our Daylight Saving Time conundrum, the Chumby was announced, and I jumped at the chance to get a pre-release one. Surely an even more advanced clock and widget player would be the answer to obsolescence!

For the past five years, we've been living in Chumby bliss. There were some awkward moments in the beginning when the software wasn't perfect, and the Chumby's backup battery still drains in no time flat, but the Chumby's ability to manage multiple alarms with different weekend settings and still function as a radio and info display is a fair bit of magic in a household with two working professionals in the same bed.

But now, it looks like I'm going to be spending some time this weekend modding the firmware to keep it going. The Chumby's design flaw has always been that it "phones home" when it reboots, and if the Chumby servers aren't available, it just locks up, a fate that seems inevitable in the near future. The saving grace is that the Chumby was open source, and folks have come up with mods that will allow it to function offline. Hopefully, the Chumby community will figure out ways of completely supplanting all of chumby.com's functionality in the device so that we all can keep them going for a few years.

After that, though, I think I'm going to try and design a fully mechanical clock that somehow allows you to manage two separate alarms with independent weekday and weekend schedules. (And maybe, if we're really lucky, Congress will repeal Daylight Saving Time, and there'll be one less useless thing we all have to worry about.)
posted by eschatfische at 10:17 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah. It was Flash based. At this point, really, it's not too surprising they'd be running into trouble.

With Android, there's now an OS with a pretty slick, touch screen centric UI available for free that can be adapted to any hardware. Amazon still has "Chumby Ones" listed for $99. But the Indian governments "$35 tablet". Supposedly it's a bit slow, but it has hardware accelerated video, so you can watch h264 full screen, something I doubt a chumby can do.

And that's just one example. I'm sure there are tons and tons of cheapo no-name generic tablets out there now that go way past what Chumby was capable of, for less money.

In fact, if you think about it as people cycle through cellphones they're actually going to end up with a glut of small, hackable touchscreen devices. When I got a new Android phone, pulled the old one's SIM card, it didn't stop working, and although I haven't done it I could still use wifi to get online. When I upgrade again I'll have another one that I could also use for chumby-like stuff, and one that runs a lot faster then the first.

The future, I think is going to be one where small touchscreen devices are ubiquitous and so cheap as to be nearly free. In that kind of environment it's going to be tough to make money on hardware. They could port to android, but they'd just be another commodity hardware maker. I did go to look and see if anyone had ported Android to chumby hardware, and it looked like there were forum posts about it, but they were on chumby's website and the links are dead now.

I did discover that they have an android version their runtime, so in theory you should be able to run a lot of Chumby apps on any android device. I don't know if it supports all their software or not, and I don't know if you can still use it if their servers are down.
I'm annoyed. I've had my ChumbyOne for only a few months, but I use it every day as an alarm clock, a radio player, a white noise generator to put the baby to sleep, a newsreader, and my wife uses it as a bedside game player.
You should still be able to use it for that, right? Like I said, my first android phone still works fine for everything except phone calls (since there's no SIM card). I assume wifi still works, but the only apps I really use on it now don't even need internet access. Does the Chumby not function without being able to call home?
posted by delmoi at 10:37 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rasberry Pi would fit that niche nicely if there were a cheap enough display.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:44 AM on May 6, 2012


If you don't mind 128x128 you can get a color LCD for $5, or a 320x240 for $32. You'll have to figure out how to connect it, though.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love my Chumby, but could see this coming for the past several months. I will be doing everything I can to keep it running.
posted by obloquy at 10:57 AM on May 6, 2012


Wow, Bunnie sounds like a really interesting guy. From the interview at MAKE :
Engineers love to make decisions based upon available data and high-confidence models of the future. But I think the real visionaries either don’t know enough, or they have the sheer conviction and courage to see past the facts, and cast a long-shot. It’s probably a bit of both. Taking risks also means there’s a bit of luck involved.

I certainly have a fact-induced myopia: my recent focus on operational efficiency, schedules, and risk-management has sapped my ability to have creative and audacious visions.
Heh :)

But then there is this
Margin. Everyone in the supply chain has their hand out — the distributor, the merchant, the factory; and beyond that there’s market development funds and other ‘slush money’ that has to be factored in. At the end of the day, the shelf-cost is about 3x of your parts BOM cost. This means that adding a $0.50 part on the BOM turns into a $1.50 retail price impact.
Dude!? When I was in consumer electronics the rule of thumb was 10x.
posted by Chuckles at 11:00 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


delmoi, bingo. Chumby loads all of its functionality from chumby.com's servers. Even the alarm clock. So unless I can figure out how to pull down .swfs for the widgets that I want to keep, AND those widgets aren't hard-linked to phone home before they work, functionality is going to be lost. I'm guessing that at minimum Pandora is going to die. Who knows what else.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:07 AM on May 6, 2012


Just repoint the base URL at chumby.metafilter.com. Matt has long anticipated this and has a replacement cloud app host up and running.

Okay, that's a complete lie. The question is, is the back end freely available and redistibutable? Has anyone looked into the feaibility of self-hosting or community hosting?
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:20 AM on May 6, 2012


> I guess this means no Chumby Furby Kirby Flowbee Derby.

Man, if I ever need to teach someone how to talk like the Swedish Chef I'll just have them read that sentence.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:21 AM on May 6, 2012 [13 favorites]


Yeah, the interview is facinating. Talking about the biggest problems:
Cash flow. Retailers are notoriously bad at paying you on time. You may negotiate 60 day terms, but often times you’re not paid after 90 or even 120 days. Basically, if your product doesn’t sell out so that the retailer has to place another order with you (at which point you have some leverage to collect outstanding payment), you get strung out.This can be partially mitigated with financial instruments such as factoring insurance — insurance companies will sell insurance on anything, including insurance hedging against retailers not paying on time or going insolvent before they can pay you.
posted by delmoi at 11:22 AM on May 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Another interesting bit:
I think one of the most gut-wrenching realizations that small companies have to make is that they aren’t Apple. Apple spends over a billion dollars a year on tooling. An injection molding tool may cost around $40k and 2-3 months to make; Apple is known to build five or six simultaneously and then scrap all but one so they can evaluate multiple design approaches. But for them, tossing $200k in tooling to save 2 months time to market is peanuts. But for a startup that raised a million bucks, it’s unthinkable. Apple also has hundreds of staff; a startup has just a few members to do everything. The precision and refinement of Apple’s products come at an enormous cost that is just out of the reach of startups.
posted by delmoi at 11:35 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oof. Andrew/Bunnie was a classmate of mine and it's been fun watching him do cool stuff from a distance. I really like ny Chumby, even if it is a little clunky. I hope folks are able to get the offline functionality worked out. Pandora stopped working for me a couple of days ago - don't know if that's just my bad luck or related to the servers going down. I too am planning to keep my Chumby creaking along on scotch tape & chewing gum if necessary.
posted by range at 11:55 AM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Zurk's firmware (mentioned above, http://sourceforge.net/projects/zurk/files/) works really quite well. It unshackles the chumby from the chumby.com servers while still allowing you to use most of the chumby's functions.

Octopus is what you want for downloading all the widgets, also released by zurk. I've written up some notes on transitioning the chumby to offline and also c/p'd some comments about octopus that will probably help. You can find here and here. Sorry, I used v9 and last I heard zurk was up to v11, and not all of my notes apply anymore. But hey, it works for v9, and it has the info about octopus.

I miss Pandora for alarms--it only worked through the chumby.com servers and that apparently can't be changed--but I've got a large mp3 collection and should be able to work out a solution for a randomized song stream for my alarms. (I'd really love to get rhythmbox working with squeezebox and send rhythmbox's last.fm stream to the chumby, but I haven't managed that yet.)

But for almost every widget, it's possible to run it just as it was, and have the little squat guy work as it did before.

I sent zurk a message through sourceforge asking if he knew of some other forum where people could discuss chumby. I'd've asked Duane, too (former chumby employee who was very helpful on the boards), but I don't know how to contact him. I'm thinking we need to set up a google group or something, if some such does not already exist.

By the way, there's also the infocast chumby knockoff, which you can find for $20 on amazon.
posted by galadriel at 12:13 PM on May 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


"Yeah. It was Flash based. At this point, really, it's not too surprising they'd be running into trouble."

It was FlashLite-based. Let's all recall the olden prehistoric year of 2006, pre-iPhone, when everyone was figuring out what cross-platform UI would work on embedded devices and mobile phones. Turns out, it was FlashLite (pretty much a compact version of Flash circa 2004 or so).

Adobe was willing to work with outside companies that wanted to port the player engine to various platforms. I played with the source code on one project, and it was a holy mess.

So critique the Chumby concept if you want, but I would never question bunnie's decision process given the environment and state of the art back then. What he pulled off, at his price point, is lightyears beyond what the Raspberry Pi people are patting themselves on the back about.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:24 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Never available in this country due to a name problem.
posted by scruss at 1:34 PM on May 6, 2012


Heeeey--Chumby Forum no longer merely refuses to load anything.
Maintenance Mode
We're currently having a problem with the automated spam control software that is creating the illusion that user accounts have been banned. We are taking down the forum temporarily while we attempt to diagnose the problem. We will restore the forums as soon as we can. Sorry about the inconvenience. --Duane
posted by galadriel at 1:53 PM on May 6, 2012


I can't believe Nabaztag (now Karotz) is still with us.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 2:57 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just ordered a $13 Chumby refurb. I may be crazy, but it'll be worth it if I can get it to stream Internet music to my stereo.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:17 PM on May 6, 2012


Oh, frig. We love our chumbyone--he lives in our kitchen and I often stream music on it in there while working all day. I noticed last week that the NY Times podcasts were gone. so now it'll just be another useless piece of plastic, or what?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 PM on May 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait. Back up. Technicolor is still around?

Oh. It's the new name for Thompson, who left the consumer electronics business, bought Philips' broadcast equipment division, spun some stuff off to form Grass Valley (which is now a direct competitor that later bought some stuff and also sold and spun off some divisions themselves), and now wants to re-enter the consumer electronics business by poaching talent off of another company that tried and failed to do so themselves, just around the time that the Smart TV concept had matured and plateaued with other manufacturers and platforms. And, for some reason, they decided to rename themselves along the way using a hilariously-anachronistic and outdated brand name. Holy shit, what the hell is happening to the broadcast industry, and why is it so confusing?
posted by schmod at 9:31 PM on May 6, 2012


The next one will be called Chumbywumby. They'll get knocked down and they'll get up again. But you're never gonna keep 'em down!
posted by Talez at 10:45 PM on May 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


Where can this $13 chumby be had? I had wanted one to play with but could never justify $100.
posted by bystander at 4:24 AM on May 7, 2012


I don't know if these are refurb or new, but this seller on Amazon has them for $18.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:01 AM on May 7, 2012


Oops, I didn't even read the whole listing. $18 are new, they have 1 refurb left at $13 as I write this.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:02 AM on May 7, 2012


eschatfische: "Thanks to Congress, we owned a clock that was just going to be wrong for a part of the year unless Daylight Saving Time switched back to the way it was."

In fairness, since 1967, Congress has been the one to set DST specs in the U.S.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:31 AM on May 9, 2012


Oooh, it came today, I'm mildly regretting my 50+ character network key. Hope the refurb works. Thanks galadriel for the offline mod.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:22 PM on May 12, 2012


Warning on the used/refurb models, the account ID may already be activated so offline mode only.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:44 PM on May 13, 2012


I noticed last week that the NY Times podcasts were gone. so now it'll just be another useless piece of plastic, or what?

From Zurk's firmware changelog:
v14- Removed all chumby music infrastructure, restored NYT PodCasts, CBS PodCasts, fixed broken blueocty links.

So it looks like if you load the firmware you get almost everything that doesn't have to report back directly to chumby.com (although Pandora is still out I think).
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:57 PM on May 13, 2012


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