For designers, Chumby is pretty much a dream come true. It is completely open source. It invites clever people to improve upon itor, since improve is a matter of matter of personal choice, customize might be a better word. Chumby may even be an important step toward a time when the creators of technology actually receive their fair share of the benefits of that technology.
Because Chumby is open and extensible, it is difficult to pigeonhole it in a familiar consumer electronics category. Better to define it by its basic functionality. It has an LCD screen; it is Wi-Fi capable; and, it has speakers, audio output and a USB port. Also, newer prototype versions include a three-axis accelerometer. (A more comprehensive parts list can be found on the Chumby site.)
In fact, you can get pretty much everything you need at the site. These include:Schematics
Daughter card and daughtercard schematics
A sensor package, and
Sample code and drivers
The daughtercard breaks out the signals to standard connectors, exposing power, headphone audio, and a USB port. There is also a power switch that reduces battery power during shipping and storage. Other functionality is included for the headphone jack and personality EEPROM. This is also where the 3-axis accelerometer is located
It's all on the web site. But you have to register.
Best of all, if you don't like something about Chumby, you can hack it.
Figure 1. Plain vanilla Chumby with coffee mug.
The alpha version of Chumby is powered by a 266-MHz ARM controller (the Freescale M21) accompanied by 32 MB SDRAM and 64 MB NAND Flash ROM. The prototype OS runs the Linux 2.4.20 kernel but the product will probably ship with a later version.
Release date, by the way, is early summer 2007.
Developed by Chumby Industries, the software has been released under the GPL or LFPL licenses. All other components are covered under their original licenses. The only closed software in the Chumby package is Adobe's Flash Lite Player.
In every possible way, developers are encouraged to modify their Chumby. The hardware can easily be removed from the shell and housed in a new one. Tools that are downloadable from the company site make it easy to create additional capabilities called widgets. (For example, a clock widget, binary clock widget, RSS widget, webcam widget and accelerometer widget.)
One of the more creative customizations thus far is the brainchild of a San Francisco bay area hacker whose day job is as a messenger in the city. He wants to embed a GPS device in his Chumby, house the Chumby in his messenger bag, and attach solar panels to the bag so he can access web-based mapping services in his trips around the city.
This brings us to some of the more pedestrian things you might want to play or display on your Chumby. These are the ones mentioned prominently on the web site: animations, photos and messages, games, music, news and weather, sporting event scores, celebrity gossip, and horoscope.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Chumby, however, is not the hardware and software but the community of inventors that Chumby's inventors have created to help people hack their product.
The community, which is accessible to registered users from the web site, has four distinct faces: A forum, a wiki, a blog section and a "show off your Chumby" gallery.
The forum has four topic areas. The first helps hackers help each other with a programming Flash memory. There are also software and hardware topics as well as one called "crafts" which provides a discussion area for people who want to dress up their creation.
It's also cool that when you try to find out who the people behind Chumby are, you can. Not just that but the list is quite a pretty long onenot just the highest muckety-mucks.
There are actually five founders. In the interests of brevity, I'll list them and a very short bio.
- Steve Tomlin, CEO and Founder, has been an entrepreneur, senior executive and investor in wireless technology, biotechnology and Internet industries for over 15 years.
- Duane Maxwell, VP Software Development and Founder, has been an entrepreneur and software developer since the mid 80s, founding, among others, Gryphon Software.
- Andrew Huang, VP Hardware Engineering and Founder, is the hardware lead. His responsibilities include the architecture, design and production of the Chumby's electronics, as well as writing drivers for and maintaining the Linux kernel.
- Ken Steele, Principal Software Architect and Founder, has almost a decade of experience in the computer security industry. His primary focus has been on intrusion detection and prevention, vulnerability research and exploit analysis.
- Steve Adler, VP Business Development and Founder, is an entrepreneur with over twenty-two years of high technology/software development industry experience. Before joining Chumby, Steve founded and operated Torrey Pines Group, a professional services firm providing business and technology solutions to a broad array of clients.
So as I mentioned earlier, Chumby marks a departure from the run-of-the-mill products we see every day. The fact that it invites innovation might just mark the beginning for a new era.
On second thought, it may be the return to an earlier time: A time when Steve Jobs was just another kid in jeans and the Apple II shipped with complete source code for its BIOS and schematics.
About the author
Jack Shandle is the site editor of WirelessNetDesignline. He holds BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a MS in Communications from Temple University. Presently a freelance writer and editor, he formerly held management positions electronics publication and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.