Chumby?

techPresident today mentioned a device I’d never heard of before: Chumby. It’s a small box with a screen that connects to your wireless network and delivers information from the web.

Previously, we knew this type of device as a “computer,” but, for some reason, this is supposed to be better.

Wired Magazine breathlessly calls this “worth the wait,” a “gimmick it is not,” a “perfect desktop companion.” The article goes on to tell us Chumby can get stock alerts, see info from tech web sites, read the news, and get — “BAM!” — Wikipedia’s “article of the day” delivered to our screen.

Wow! That’s so…..mundane.

techPresident, with the political take on this device, says:

Viewing content on a portable device that is updated automatically is more persuasive than turning on a computer and visiting a few web sites. It’s more persuasive because it functions as a reduction technology. It persuades through making a task simpler. No more going to YouTube, logging into email, turning on the television, or connecting to a mobile phone website to follow a campaign, just turn on Chumby and the channel is live.

Now, I’m all for “reduction technologies.” But, really, is “going to YouTube” all that difficult and time consuming? Is “logging into email” really so onerous and complex, that we need a new, $179 device sitting on our desk next to our computer???

Far from reductive, this seems incredibly redundant.

Except for, interestingly, it’s actually not at all redundant in terms of our computers, because it’s not interactive; it’s primarily a one-way device. (Although I saw at least one mail program with a keyboard that uses the device’s touchscreen.) The widgets that power Chumby are all essentially about viewing, and not updating or writing, information on the web: looking at stocks, reading the news, seeing your Facebook page. Which makes this seem like one giant step back into the broadcast-only world.

Chumby, speaking of taking a step back, smells a bit like the tech bubble of the 1990s, where every new idea was the Best! Idea! Ever!!! It actually reminds me of something known back in the day as WebTV. This was a thin-client, set-top box device that allowed you to surf the web and use email with your TV, instead of purchasing a computer.

Microsoft took a keen interest in this device (Hey ma, look — no computer!!!), but many others did, too:

Apple Computer Inc. co-founder Stephen Wozniak has snapped up a dozen. And since the boxes went on sale in October, consumers have bought more than 50,000–a decent start, considering that 35,000 audio CD players were sold in their first year. Says Wozniak, whose relatives use WebTV–not an Apple Macintosh–because it’s a breeze to learn: ”Find me a computer that is so human-understanding.”

Simplicity and “human understanding” was the Big Idea behind WebTV. It was pitched, if I remember correctly, as a way to bring grandparents into the Internet bubble. It was easy to use, and, because it was essentially like watching TV, familiar. It was simple, just like Chumby.

Of course, today, do you know anyone who uses MSN TV, which is what WebTV eventually became?

Didn’t think so.

There’s a market for these types of devices, but it’s a long-tail powered niche. Techies will like it, but it’s not going to have an impact on our politics, or change the way we practice our information-based habits. Most people won’t buy a Chumby, because — caution: gross overgeneralization ahead! — “most people” already have a computer, and don’t need another device sitting alongside (or in the same room, or in the same house…) a device that can already view Flickr photos or read CBS News headlines or find the number one story on Digg.

Call it the “tyranny of the PC,” but, for now, that’s the device we use.

iPhones aside, of course…

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