If you've never wanted to cuddle your computer, chumby probably isn't for you. At its most basic it's a bedside radio, but it's also an interesting exercise in community development. Chumby comes with a screen hooked up to a circuit board, runs a cut-down version of the open-source operating system Linux and links to the outside world through Wi-Fi. And there's not much else besides -- no keyboard, no disk drive, no expansion slots.
The whole thing is based around an open-source community development model. You can't even buy one yet, but if you can persuade chumby's keepers that you've got some good ideas, they may send you one. You can be a programmer, a hardware hacker or someone who likes to design cases -- they want to see it sprout a thousand different covers. Cover it in glue and glitter, Chumby Industries implores on its Web site. Open it up and reprogram its electronic guts. Let's see what we can do.
Once its up and fully commercialised, they're aiming for the bedside -- one of the last outposts of analogue technology in the home. Chances are you've got a 20-year-old clock radio, with red LED digits and an old-fashioned tuning knob. What on earth would you want an Internet-enabled clock radio for? Well, there are around 5000 radio stations out there, which is useful if you tire of Chris Moyles. And even the smartest alarm clock isn't clever enough to cope with the varied lives many people lead: one alarm for the week and another for the weekend is nowhere near good enough. With chumby, you can either write your own clock application, or pick one that someone else has written. You can already buy appliances that help you fall asleep by using daylight spectrum light or white noise, but these can cost a small fortune. You could probably persuade your chumby to do the same with a pinch of programming.
There's so much more. If you're away from home, you could email your chumby with pictures and messages to display to your other half when they wake up in the morning, or a bedtime story to read to the kids. Or have it silently sniff the news throughout the night, waking you up if something particularly important kicks off.
Doubtless, there are a thousand other things to do in the bedroom with your chumby. Nobody -- and no company -- can think of them all. Which is where the community element comes in: in exchange for your bright ideas, you can share in other people's. Or buy them, if you like.
Chumby deserves to succeed, but it's essential that it builds the tools to give non-programmers the ability to invent new chumby widgets. It also needs to lighten up on its licensing -- at the moment, if you don't open source your invention, Chumby Industries owns it. The company plans to make money by filtering ideas, content and widgets, but it's not clear whether this is sustainable, as well as compatible with open source ideals.
Still, it's an interesting experiment that could lead to lots more excitement. What more can you ask for in the bedroom? -Rupert Goodwins