Chumby and Sony Dash are Hackable Internet Appliances

By Will Greenwald

We've come a long way since the days of the disastrous 3Com Audrey. Thanks to devices like the Chumby and the just-released Sony Dash, the "Internet appliance" category has seen a resurgence.

3Com Audrey. Thanks to devices like the Chumby and the just-released  Sony Dash, the "Internet appliance" category has seen a resurgence. Part of this is due to the leap in home wi-fi and broadband internet connections; it's a lot easier to just plop a Chumby on your nightstand and hit a few buttons than it is to futz around with cords and a modem. The much lower prices are also a major selling factor; the Chumby One is just $119, and even the Dash is $199, far less than half of the Audrey's original $499 price tag.   
The biggest draw for tech geeks, however, is the immense hackability of devices like the Chumby. At heart, the Chumby One is a very inexpensive computer, with a 454 MHz ARM processor, 64 MB of RAM, and a 3.5-inch color touchscreen, all run on an open source platform. Because of this, Chumby has developed a huge library of community- and commercially-made (but free) "widgets" that can turn the device into a YouTube browser, a stock ticker, or a networked digital photo frame. If you don't mind getting your hands a bit dirty with system commands and code, you can even turn the Chumby into a 3G Wi-fi router, or a web server.  
Those are just the prefab widgets and hacks that users have already figured out. It's still begging for fledgling developers to tinker with it, Chumby even openly encourages hackers, posting several schematics(PDF), tips, and guides on its wiki.   
come from the Chumby widget library). Sony is also encouraging community development for the Dash, putting the device on an open source platform and inviting developers to submit apps for it. It's a more powerful device, with (according to Mahalo; only the screen information is listed in Sony's official specifications) a 500 MHz processor, 256 MB of DDR2 RAM, and a 7-inch WXGA (800 x 400) color touchscreen. Sony isn't quite as open to outright hacking as Chumby is, though; while Chumby walks users through the depths of its Linux-based platform and explains in detail how to modify the hardware, Sony requires that developers submit their apps to the company for distribution on the Dash. The company has yet to release an SDK for developers to make apps specifically for the Dash. On the bright side, the Dash can stream Netflix videos, so it has that going for it.  
While the "Internet appliance" was a laughable fad at the turn of the millennium, devices like the Chumby and the Dash have forced us to re-examine the idea of an inexpensive, multi-purpose networked device. Less than $200 for a flexible mini-computer with a massive open source development community behind it? It's a very appealing prospect.