In 1998, my mobile design company designed and built one of the first wireless portals ever seen (Zingo portal for Lucent). It was way ahead of its time, as were many of its features, one of which was a messaging service that interacted with a messaging panel on a fridge. Back then, we got a little excited about Internet connected fridges, so we felt that such ambient products were the future.
The fridge wasn’t really important, but the concept of interacting with the “home hub” was. The ability to send messages in and out of the home from various mobile family members seemed useful and an obvious thing to do. Roll on a few years – about 10 – and digital picture frames have become prevalent. I suggested in an old blog entry back in 2006 that it would be useful to pop a calendar into the frame, especially one used to keep track of family events. My family, for example, have a shared calendar on Google Calendar, but there are about 1001 calendar services out there, perhaps more popular than GC.
In my household, we have a plethora of computers that alway seem switched on, so it’s easy to access shared calendars, except … we don’t. I even mounted a laptop right in the heart of the kitchen. It still didn’t work.
As those of us well versed in mobile product design know, there’s often a HUGE gulf between the ability to run an application and actually running the application. That’s what early detractors of the Blackberry didn’t understand. Truly always-on email – ie push – is a very different experience to on-demand email – ie pull. That is, when the app is always running, it gets used by virtue of the “bumped-into effect,” which I have blogged about many times.
When the app needs to be invoked, it often doesn’t get used. Obvious, yes, but subtly important. There is a common objection here, which is to do with the notion of need. Many will say that if you don’t have a “i need to access my email every second” problem, then you don’t need always-on email. That’s not the point. Once exposed to an always-on experience, it can easily become imbibed into the user’s daily habits – new habits are formed. Twitter users will have experience this. Migrating from the web presentation to a Twitter client creates a much greater attachment to Twitter. Soon, the Twitter habit is formed and one can’t imagine daily digital life without it.
Now the question is whether or not the same experience could occur with an ambient device in the kitchen. Is there a device, that once connected, once fired up, once used by its family owners, will become incorporated into the daily habits of digital home living?
I believe that there is, although the exact formula has yet to be uncovered. Amstrad tried it not so long ago with their Internet phone. I even tried one of those in an attempt to get my wife more habitually plumbed into email – she had a tendency not to check email for long periods of time, which caused various problems (at least in my view). It didn’t solve the problem for a number of reasons. Upping the budget a bit, I eventually got her a Blackberry. Problem solved. (And now she has an iPhone.) BUT! Family calendaring still remains an issue.
Enter the O2 Joggler and the Chumby. They are both ambient devices intended to be switch on and accessible all of the time, which, we can imagine, means somewhere in the kitchen if it is to be a family-centric experience. This is certainly O2’s positioning for the product, which is advertised under the rubric of “O2 Family.” The devices are similar in concept. Notionally, one could describe them as digital picture frames with the addition of a calendar. HOWEVER, that is where the similarity ends. And, I believe, there is an important lesson here in what we have been talking and blogging about for some time in the mobile 2.0 world, which is the difference between a product and a platform. As far as can be gleaned from the O2 website, the Joggler’s main feature is its shared calendar function, which has various bells and whistles, such as text message reminders and text-message submission of new entries. There are features to import photos, get traffic info, weather etc, as described on the media release for the device On the other hand, the Chumby offers something that the Joggler doesn’t, which is support for a developer community via its widgets technology (based on Flash Lite). There are already some 1000 widgets in the catalogue, including 17 (when I checked) calendar widgets and 32 photo widgets (including Flickr and all the popular gallery sites). I can certainly use it to access our shared family Google calendar, which already has text or email alerts built in.
In other words, the Chumby guys have created a content platform, not just a device. In the words of Stephen Tomlin, their CEO: “Chumby brings new capabilities to connected devices by streaming always-on, always-fresh personalized Internet content to consumers.”
They have created a developer commnuity by leveraging a well-known development environment – Flash Lite – and an emergent delivery mechanism – i.e. widgets. You can even create virtual Chumbys just for fun (because Flash widgets will play in the browser). Here’s mine, showing real-time search of “mobile” in the Twitter timeline, upcoming events from Yahoo Upcoming, and random pictures from Flickr public RSS, but these could obviously be from my pics.