Coming Consumer Tech That Might Infiltrate Business Tech

Loraine Lawson

I should probably be telling you today about Wikipedia's plans to unveil Wikia Search -- a sort of collaborative search engine -- next week. Or maybe I should mention Intelligent Enterprise's too-inclusive list of "Companies to watch in 2008," divided into useful subcategories -- business intelligence, enterprise application, process management and so on.


But I can't. I'm too distracted by my new virtual Chumby.


What's a Chumby, you may ask? There are many answers to that question. For instance, it's one of the "Ten things that will change your future," according to the Sydney Morning Herald.


Generally, these lists annoy me, first, because few are actually life-altering, which is directly related to the second reason they annoy me, which is most are a complete waste of money.


But this list is a pleasant mix of both and worth reading because most of the items are surprising - including the Chumby, but more on that in a moment.


On the surprising end of the spectrum, there's Guerrilla Wi-Fi. According to the article, Meraki, an Internet start-up, is offering a $49 device, the Meraki Mini, that lets you broadcast an Internet connection for users up to 50 meters (approximately 164 feet, for those of us with metrics deficiencies).


Basically, it sounds like a repeater. But cheap and easier.


The article alludes to its use as a way to avoid high-cost hot-spot fees, but that seems improbable to me. I mean, that would require the same person who buys the device to actually pay the Wi-Fi hourly fee, then broadcast the connection out of the goodness of his or her heart. Who's going to bother?


But it is interesting that you can buy several of the Meraki Mini and they'll instantly form a mesh network, giving access to the whole neighborhood.


This is being billed as Robin Hood technology that will rob from the rich (ISPs) and bring connectivity to the masses. Maybe. But I can see useful applications for small businesses or perhaps traveling business teams. Depending on how it works, it may be a great.


On the other end of the spectrum, there's microblogging, the generic for Twittering. This strikes me as an utterly vain and feckless technology. I honestly can't foresee anyone caring beyond, perhaps, tween fans who want to "follow" every "move" of their teen idols, (faux moves, I should say, posted, no doubt, by their handlers).


Which brings me back to the Chumby. The Chumby is somewhere between the two extremes.


It's a Linux-based thin-client device that looks like a small alarm-clock radio. It runs Flash and will connect to your wireless network Internet to do things like update you on local weather, show photos from Flickr, or pick up feeds from Slashdot and I Can Has Cheezburger.


In short, it's everything that's fun about the Internet and precious little that's useful.


But that could change. First, it's open source. In fact, it has a community to let you hack not just the software, but the hardware and even the display case -- although that could void your warranty. More than 1,200 participate in the developer community -- and the product hasn't launched yet.


And there is, for instance, the odd really useful widget or function -- such as a widget that displays your Linux Web server's uptime and average load every 30 seconds. It also will let you monitor your e-mail or view your Google calendar.


The marketing is genius: If you can't afford the $179.95 price tag, just create a virtual Chumby and load it up to Facebook or your blog, because maybe your friends can afford it.


At that price, it can work as an iPod boombox -- it includes a USB drive to plug in and charge your iPod -- AND a digital photo display, plus an e-mail reader. Well, you can see how executives and cubicle workers both would want one. It's easy to imagine the Chumby becoming as prolific as Tribbles.


Hopefully, given its limited abilities, it won't be as clogging to your Wi-Fi pipelines as the Tribbles were to the Enterprise grain bins.

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