In 2007, an upstart group of hackers began selling a digital beanbag with a 3.5-inch screen called the Chumby.
The original idea was for other hackers to turn it into whatever they wanted it to be. But Chumby provided an easy way to get content on the device by letting developers launch simple programs that mostly displayed information from the Internet, or provided basic interactivity via its touch screen.
These include information such as status updates from Twitter or Facebook, top news stories from popular sources, and the latest posts from many major blogs.
Now, other companies are seeing the value in the thousands of Chumby channels (now called "apps," to cash in on the smartphone spree) that have come into being over the past two years.
Two of the biggest names in consumer electronics, Sony and Best Buy, have incorporated Chumby's service into devices that have much larger screens than the original Chumby. Sony calls its version the Dash; Best Buy sells the Insignia InfoCast. (Insignia also makes a version with a 3.5-inch screen, like the Chumby.) They can bypass the PC to make adding apps easy.
The hope is that a bit of Internet connectivity magic can prop up sales for two flagging product categories -- alarm clocks and digital picture frames, the latter of which declined 31 percent in unit sales from 2009 to 2010, according to NPD's Retail Tracking Service.
Indeed, like the original Chumby, both devices have dim nighttime clock displays designed to emit minimal light as you're trying to sleep, and both can go completely dark. While neither can operate using batteries like an iPad, they both keep physical buttons to a minimum. There is a single "home" button on the top of the device.
Insignia's InfoCast is an 8-inch device that looks similar to many digital picture frames on the market. Its colorful user interface includes sections for accessing music, photos and video.
In addition to the core Chumby widgets, the InfoCast can also access these kinds of content from other PCs that may be on a home network. Content can also be added through USB ports and memory card slots on the device (it includes both the now seldom-used Compact Flash format and the Memory Stick format still used by Sony cameras, but not present on the Sony Dash).
The Sony Dash has a 7-inch wide screen with higher gloss than the InfoCast.
Unlike the InfoCast, it cannot access content on other networked PCs, but content can be added through a USB port. (The port is on the device's side, under a small plastic cover next to the headphone jack.
The Dash includes quite a bit of content not available on other Chumby devices. This includes the Slacker Internet radio service as well as on-demand video from subscription services Netflix and Hulu Plus, both of which have $7.95-per-month access plans.
Sony has also poured in some free content from partners such as CBS and "The Dr. Oz Show." The original Sony Dash user interface was quite sluggish, but updates have helped, even though the product's modest hardware prevents it from having the slick responsiveness of an iPad. In any case, playing back full-length TV shows using Hulu Plus worked quite well.
And the Dash can even put on its own show of sorts. Re-orienting the wedge-shaped device horizontally so that its back is flat on a surface flips the screen so that it is at about a 30-degree viewing angle, which is useful for looking at it while standing.
Sony envisioned the Dash being used in a kitchen, perhaps by someone glancing at a recipe while working on it across the room. Because of the flexible orientation and flexibility, the Dash gets the nod despite its smaller screen and less accessible USB port.
While the ability to access network content is great in theory, the InfoCast doesn't have the muscle to access big remote libraries.
Both products provide something more useful than your run-of-the-mill picture frame to provide some distraction and utility in the kitchen, on a nightstand, or desk-side, while piping away some streaming tunes.
While both debuted above $150 earlier in the year, they can now be found below that price.
Because of their limited hardware, navigating their controls isn't as smooth as it is on an iPad. The products could also be helped by improved responsiveness and more information that is personally relevant. The Dash, for example, just rolled out a traffic app that can help you plan your daily commute.
That takes us a step closer to the kind of information one wants to know at a glance.