No. But are you?
Michael Arrington has lifted his knickers to show “Prototype B,” the latest revision of the CrunchPad, a Linux-based touchscreen internet tablet that has sprung fully formed from the genitals of his technological desire. It’s more cumbersome than the initial mock-up, but it’s just a proof-of-concept for the hardware inside: a VIA Nano-powered processor, a mobile processor on par with the Intel Atom found inside nearly every netbook on the market; 1GB of RAM, which Arrington claims is “more than we need”; and 4GB of Flash memory to store the Ubuntu operating system, a WebKit-based browser, and adjunctive cache.
It’s an act of will not to pan the project—Arrington is a trembling blowhard who tends to mistake rage for insight—but taken on its own merit, the device itself, as well as its relative ease of development by Arrington’s team, may further a new wave of small-batch consumer electronics designed not by marketing executives or insulated engineers, but by the very customers who want to buy them.
Or it may not. Remember the Chumby, the cuddly touchscreen internet device that was created to serve very much the same purpose as the CrunchPad? In development for years, the Chumby finally launched in late 2007, only to quickly be obviated by the iPhone and iPod Touch, two mainstream devices that sell for the same $200 price but offer a broader suite of applications and utility — and fit far more easily into a pocket than the plush lump. (Chumby isn’t helped by its business model, which allows you to design your own widgets that are then sold through the advertiser-supported Chumby Network.)
Which is not to say the Chumby is a failure. (I cannot find unit sales numbers online, although I don’t know anyone offhand who owns one besides hardware hackers who bought Chumby units at launch.) It may very well break even by selling to its niche. But a mainstream product it is not, nor likely will it ever be.* And it’s hard to say that the success of Chumby making it to market heralded anything but another small electronics company setting sail.
Craft electronics, if I may crib a term from the American brewing industry, may end up filling the cracks in markets that are too small to be addressed by large manufacturers. There are pitfalls ahead: Will they provide user support? A warranty? Will they be able to create a unified, elegant touch-based interface when hundreds of others, like Microsoft and open-source teams, have had such a sticky time of it? Will they offer a recycling program?
Will anyone want to buy a CrunchPad instead of a netbook? Arrington says the original $200 price will probably end up more like $300, due primarily to a “much better, more expensive LCD.” (Which is good: Prototype B has a 1,024 by 768 pixel display in a 4:3 aspect ratio.) I’d prefer a widescreen display and a real keyboard, as would many, since it’s clear the CrunchPad will be competing with the iPod Touch and netbooks, offering neither the portability of the former, nor the utility of the latter.
Arrington has built a device for Arrington. (The CrunchPad is not some sort of crowdsourced project, as Robert Scoble bafflingly claims.) While it’s easy to dismiss the entire project as a manifestation of his overflowing hubris—and it is—it would be a mistake not to also recognize it for what it also is: a consumer electronics project from a relatively small team that will probably make it to market.
Customers will decide if the CrunchPad will become more than an experiment in wish fulfillment, but even its failure would be useful. The easier it becomes for the average person—or average Silicon Valley networker, at least—to bring products to market, the less we have to rely on large corporations to develop the electronics we want to buy. Apple and HP and the like may continue to be the Anheuser-Busch of the computing world, but it’s hard to imagine a healthy, blossoming craft electronics selection as being anything other than beneficial to the industry as a whole.
Because if Michael Arrington can will a gadget to market, imagine what anyone else could dream up.
* I am aware how douchey this sentence sounds, but it goes so well with this smoking jacket.