Is Michael Arrington the next Steve Jobs?


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.

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  1. Amen! A long overdue breath of fresh air when it comes to Arrington. I read TechCrunch from time to time, but the absurdity of his ego really gets in the way.

    There’s something enormously appealing about the craft electronics idea. We’re on the cusp of a properly custom, and more micro-oriented, consumer culture – the success of Etsy is a good example. The only question is whether the availability of inexpensive talent in the global marketplace will let that custom culture expand to areas where R&D costs and regulatory structures are a bit heftier.

    One other danger – given how litigious our society is these days, what’s a crafter to do when s/he gets sued for a defective product? I think it’s a big problem waiting in the wings. We’ve seen how the RIAA can destroy a life, what happens to a craft maker targeted by class-action lawsuit? I guess the risk is there right now, but somehow electronics screams lawsuit in a way that the usual Etsy fair does not.

  2. it’s almost like a return to the early 80’s diy home computers made from parts from radio shack.

  3. I’ve had my Chumby for about a year now and really like it. I initially thought the widgets would be the main appeal, but I’ve most enjoyed the streaming radio functionality. The sound is surprisingly good and it’s priced comparably to most internet streaming radio devices while offering more audio options (Pandora, Shoutcast, type in a stream URL, Slingbox, iPod control, etc.).

    The secret to the Chumby is to try not to think of it as a competitor to fully interactive devices – it’s primarily meant to be a passive kiosk-type device. That is, mostly it sits on a table looping through displays of weather, headlines, fart soundboards, and lots of whatnot. Generally, the less interactive stuff feels most apropos to the device.

    “…fit far more easily into a pocket than the plush lump.” Also, the Chumby’s not *really* meant to run off of a battery.

  4. Thank you Joel, you articulated my feelings about this project better than I achieved in several instant message conversations earlier this morning.

    The aesthetics of this device, along with it’s size, is laughable. Watching the response time of the resistive touch screen makes it clear that this thing has a very limited application. How am I going to send an instant message with that? You can’t type with your thumbs, like smaller electronics, and you can’t type as if it was a full keyboard, like you can with a netbook or laptop. You have to resort to hunting and pecking, a la the iPhone. If I am indeed sitting at home, on the couch, as Arrington claims, why not simply use a laptop? If I’m going out in public, how would I sit and use it comfortably? if you lay it down flat on the table you’re going to have to crane over it the hole time. Maybe you can prop it up with a bag under it… but then why are you caring all this around instead of a laptop or a netbook?

    He writes scornful posts about netbooks, but the reality is that they are indeed filling a hole in the market, and there really isn’t a place for this tablet to be as profitable as he claims.

    If it was thinner, sleeker, faster then at least he would have a niche in the designer electronics category like the Vaio P has. Right now he’s competing at the same price point as a netbook but with a machine that does LESS and takes up relatively the same amount of space.

    I also share your concerns about support and what form it might take. If he has a firm in Singapore writing all the interface software, then something tells me the support firm he hires won’t be rivaling a trip to my local Apple Store or even Best Buy.

  5. I was interested to read your use of the term “craft electronics” in this post as I have been thinking about some similar concepts in relation to the Arduino world.

    The best term I had come up with was “product crafting”, “device crafting” or maybe even “gadget crafting”. I do feel none of these terms quite capture the essence of the idea.

    You may be interested in some of my notes of this idea in relation to the development of an open source modular enclosure system for Arduino-compatible handheld devices.

    Very early days but apparently these things don’t happen overnight. Although for me they do often happen over night. 🙂

    –Phil. //

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