“If I’d asked my customers what they’d wanted,” Henry Ford supposedly observed, “they would have said, ‘a faster horse.’”
From personal computers to super-smartphones and iPads, the entire consumer-technology industry is based on selling people stuff they didn’t know they wanted or needed. The hard part for the industry is explaining to people who’ve never seen a product just how and why they’d use it.
With that in mind, here are three “whazzit” devices where the first order of business is figuring out what it actually, you know, does.
The Chumby has been around for a couple of years now, and it’s still hard to describe. Is it an Internet radio and alarm clock? A digital picture frame that runs apps?
The newest model, the Chumby 8, is a little less eccentric than its two predecessors, both of which combined Internet connectivity with a sort of retro-1950s-plastic design. The new one looks like a digital frame with an eight-inch LCD touch screen. But underneath the hood is a lightweight microprocessor, some memory and a Linux-based operating system.
It is, in short, a miniature, keyboard-less, $200 computer. Once you add it to your Wi-Fi network, you gain access to more than 1,000 Chumby apps, including everything from public webcams and David Letterman monologues to Pandora Internet Radio and BBC Sports headlines.
You can also use the Chumby to update your Facebook status and check your Netflix queue, even play Mini Golf. Oh, yes -- it displays photos too.
There’s also a $5 app for your mobile device running Google Inc. (GOOG)’s Android software that will turn it into a Chumby -- in other words, an Android app that runs your Chumby apps. Very meta.
If you find the new Chumby a little too staid, maybe the Karotz will be more to your tech tastes. “Staid” isn’t a word that will ever be used to describe this multipurpose Internet appliance.
The Karotz, which is currently on sale in Europe for 200 euros, and available for pre-order in the U.S. for $200, is an, er, rabbit -- a 9-inch-tall (counting the ears) white bunny with a Hello-Kitty-type face and a glowing color tummy. Mindscape (ALMIN), the French company behind it, describes it as an “intelligent house robot.”
What does it do? Quite a bit, once you connect it to your Wi-Fi network. The Karotz includes among other things a speaker for playing Internet radio, a webcam and a surprisingly good synthesized voice that can, for instance, read you headlines from the New York Times. You activate the device’s functions by pushing a button on top of its head and speaking your instructions -- “Beatles Radio” or “weather San Francisco.”
You can install applications from the Karotz website, and little programmable tags that come with it use a technology called RFID to trigger events when waved near the device. So, for instance, a kid could signal to a parent at work that he or she was home from school.
A free controller app for Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s iPad and iPhone allows you to do even more remotely. You can see what the Karotz is seeing and take snapshots, or type a text message that the Karotz will speak. You can even make the Karotz’s ears rotate from anywhere in the world. Of course, the real question is why you’d want to do all those things. I can’t help you on that one.
You can also directly call another Karotz, sort of like an Internet intercom, if anyone else you know is geeky enough to have one too. If it sounds a little creepy, it is -- in a fairly benign way. It is, after all, a rabbit.
Compared to the Karotz, the Pogoplug is positively practical. It actually has a real purpose: putting your personal files online without trusting them to a third party’s servers, where they could theoretically be hacked, cracked or otherwise compromised.
Your data, rather than being stored in “the cloud,” never leaves your control. Instead, by hooking an external hard drive or computer to a Pogoplug, and then connecting it in turn to your router, you’re creating your own personal cloud. Any files -- including music, movies and photos -- on the connected drive can be accessed from anywhere over the Internet via a web browser, software for Macs and Windows PCs, or free apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices.
The Pogoplug device comes in three versions, ranging in price from $100 to $300, depending on capabilities. In a possible preview of things ahead, though, the company has also launched free and $30 software-only versions that offer some of the same functionality without the cables, space requirements and power needs of the hardware. So the question is whether the Pogoplug device answers a genuine need you have.
Then again, you could ask the same question of all three of these gadgets.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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