Parks Associates Blog

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

My Kingdom for the Cubs Score (Or, How Widgets Saved My Marriage)

I've been following baseball this year with far more enthusiasm than is really needed at this point. After all, there are still more than 100 games to go in the season, and many school districts in the Dallas area haven't even gone to summer break! But I can't help it - the Cubs are playing well this year, and those of us rooting for the North Siders are delusional enough to think that 100 years is long enough to wait for a World Series. So, I'm agonizing over every game and box score as they happen this year ... and it's driving the family nuts!

Case in point: the Cubbies were playing a night game last week, and it wasn't televised. It was getting late, so as we retired to bed, I had the TV on ESPN and waited patiently for the scores to come around. And I waited ... and waited ... and waited ... Oh wait, did you know that the Lakers are playing the Celtics for the 11th time in an NBA Finals? I learned that a few times while waiting for the score (geez, Disney ... overkill much on your NBA coverage?). Wow ... second-round scores from the French Open. Scintilating. Now I'm bored, so I'm flipping to Deadliest Catch on The Discovery Channel. Oh wait ... maybe they've posted the score. But ... darn it! I just missed it! In the end, it wound up taking 15-20 minutes to finally see that the Cubs had won their game. Grrrrr!

In this broadband-connected era, there's no excuse for sitting around passively and waiting for the one score you really want. I could have easily gotten up and checked on the computer. But that would have required ... well ... getting up and checking the computer. That would have been complete with an 1) open the Web browser; 2) go to Web site; and 3) scroll, scroll, scroll. Or, I could have kept the laptop on the bed with the game tracker open. But, man, those things get hot!

So, enter Chumby, and widgets as a solution to the problem of way too much information out there with none of it relevant. Widgets are probably one of the hottest topics that I'm hearing about in 2008 - we're hearing how they're going to fundamentally alter television services by allowing viewers to customize the information and features that theyr eally want and change the way that CE manufacturers view connectivity. For example, Samsung's InfoLink televisions are Internet connected and allow for a degree of customization with USA TODAY news, weather, traffic, sports, and other information feeds. Sound too futuristic? It's likely that many of use already use widgets today and don't event realize it.

For purposes of this discussion, a widget is small piece of HTML code that provides very specific information to users. Common widgets in use today provide updated weather (WeatherBug), traffic, news, and sports information, but there are countless other simple widgets for games, photo sharing, video viewing and - yes - time wasting.

We've been using Widgets as part of our Verizon FiOS TV service since we subscribed a couple of years ago, and the targeted weather and traffic features are handy for getting a quick update on conditions right before leaving the house. Now, we're seeing widgets emerge in stand-alone consumer electronics devices that are reiminscent to me of the information appliances that we covered back in the late 1990s. One key drawback to all of those PC alternatives back then was broadband was still a very new concept, and accessing the Internet on these devices was still the same browser-based model as on the PC. That meant that the experience was both slow and cumbersome - not a great combination for an emergy technology product category.

the folks at Chumby believe they've gotten the information appliance right by removing all of the configuration from the device itself. A PC is still involved, but once you get your Chumby customized with just the widgets you want, the device simply updates itself automatically. No muss, no fuss, and very targeted. At least that was the theory, as explained to me in a briefing last week. Chumby was kind enough to send a unit for me to test after the briefing, and its arrived just in time for me to give it a test run over the weekend.

Connection is a pretty simple task with Chumby. It was as easy as plugging it in, setting it to the home's wireless network, and doing some simple configurations. After that, I was ready to set it up the widget dashboard. This is where the user gets to determine the number and order of the widget channels.

Chumby's widget offerings go way beyond just traffic and weather. They've got almost unlimited choices that range in relevancy from stock quotes and the news headlines to calendars, word-of-the-day, and moon phases. I set mine up for 17 widgets now, but I have to say that I love the Wrigley Field Web camera view, and the CBS Sportsline baseball scores. There's a streaming audio feature to Chumby, and I have a number of stations and Podcasts from which to choose. I really liked the couple of classical Internet radio stations that I found.

For $180, Chumby isn't cheap, but I am sure that there are a lot of dads out there who might appreciate the gift on Father's Day. My wife was saying that she was thinking of getting me a single-purpose device that gave me updated baseball scores, knowing how I like to stay on top of the Cubs. There is a unit from Ambient Devices called the Baseball ScoreCast that retails for about $125. Am After she saw Chumby and I showed her a few of the features, she knew that she didn't need to bother to look. Now, the device isn't perfect. I've found it frustrating at times to not scroll forward and back through my channels as responsively as I'd like. It also seems to generate a ton of heat, and I wonder what impact that might have on its longevity.

But all was well in Widget World this morning when I needed to check on the Cubbies. I tap of the screen brought Chumby to life, and there were the details: Cubs, 7 - Padres, 6. Take that, ESPN!

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