I may have found today's equivalent of the infamous Pets.com sock puppet. The puppet had a cult following, but it came to symbolize the...

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I may have found today’s equivalent of the infamous Pets.com sock puppet.

The puppet had a cult following, but it came to symbolize the twilight of the dot-com boom.

My vote for the Web 2.0 mascot is the Chumby, a new $180 device that displays online content on a touch screen built into a grapefruit-sized leather beanbag.

A team of noted engineers in San Diego developed the Chumby, and it does some cool things.

Its most basic use is as a Wi-Fi alarm clock, if you trust it and your network connection enough.

A Chumby can also display news headlines, photos, the weather, blog excerpts or simple games — basically any snippet of data that can be served up in an Adobe Flash widget.

If there’s such a thing as technologically politically correct, the Chumby is it.

It runs open-source software that users are invited to modify. The company even encourages you to tinker with the hardware.

Chumby works with groovy Web services like Flickr and Picasa, it functions as an iPod Nano docking station and it comes packaged in an eco-friendly, hemplike sack.

It has a cuddly, inviting software interface, but the on-screen buttons sometimes feel mushy and hard to hit.

Like the iPhone and Facebook, Chumby points toward a future when we’ll be surrounded by widgets displaying information (and ads) streamed over the Web.

Widgets are applications that run in little windows floating on the screen of your computer and, increasingly, on your phone. Once you get them started they run by themselves, constantly pulling fresh data. They let you customize desktops and Web pages, adding widgets like candy toppings on an ice-cream cone.

Widgets aren’t new, but lately they’re getting a boost from social networks and more powerful mobile phones. They’re also a focus of the new iPhone and Google phone software tool kits.

A few years from now, widgets will start appearing on your TV screen and your car’s windshield. They may even be projected on your walls and mirrors, so you can read headlines and check traffic reports while brushing your teeth.

So why compare Chumby to the Pets.com sock puppet? Timing, for one thing.

The online pet store wasn’t a bad idea, but it debuted just before the crash, before online retail matured.

Work on the Chumby began at the apex of Web 2.0, but didn’t go on sale until February, after the economy turned.

It may be a hit with the online tinkering crowd, but a $180 auxiliary display feels precious now that people are struggling to afford fuel, mortgages and food.

Maybe I’m a spoilsport, because the Chumby is fun for gadget fanatics. But it’s an expensive folly. Likely buyers already have computers running in their homes, a GPS on their dashboard and probably an iPhone in their pocket.

That’s probably why the Chumby company is using its latest funding to push its widget software network onto other devices like digital photo frames and televisions.

The Chumby reminded my wife of pet rocks sold in the 1970s. I think it’s more like an Erector Set, circa 2010.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at bdudley@seattletimes.com.