The Neuros and Open Source:The Salad Bar Story

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The Salad Bar: How Open Source Provides a Strategic Advantage to Neuros

The dramatic rise in competition in today's market has meant that, more than ever, a company's success hinges on the details of its products. At Neuros we are applying open source development methods to get those details right on the next generation of our portable media products.

Before the dominance of Asia's manufacturing, companies often were able to defend positions of leadership in consumer electronics simply based on the high barriers to entry in that market. Today, with the myriad of Asian manufacturers and the nearly complete "solutions"? provided by many silicon manufacturers, it's no longer expensive to bring a consumer electronics device to market. As a result, there are often hundreds of brands competing for attention in many categories. Further contributing to the competition is the dramatically increased access to product information that the internet provides today's savvy consumers. With such fierce competition, it is the details that define the categories winners from the losers.

Neuros Technology has adopted techniques from the open source software movement to gain consumer intimacy and ensure that it can discern the important details necessary to deliver successful products. "Previously, like everyone else, we used conventional market research to try to determine what consumers wanted." Said CEO Joe Born, "But there were a host of problems with it, first of all, the more research we did, the more it slowed down the process. Second, it was too often asking consumers to speculate about products or features they hadn't yet used, something consumers are notoriously bad at. Third, the feedback was too granular to provide the kind of detailed feedback that we so often needed."

Neuros found a solution to these issues by observing the way that open source software was developed. "What we saw in open source was a method for developing products that fundamentally involved end users in a continuous, real time way." Said Born "What was so revolutionary about it, from our perspective, is that it found a way to do it that actually accelerated the pace of product development rather than slow it." It may be counter intuitive to think that you can directly integrate end users in product development and still maintain order, but that's exactly what's happening in countless successful open source projects around the globe. "Out of what would seem like total uncontrolled chaos, comes a kind of order. As we first experienced it, it seemed like something akin to magic."

Whatever the source of this magic, Neuros is putting the open source tools to use to develop the next generation of hardware. A lot of the changes are simply directed at putting the internal tools directly in end user's hands. "There's an old story that the salad bar was invented because a chef got tired of taking directions from his customers and one day decided to wheel the refrigerator out to his customers and let them serve themselves. That's a lot of the way that open source development works." Said Michael Gao, head of firmware development. A good example is the bug tracking system that Neuros uses, which is open to the public. The public enters bugs in the system, comments on them and votes on them. The end result is a prioritized list of bugs and enhancement requests with a great deal of background discussion behind them. "In the old days, we used to take our internal wish lists, then create surveys and follow on with focus groups to really understand the survey results. Then, of course, the information had to be distilled into information we could act on. We were pretty proud of all the work we did in generating that information on consumer desires, but ironically, we've come to realize that we were more of a bottleneck in the process than anything else. Now it just happens practically on its own." Said Tim Artz, director of consumer relations.

Having seen the advantages of open source, Neuros is now continuously on the lookout for new tools to share information with its end users. On its "wiki", which is a community generated website, the company and consumers collaborate on everything from user manuals to product specs. In addition, there are un-moderated forums, 24 hour chat-rooms, mailing lists and portal software that aggregates the content in a central place.

"It's hard to believe that just a few years ago, we felt keeping information internal and secret would give us a proprietary edge. Today we're pushing as hard as we can to get as much information out to the public as possible." Said Born. "Open source is a very disruptive phenomenon."
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