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Interview with Joe Born: CEO of Neuros Technology

James Gray

Issue #181, May 2009

Joe Born talks about his company's Neuros Technology and how open devices are upending the consumer electronics industry like never before.

The consumer electronics (CE) industry is in an upheaval as devices become more open and a rift emerges between hardware manufacturing and the software that steers them. On the cutting edge of this development is Neuros Technology, which has brought the Linux and open-source model to CE devices for TV-Internet convergence. I recently spoke with Joe Born, Neuros Technology CEO and founder, to learn more about Neuros Technology and where this exciting trend toward open CE devices is headed.

Joe Born, CEO of Neuros Technology

JG: First, thanks for joining us in this conversation, Joe Born. The open devices from your company, Neuros Technology, make perfect sense to us Linux and open-source geeks but are quite disruptive in the world of electronics. Can you start us off by giving us a quick rundown of your products and how they are different from your typical set-top box?

JB: Well, they are open. Now, normally that's associated with open source, but actually electronics devices today are vastly more closed than any Windows PC dreamed of being. If you look at pretty much all the electronics devices that power the TV, it's not just that they don't allow modification, they don't even allow you to browse outside the walled garden that they have set up. Compared to a PC, they are closed at every level.

So in the Neuros LINK [device], that means it can browse to any site, and you get access to all the content you can find, compared to just about any other set-top device you can imagine—from the operator boxes to the AppleTV to TiVo and so on.

Basically, Neuros is looking to create a device that fills the gap between the typical electronics that connect the Net and TV (of varying shapes and sizes) and the wide-open HTPC. We want to provide navigation and ease of use like a CE device, but with the openness of the PC. Enabling that functionality is a host of free software. Under the hood, the LINK is really a diskless, quiet PC, and with all the power and expansion of the PC, but over time, we're adding all the seamless navigation of a nice electronics device.

As to our other products, Neuros TV is what a TVPC should be: an open device that can stream virtually any Internet content to your TV. Building on the lessons learned from the closed, proprietary solutions, Neuros has built a device that's quiet, component-sized and sets up easily with all the peripherals you need and none that you don't. It's different from your typical set-top box solution, because it allows you to access any content of your choosing easily, not just the one your provider or manufacturer decides you should have.

Then, there is the Neuros OSD, a standalone device for archiving all your DVDs, VHS tapes and TV shows into unlocked digital recordings. It's particularly good for making recordings that play on your handhelds (iPhone, Android and so on) with no hassle or conversion.

JG: In a nutshell, what is the story behind your company, and where did the inspiration come from to create open devices?

Born: Like most manufacturers, Neuros didn't pay a lot of attention to the Open Source movement initially, viewing the various activities on Linux, Web servers and browsers as an interesting but distant phenomenon with little obvious connection to our business. It was almost by happenstance that we realized what a profound impact on our business the open-source phenomenon could have.

Our first surprise came even before we released any source code. We had simply released the communication protocol between our device and the PC. Based on that small release of information, brand-new synchronization managers sprang up, as if from thin air. They typically were developed by engineers who often had no contact with the company. The software was innovative and took entirely different approaches, and in many cases, it was preferred by many users to the software we had spent literally millions on developing in house. Equally amazing were the tools they were using. These independent, open-source developers had complete toolkits of free software, that were, in many cases, vastly superior to the proprietary ones we had been using.

I can remember the first time I saw the bug-tracking software called Bugzilla that many of the open-source developers were using. Like most companies, we had purchased proprietary software to track our software bugs and enhancements and communicate updates throughout the company. I remember being amazed when I first saw Bugzilla. Not only was it free, but it had all kinds of features we'd long been looking for. Not only that, but its open-source license meant we could put it on a public server that anyone could access. Suddenly, we had the ability to tap directly into our most sophisticated and enthusiastic users for finding bugs and, even better, making suggestions and enhancements. Not only that, but Bugzilla had a voting function that meant the public could chime in on its priorities. Overnight, our consumer intimacy would jump five-fold with this ability, I thought. When I asked our internal team, no one could think of a single reason we should stick with our old proprietary closed system.

Although everyone agreed that Bugzilla was a superior system for tracking bugs, there were, however, plenty of concerns about exposing our internal bug-tracking system to the public, particularly from the marketing department. Would users be turned off by being able to see our list of bugs? Would we be able to control a system where hundreds of unscreened users have access to input and comment on all the bugs? Would users be offended when we decided not to make an enhancement they had suggested?

In the end, we decided it was worth the risks, and that as Bugzilla was capable of supporting a public-based system, why not use that functionality? In the years since we made the system public, none of our fears have come true. In fact, there has been substantially less complaining by users, perhaps because we have given them a constructive outlet to report their issues. Further, our connection with our customers has increased dramatically, and we now have a systematic way to include their input into our internal plans. This level of consumer input could never be duplicated with conventional market research. To date, the concerns about an open system spiraling out of control have turned out to be unfounded as well. As quickly as duplicate or irrelevant bugs are entered, they are corrected, as the community effectively polices itself.

Perhaps not surprising to those experienced in open-source development, our introduction to open source as users of the software quickly led to our embrace of open source as a development method—a method that, with heavy doses of experimentation, mis-steps and modifications, we could apply to hardware development as well as software.

JG: Does “the industry” understand what you guys are up to, or is it too myopic to really get it?

Born: This is an incredibly rich area for discussion, and it really depends on what you mean by “industry” and “get it”.

From our viewpoint, it's plain to see that the electronics industry is undergoing a change that very much mirrors the PC industry 25+ years ago. Devices are undergoing a transformation from being dedicated, closed devices to more open ones, mirroring what happened going from what were essentially word processors to the IBM PC in the early 1980s. Today, the silicon behind electronics has become powerful enough that it has outstripped the ability of the folks manufacturing it to create the software for it, and a natural separation between hardware and software has emerged. This is further splitting into operating systems, applications and services, and we can see some of this already happening on the iPhone, for example.

Nowadays, much of not just the manufacturing but the design work also is being done in Asia. Certainly these “design manufacturers” or ODMs, get this separation very well. They know that software teams have to be close to the customers, and they recognize that they have neither the resources nor the expertise to develop the applications that are necessary to make devices successful today. One interesting area is really in the operating system, actually. The free nature of Linux is leaving the operating system a bit “up for grabs”, so to speak. There are vendors, like MontaVista that do a nice job with this, but their business models can't be the same as Microsoft's (or Apple's for that matter). My personal gut feeling is that branded distributions will emerge here, and things like mobile Ubuntu, Android and maybe something coming from Nokia will emerge. The silicon manufacturers have a strong role to play here in providing turnkey solutions for their customers. TI is leading the way with some of its efforts (both on its own and supporting our efforts), and lately we've begun working with ATI in improving support for Linux.

I see a lot of activity on the supply chain per the above, so I would generally say they get it. Downstream on the brand side, there's a bit more resistance. The branded manufacturers are a bit more of a mixed bag. There are reasonable reasons for this.

First, consumer expectations are different for an electronics device than a computer. Consumers are not used to an open system, so their expectations are for more of a controlled experience.

Second, there's still a bit of old-fashioned thinking and fear about opening a system and losing control.

Third, there are impediments given the DRM and encryption issues.

And fourth, the “customers”—that is, cable and wireless operators—often don't want open systems, because they want to control their networks and devices (for a variety of reasons).

So, on the branding end, there's more resistance, but that's where Neuros comes in. I believe we can pioneer this area and demonstrate enough consumer demand that it will overcome the above.

JG: You've used the term “super ODM” to describe Neuros. What does that mean?

JB: An ODM is a Original Design Manufacturer—basically a factory that adds design capability and initiates development of products, providing a more turnkey solution to its customers. Neuros considers itself a “super ODM”, meaning we not only take responsibility for design, but also launch our products directly to involved users, get immediate feedback from those customers and evolve the product. This means that, to our customers (the larger electronics brands), we have not only done design work, but also evolved the products in direct response to users' needs, proven the early market for the devices and taken a lot of the risk out of the process for our customers.

JG: How are you collaborating with other companies committed to open devices and open source?

JB: “Supply chains” of both software and hardware are long and segmented today. There are so many different contributors and pieces to any piece of electronics equipment you buy today, it's just inherent that you are borrowing from the contributions of many, many levels. One of the things that makes open source so compelling is that it forms this giant ecosystem. Without a single business development meeting, without a single nickel in legal fees, we have a mature agreement in place (typically the GPL) with a huge ecosystem of projects and companies; these are crucial building blocks for getting out products quickly. The addition of more and more commercial entities to that ecosystem is a huge boon. We're in discussions [for example] with Boxee as we speak, figuring out how best to deliver a product that incorporates their software and services.

JG: I bet it's really fun to have such a dynamic group of contributors outside the walls of your office.

JB: It's incredibly gratifying, and I've come to realize what a special thing it really is. It's much more than a bunch of smart folks working together in a community.

JG: In a separate conversation, you told me the fascinating story one of your most prolific contributors. Could you share his story with our readers?

JB: Pablo Grande was the most prolific and talented hacker in the Neuros community. He contributed at every level—from low-level assembly language hacking all the way to setting up the community Web sites. But amazingly, his greatest contributions were made after he had a severe stroke in 2005. After the stroke, Pablo's heroic recovery and participation not only inspired but demonstrated to the Neuros community the power of open development. We all came to realize that what we had considered a nice little on-line community was really something more—open communities were creating a place that, as melodramatic as it sounds, was really unlocking the power of human potential. Here was Pablo, without the use of one hand and, at the time, unable to speak, still able to bring his exhaustive knowledge and insight to bear on the problems facing Neuros. Where else could he contribute at that level? Where else could he prove what he was really capable of, that probably only he could see? What other type of institution would be able to accept contributions solely limited by the contributor's own ability? We realized watching Pablo's example that at various levels it was true for all of us. Unlike typical, top-down corporate development, we were all contributing in a way that really was limited only by our own energy and ability. Since that realization, I know I personally have felt a passion for open development and what it can do, not just for the projects themselves but for the contributors as individuals.

JG: What are some of the most innovative contributions you've received from contributors to the Neuros OSD?

JB: Well, our YouTube browser was one open-source contribution, then an audio player, and then a third contribution was a mashup that stitched those two together allowing you to browse MP3s, and then with a single click, “find the music video” for the song. I thought it was a neat project, but what I really liked was the cooperation between community members.

Recently, we really had a lot of fun with “crowd narration”, a technology that superimposes two lines of chat text over a video broadcast, effectively allowing individuals to provide commentary in real time to live events or shows. It's a kind of closed captioning for crowds.

[For a video illustrating crowd narration, see open.neurostechnology.com/content/crowd-narration-future-tv.]

Honestly though, I think the fun has just begun. We've seen more interesting experimentation since we've launched the LINK than in all the previous history combined, and the reason is simple. The product is further along. By using an x86 processor and Ubuntu, we made experimentation and enhancements more accessible. Now, unlike in the past, the first 95% is already done. Basic functionality already works, and now it's about the really interesting stuff of presentation, sharing, discovery of good content, interactivity and so on.

JG: Do you see a conflict between the needs of users of your devices and the developers who contribute to them? If so, how do you mitigate this conflict?

JB: Sometimes, there's a conflict. Ease of use and “intuitive” is certainly defined differently for developers and mainstream users. The wisdom of the crowds isn't, and never will be, a substitute for individual judgment and leadership. We still ultimately have to make the call on things like those conflicts.

JG: Your development team holds its developer meetings on public IRC. How has this experience been, and is the goal of transparency well served in this way?

JB: It has worked well. As you probably know, a community isn't a monolithic block; there are folks who are very close to the core and their “influence” radiates outward to the less-involved users and customers. By keeping the most involved contributors in the fold, they can spread the word in their own ways and make sure it gets out to everyone. If you look at our forums for example, many of the folks answering questions are not internal staff. Having open meetings is a good mechanism for making sure that those folks, as an example, understand well what's going on and can articulate it to others. Without transparency, this would be impossible.

JG: What do you think will be the significance of Neuros LINK and Neuros TV in the marketplace?

JB: Well, see above. But, in broad terms, I think opening up the TV will have more impact on worldwide freedom of communication than the creation of the PC. There are vastly more TVs in the world than PCs, and you'll find them in some of the areas where freedom of communication is most limited. Once cheap hardware connecting those devices in a decentralized way penetrates those areas, the implications are hard to fully imagine at this point.

JG: Does Neuros Technology have plans on the horizon for other devices, products or services?

JB: Well, we do, but I believe we'll be in this category for a while. I expect there will be integration with PVR functionality and perhaps other types of functionality, and of course, continuous improvement within this category. There's lots to do.

JG: Thanks, Joe Born, for sharing your insights on Neuros Technology and open devices.

James Gray is Linux Journal Products Editor and a graduate student in environmental sciences and management at Michigan State University. A Linux enthusiast since the mid-1990s, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, with his wife and cats.

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