Neuros OSD

I saw this post yesterday on Engadget, announcing a beta hardware release of the Neuros OSD media box. The beta is mostly – as far as I can tell – because of the state of software development on the platform. A really interesting box (as many of Neuros’ products are) – it’ll record analog audio/video, transcode same for PSPs and iPodi, play back content, etc. The development model is wild – it’s a Linux-based platform, and Neuros is offering cash money bounties for new code that will implement specific capabilities.

Before you rush to try to buy one – too late. There were 200 units available at ThinkGeek, but they are long gone. I’m not sure how quickly it happened, but getting a post on BoingBoing was, I’m sure the kiss of death (life?).

Regarding the development model – I’ve read a couple reactions that accuse Neuros of stringing along aspiring code-jockeys in order to get software on the cheap. A comment on Engadget:

Let OSS developers do the work for a few hundreds which would cost a few tentousands if the would employ some developers. The OSS developers even have to buy the hardware by themselves. Hopefully nobody will bite the bait. This will just spoil the jobmarket and value of work for professional devs.

And one from the reBang blog:

Talk to any Industrial Designer and if they have any experience they’ll probably tell you that many design competitions are a deceptive way for greedy companies to get designs at little or no cost. One competition not so long ago offered as a prize a small cash prize and a job. Oh, and all those entries sent in by designers too wet behind the ears to know better? Those concepts belonged to the company as part of their condition for entry.

and later in the post:

And so it goes without saying that when I read on Boing Boing (Link) about PVR manufacturer Neuros’ offer of cash rewards to those programmers/hackers who code features which (big surprise) help them sell more product, I thought of my design compatriots… too naive to see how they were hurting themselves and helping The Man. Instead of hiring a programmer who could use the money to pay off student loans or raise a family, Neuros offers a pittance to entice these people to do the work for what will probably be less than paying them minimum wage (with no health insurance).

I think both sets of observations miss an important point – the hacker authored code development was going to happen anyway. If a platform can be made to run somebody else’s software (and it seems sometimes, even if it can’t), pretty quickly a community of hackers precipitates out around the hardware. Think about the PSP – Sony is in some sense the anti-Neuros – every firmware release seems to have as one of it’s goals breaking user’s ability to run ‘homebrew’. And yet, somebody always seems to find a way to make the PSP run what they want it to run. Neuros is encouraging this – “here’s the hardware and a base OS/set of capabilities – go nuts”. Are they hoping to benefit from a vibrant user/hacker development community? Sure. Are they, by doing so, exploiting that community? There I’m not so convinced.

Further, it seems to me that reBang’s comparison between design competitions and Neuros is inaccurate in one important aspect. From Neuros’ Hacking for Cash rules:

2. All code must be licensed under GPL (or LGPL or GPL compatible licenses as appropriate). You are allowed to use code from other GPL projects, but please obey the wishes of the authors.

The design submissions became the property of the company sponsoring the competition. The code produced for Neuros does not become Neuros’ IP – it’s out there as usable, repurpose-able stuff. Will it run without modifications on a completely different platform? Almost certainly not. But, can it be ported, reused, and looked at with a view towards doing similar things in a wildly different environment? I think so.

Do I believe that Neuros is destined to succeed? I have no idea – there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I do think that to write them off as cynically trying to extract free code from a bunch of dupes is to ignore a sea change that’s happening in the world of ideas, creation and information.

5 thoughts on “Neuros OSD

  1. I think both sets of observations miss an important point – the hacker authored code development was going to happen anyway.

    No. I thought about that point.

    Are they, by doing so, exploiting that community? There I’m not so convinced.

    This is where I’m less charitable. It’s easy to support these activities when the company sells difficult-to-reproduce hardware. I’ve not checked, but something tells me they don’t make the hardware documentation public so that any Chinese manufacturer can simply take their data and create a knock-off. That’s exactly the issue software developers face.

    Will it run without modifications on a completely different platform? Almost certainly not.

    And that’s the point. Being the first to market is often more important than being the best. If they become a standard, what do they care about another platform; for that matter, why would they care about a “wildy different environment”? They wouldn’t likely care if someone takes the code and applies it to a washing machine.

    If they open source ALL the documentation on their products, I’ll swallow my cynicism. Circuit board diagrams. Product CAD. The works. Do you or does anyone else know if they’ve done this?

  2. I think they should open the up the hardware as well. If they get sued out of existence, for example, all of the specs will be out in the wild and the platform will survive. This can only happen is Neros is more out to disrupt and evangelize open source, free culture and anti DRM than to make money selling these boxes.

    The people who commented on Neros is just using open source developers for their own gain do not understand the open source culture. People want to participate because it is fun and because they want to gain “open source developer street cred”. They want to be have bragging rights to be part of the first app makers on the develop team. And who know, Neros may just hire all of the winners.

    Members of the free culture/hacker/open source/creative commons community should see this as “our box” and not RIAA/MPAA’s box. The implications of Neros OSD could be bigger than the iPod phenomenon.

  3. OK, I just read rebang’s entire post. He does gets open source, and I agree with the point of opening the hardware, this would really mean they are dedicated to open source as a cause and not as a business tactic.

  4. Thanks for the comments and thanks, csven, for the mention on your blog. I’ve got some reading to do (reBang, nsputnik and reopening The Wealth of Networks, at least) but before I go off to think – csven, I think I’m correct in saying that (based on your posts to ISHUSH) you feel innovation is a good thing. Why can’t we look at Neuros’ play for developer support as – if not an innovation – at least following an idea farther than others have been willing to. They saw an underutilized/underpriced resource and are looking to make some money (not a bad thing) before others realize what’s going on and bid the price up. The underutilized resource being, of course, those people who are willing to do creative work for not strictly monetary rewards (recognition, community, etc.). If Neuros’ scheme works – if they get decent code out of this – others will swoop in and compete for what is going to be a finite pool of talent. Look on the bright side – they didn’t AFAIK patent the business process – a kind of patent that ranks right up there w/ patenting genetic material as just seeming wrong to me.

  5. The issue I have with any corporation doing this is that it can be too easily gamed, and based on my admittedly-limited experience as it relates to the specifics of Neuros, I’d venture that they could have been much more generous. For example, they could have opened the financial books on this product and shown the community their current sales projections. These would be based on the current features – not on their wish list.

    Let’s assume that some coder develops a killer app for their device. Does anyone really feel that a static bounty is justified? I don’t. So instead, tie that contribution in to a percentage increase above and beyond the marketing projection. So if they had projected 10,000 units and this new app caused a surge in orders up to 50,000 or so, the programmer would receive a cut of that. This person might get the typical royalty; something like 2-3% of wholesale. Something like that would be fair imo.

    In addition, in the spirit of open source development and with an eye to the current inequality that exists across the globe, a small percentage could go to some social cause. The one on my mind right now is a story I read about suicide rates among farmers in India; much of it the result of some pretty nasty money lending arrangements. For those who are unaware of what can happen to a woman of a deceased man in SE Asia, I’d recommend reading up (you can try a search on Naripohko, a women’s rights group).

    If the contributor were from India, for example, then Neuros could contribute 1% to, say, a micro-loan program managed by the Grameen Bank which operates in the region. That’s just off the top of my head, mind you. But it’s more than what I saw posted.

    One thing I’d like to say though is that I don’t support DRM for those of you who don’t dig deep enough into my posts on this subject. I don’t think it’s going to stop anyone anymore. And I don’t much think intellectual property laws mean anything anymore either; not when it’s the people who can afford the best lawyers that hold the advantage. I do believe that IP as originally conceived and, to a large extent as it still functions, promotes innovation. But the future of all of this is social; it’s in the hands of the people. And that’s why I take issue with simply breaking DRM. I believe this is all bigger than that.

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