Yes, that’s a tough decision. Devepment boards are a very niche market, there are few customers and there’s a growing list of competitors, you really have to work hard to make your product stand out from the rest. When we approached Sparkfun with our Forebrain product, they basically told us that we did not differentiate ourselves from their existing products.
And therein lies the problem: a bare-bones development board is supposed to be minimalist and contain only the necessary components to have it working, as a result it’s going to be very similar to any other bare-bones development boards out there. If you compared the USBug, Forebrain and EA Quickstart Board, let’s face it, aside from some small differences they’re pretty interchangeable.
So what can you do? I believe the best thing to do is to offer a complete solution. The problem with development boards is that a customer really needs to be proficient in both electronics and programming to make use of it, and that really limits your market. If you were to make your product easy to program, through offering pre-written libraries, copy+paste code and whatever, then suddenly even beginner programmers and non-programmers can use your product. If you were to make little add-on boards that let your dev board do something useful without the customer needing to build a circuit, then suddenly those without experience in electronics can use your product. If you do both, then you’ve done what the Arduino has done – provide a product that has masses of documentation and pre-written code, and a vast array of add-on boards that will do almost everything you might think of. And that is why the Arduino is successful.
What we’ve done is similar, we’ve focused on UAVs. Dev boards aren’t our main product, we sell quadcopters that are extremely tinkerable. Because we offer a complete quadcopter kit, you don’t necessarily need to be able to program, build circuits, and design mechanical systems to work with quadcopters, you can take our kit and expand its capabilities using the skills tha tyou have, whether it’s tinkering with the firmware, attaching new circuits, or modifying the frame. We’ve tried it as easy as possible for people to do this – the flight code is open-source and updating firmware is easy thanks to the LPC13xx’s bootloader, the dev board at the heart of the quadcopter can interface to other boards, and the low-cost frame is made of sheet aluminium and is very easy to saw or drill into and if you made a mistake you can just buy a replacement part
The business model of companies like Sparkfun and Adafruit have a similar aim – they sell breakout boards that let you do things without necessarily having all the skills you would otherwise have needed without their products. And it applies to other industries too; take Apple for example, the iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, but it was/is popular because Apple offered a complete solution through iTunes – with other MP3 players, you had to know how to rip CDs yourself (or download them via file-sharing) and mess with ID3 tags to get the info showing properly; while Apple’s products gave you a complete solution that let you easily get the songs you want and have them automatically loaded onto your iPod.
A bare-bones dev board might have a million and one uses, but there are just too few people who are capable of making use of one, and even fewer who would choose one over others that offer a more complete solution. I think this is the key to making USBug successful. If you decide to go ahead and invest time and money into it, my advice to you is to think about what skills and experience (or connections) that you have that would allow you to make USBug a more complete solution for people, whether it’s providing some extremely easy method of writing code, or add-on boards that give it functionality, or a whole application or platform that USBug is part of. Teaming up with someone with complementary skills to you might make it easier, perhaps someone with mechanical design experience.
But definitely have fun, and learn from the experience.
Via the forum.