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Beyond speakers: Bose turns to potholes

Mysterious dark sedans have been sighted on the Mountain in Framingham, the looming butte just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike that is home to Bose Corp. They cruise over potholes without a shudder, and skim over speed bumps at 40 miles per hour without jostling their passengers. Ex-Bose employees who have ridden in the test vehicles say they hardly feel like they're attached to the road. One describes it as ''like a Luke Skywalker land speeder," the hovercraft vehicle from ''Star Wars."

What on earth is a speaker company doing trying to reinvent the way auto suspension systems work?

Bose Corp. is a rare specimen, as far as Massachusetts tech companies go. It's privately held, and still controlled entirely by Amar Bose, the 74-year-old MIT professor who started the company in 1964. It operates its own chain of 100 retail stores and produces all of its own advertising for products like the Wave radio and QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones.

According to Forbes, the company has 7,500 employees and $1.6 billion in annual revenue. (That makes it bigger than Houghton Mifflin, New Balance, and Boston Consulting Group, other privately held Bay State firms.)

Bose plows 100 percent of profits back into research and development. Including the mysterious auto suspension project, which Amar Bose -- always reverentially referred to as Dr. Bose within the company -- has been working on personally since 1980.

Bose has been phenomenally successful since its founding -- save for the occasional misstep, like a long-ago foray into music distribution. But two products debuting this summer will test the company's ability to enter new markets. One, the uMusic intelligent playback system, was unveiled this month in New York and will go on sale in late July. The second, the Bose suspension system, will be announced in August, though auto industry journalists are getting a preview this week in Framingham.

I went to the Mountain last week to get a demo of uMusic. (Unfortunately, the company refused to make Bose or John Coleman, the company's president, available for an interview.) uMusic is part of Bose's new Lifestyle home theater systems. It's essentially a giant hard drive that can store the contents of up to 350 compact discs. UMusic links each track with information about its genre, tone, and musicians. As uMusic plays songs from your collection, it notices how you use the remote control: which songs you skip, and which ones you ''tag" with a negative or positive rating. If a disc was stored recently, the system will play it more often, assuming that you bought it recently.

''Part of the entertainment experience for some people is playing with the computer" to manage a digital music collection, says Finn Arnold, director of product development and engineering for Bose's home entertainment division.

But uMusic was designed for people who don't want to worry about the intricacies of ripping CDs, or connecting a PC to a stereo system. In the demo, Steely Dan segues into the Doobie Brothers; Michael McDonald happens to play Hammond B3 organ on both tracks, and uMusic knows enough to make that association, just as a good DJ would.

''It's like having your own personal genre," Arnold says.

UMusic demonstrates the classic Bose knack for elegant design and intuitive operation. The customization seemed at least as sophisticated as what's available from software like iTunes or MusicMatch.

But uMusic isn't available as a stand-alone product; you can buy it only as part of a high-end $2,999 or $3,999 Lifestyle system.

And Bose's strategy often seems to favor sound quality and ease of use over interoperability. Don't expect to be able to buy music from an online store, or download your customized uMusic playlists onto your iPod, or any other portable music player. You can't, and Bose doesn't make a portable music player of its own.

Don't they realize that people enjoy using iPods and other devices to bring their music collections to the gym, into the car, and onto planes? In some ways, Bose has a bit of the old Digital Equipment attitude: If we don't make it, you don't need it. If Bose wanted to demonstrate that it truly understands how the digital music market is evolving, and wanted to establish itself as a leader, it would sell uMusic as a stand-alone piece of equipment that could plug into your home stereo, and it would release a software-only version that would work on PCs.

Bose isn't talking yet about its suspension system. But two patents were issued to Amar Bose in 1990 and 1991, both related to ways to absorb vibrations and jolts by dynamically controlling a car's suspension system. One former Bose executive called it ''one of the most impressive demos I'd ever seen."

But to have a real impact on the auto industry, Bose will have to make the system affordable. One cost estimate I've heard was $20,000, which would be appealing primarily to drivers of Bentleys and Maybachs. And it will have to convince automakers, some of whom buy sound systems from Bose, that its technology is reliable enough to replace suspension systems from established suppliers, like Delphi Automotive.

One other twist lies ahead for Bose Corp.: Amar Bose is reportedly planning to transfer control of the company to a nonprofit foundation, to ensure the company will stay private after he is no longer at the helm, and to turn Bose into a kind of hands-on lab for teaching engineering and entrepreneurship.

Bose: the sequelVanu Inc. has few connections to Bose Corp., aside from the fact that its founder and CEO, Vanu Bose, is Amar Bose's son. The elder Bose did not invest in Vanu's company.

Vanu Bose seems to appreciate being fully independent. ''He gives me advice whenever I want or need it," he says of his father. ''But he says, 'It's your company. You've got to make your own decisions.' "

There are a few interesting connections between Cambridge-based Vanu and Bose Corp., though. Both are privately held and were started without venture capital. (Vanu did raise $1.3 million from individual investors, including Raymie Stata, son of Analog Devices founder Ray Stata.) Staying private is ''a model I would like to pursue, because you can fund a lot of R&D," Vanu Bose says. ''But if we needed to raise capital for some reason, I wouldn't rule it out."

And Charles Hieken, a patent attorney, handles work for both Bose Corp. and Vanu Inc. Hieken was Amar Bose's roommate at MIT in the early 1950s.

Vanu is in the midst of its first commercial rollout, in Texas, of its so-called ''software radio" system for cellphone base stations. Currently, cellphone antenna sites must have separate, dedicated equipment for each communications standard they support: GSM, TDMA, CDMA, iDen, and so on. Separate equipment is expensive and complex to install, operate, and maintain.

Vanu Inc. creates software that runs on garden-variety Intel PCs, which can handle multiple standards. To add GSM or iDen to a group of cell sites, you just send them new software from a central location. That allows cell site operators to rapidly upgrade their networks, Vanu Bose says, while lowering capital equipment costs.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net. 

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