One of the perks of working in technology standards groups is that you get to go to meetings in nice places around the world. A more minor perk is that the standards group tends to provide gifts for the participants. They’re not generally much more than a T-shirt saying you’ve been there, or a packet of the local equivalent of popcorn or haggis, but they’re something to remember it by.
Last year, Covid put an end to international travel and we’ve been having to make do with virtual conferences. As every standards group is discovering, they’re OK, but they don’t really work as well. It’s far more difficult to have a good argument when you’re not face to face and there’s no substitute for a fight for the whiteboard markers or the reconciliations and wild flights of fancy that take place over a beer or a coffee. For most standards, the even greater casualty is in testing, where prototype implementations normally come together to check that the specifications actually work. Few companies are happy to let their prototypes out of their sight and running tests remotely, especially for wireless standards, is incredibly difficult. Every standards group is suffering from that at the moment, with the result that we’re seeing release dates pushed back and features cut down.
With the meteoric rise in the sale of earbuds, there’s an increasing amount of speculation about what this means for the hearing aid market. Most miss the fundamental difference, which is that earbuds are selling in the hundreds of millions because consumers like them, whereas hearing aids are still seen by many as a product of last resort, because there is a stigma attached to them. That means that most people with hearing loss don’t go for a hearing test until around ten years after they should. If we could get rid of that stigma, and make hearing aids as popular as earbuds, life would be very much better for hundreds of millions of people.
Hearing aids are not the first products to have a stigma. I’m old enough to remember a similar situation with glasses. A child with a sight impairment would do everything they could not to admit it, lest they were labelled “four-eyes” or “speccy” by their classmates. Most children’s books up to the 1960s had a glasses-wearing child as the scapegoat of the story. Then John Lennon came along and all of a sudden, glasses were cool. Nobody could quite explain why, but glasses changed from being something you tried not to wear to being a multi-billion dollar fashion industry, which conveniently managed to restore your sight at the same time. Whilst the arrival of contact lenses threated their existence, glasses resisted the competition and remain immensely popular. You no longer make a spectacle of yourself by wearing them, and nobody would consider them as a “seeing-aid”. So how is that changing for hearing aids?
Do smart meters spread Covid? Of course they don’t. Not even the fake news community have suggested that. As regular readers will know, I’ve been socially distancing from smart meters ever since the British Government took what was basically a good idea and morphed it into a £15 billion IT disaster. Despite that, I still got Covid.
Do smart meters encourage fake news? Absolutely. Here in the UK we have a Government funded agency called Smart Energy GB, which specialises in misleading advertisements in an attempt to persuade people to install the world’s most expensive smart meters. I believe they may have the honour of producing the largest number of advertisements from a Government body to be banned for misinformation. But they’re not letting a little issue like that stop them from peddling more fake news.
Now that we’re about to enter a second lockdown in England, we should all be asking what the exit plan is? Last week the Office for National Statistics announced that 568,000 people have had Covid. In one way, that’s good news; if we can keep that infection rate up, we’ll all have had Covid within two years, so we can get back to normal. If it’s an underestimate and more of us caught it in the first wave, we might even manage to get to herd immunity by Christmas 2021. (I’ll come back to the “h” word later on). But nobody else seemed to welcome the news. Such is the level of fear which has been spread in the last year, that the very mention of these big numbers has been taken as evidence that we all need to lock ourselves down again. Epidemiologists are being wheeled out with scary predictions of just how bad it will be. Nobody seems to be giving any serious thought to how we might be able to live with Covid.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dickens’ could have written that opening line to preface an account of the Covid year for the hearables industry. Over the last six months consumer demand for earbuds has risen to an unprecedented level. In contrast, hearing aid manufacturers have been dealt a body blow, with sales tumbling by up to 75%. As one industry executive put it “we’d have done better if we were an airline”. Covid has also had unexpected effects on the service industries which have been traditional drivers of hearables growth. Audio streaming services like Spotify have seen listening times go down, while video streaming and video conferencing have experienced unprecedented demand.
As countries came out of lockdown during the summer, we saw further shifts in usage, but it’s apparent that overall, hearables have done well out of the crisis. That trend looks set to continue as we face a second wave of the pandemic and further lockdowns.
England has finally rolled out its Test and Trace app, which we are all being exhorted to load on our smartphones. It’s good to see that the new app takes privacy seriously, using Google and Apple’s framework. But nobody seems to have worked through the implications of what the Test and Trace app can lead to, which is Lockdown by stealth.