Back in 2010, I was the CTO of a small energy startup, designing connected domestic energy sensors, along with some fairly hardcore data analytics, to help consumers work out what was contributing to their energy bills. It was a fairly crowded market as small companies saw the potential for promoting energy efficiency to consumers and investigating ways to use emerging battery technologies to smooth out household demand and reduce cost. Few of those companies survived. Energy suppliers acquired some, then shut them down as they realised that persuading consumers to spend less money didn’t really fit well with their business model. The energy suppliers also had bigger issues, such as dealing with the Government’s impending Smart Metering programme. A few of the startups have survived and were looking forward to renewed interest arising from the UK hosting the COP26 summit.
A couple of months back I started to hear from them that promises to be involved in the events surrounding COP26 were being withdrawn, because space needed to be allocated to other companies that were “closer” to the Government. It seemed that what you knew was less important than who you knew. NetZero nepotism appeared to be kicking in. It felt reminiscent of what we saw at the start of the pandemic, where companies with engineering expertise were asked to help design and build ventilators. A few months later, those efforts were quietly put on the shelf. Instead, contracts for PPE and Test & Trace took precedence. They were easier for Government ministers to comprehend than real engineering, so could be packaged up in marketing campaigns and handed out to the Friends of Dominic and Matty. This week’s damning report from the Public Accounts Committee has described Test & Trace as “muddled, overstated, with an eye-wateringly expensive budget of over £37 billion, which has failed on its main objectives”. That £37 billion is not vastly different from what the equally muddled and overstated Smart Metering programme will have cost the consumer by the time it’s complete, showing that the Government is not generally the best judge of who can deliver, or the way to do it. If we want to achieve our NetZero objectives, it’s vital that we don’t go down the same route.
Today is World Hearing Day and the World Health Organisation has taken the opportunity to launch the first-ever “World Report on Hearing”. In it, they warn that more than 1 billion young people are at risk of avoidable hearing loss, with the total number of people predicted to develop hearing loss rising to around 2.5 billion by 2050. A key message is prevention, warning of the immense social and economic cost of hearing loss if this increase continues.
Yesterday, Apple pre-empted the report by releasing findings from the first year of their Hearing Study. Their report shows that the average weekly headphone exposure for one in ten participants was higher than the WHO recommended limit. They remind listeners that “while catchy tunes can be tempting, you should consider listening to music and other media at the lowest enjoyable volume”. It’s a useful piece of research, as it is collecting real data about usage, providing some of the most accurate information we have on what people actually do.
In contrast, Spotify is still urging users to turn up the volume. Last week, at its virtual “Stream On” event. Spotify announced “a new HiFi service, which will deliver music in a CD-quality, lossless audio format”. It claims that “fans will be able to experience more depth and clarity while enjoying their favorite tracks”. To promote the new service, they’ve commissioned a short YouTube video from Billie Eilish and FINNEAS, which contradicts almost everything that the WHO is trying to do promote hearing health. It appalls me that anyone at Spotify released it. Here’s a transcript and a brief analysis of the opening conversation.
In October 2020, the hearables industry acquired its first unicorn. Eargo, a startup making hearing aids, had a successful IPO, with its market valuation rising to $1.3 billion. It’s been on a roller-coaster ever since, nudging $3 billion last month before sliding back to $2.3 billion. Some might argue that it’s not the first hearables unicorn, as Apple acquired Beats for $3 billion back in 2014, but Beats was never really a unicorn. Beats had received a $500 million investment from Carlyle the year before, which gave it a valuation at just over $1 billion, but a large chunk of that valuation was based on their music service, not their hardware. Ironically, the success of Airpods means that Apple now almost certainly outsells its acquisition, making Beats the junior hearables partner. We’ll probably never know whether Beats played any part in the Airpod’s development, or whether it was a purely internal Apple development, but that’s history. The question on everybody’s lips in the hearables industry is “Who will be the next unicorn?”
The UK Government has just announced its latest initiative to make us into a technology heavyweight – the ARIA project. What we don’t know yet is whether the fat lady singing the aria is destined to be a consumptive Mimi or a brash Anna Nicole? If the scheme is set up and run by the same people responsible for previous UK tech development initiatives, it’s more likely to be a cut-price Florence Foster Jenkins. Which would be a great pity, as there’s a lot to be said for having a decent funding scheme.
Just before the Christmas lockdown, we were lucky enough to get out to see a revival of Sasha Regan’s excellent, all-male Pirates of Penzance in the West End, as well as treating ourselves to a meal at one of our favourite local restaurants. Having been confined to home since then, it started me wondering what would happen if you tried to combine the two experiences?
Last year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was the last big technology event to take place before Covid hit. The following month, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was cancelled, heralding in a year in which the traditional platforms for product announcements disappeared. That hasn’t stopped new products appearing, not will it; the design lead times for phones and TVs are at least two to three years, so even next Christmas’ products will have started off before Covid. The design departments for major high-tech companies are a bit like supertankers – they’re difficult to stop or change direction. Where the absence of exhibitions may be more keenly felt is within smaller companies and startups, who typically use these events to gauge interest in their products and visions.