There haven’t been a lot of positives about the Covid lockdowns, but one of the few which has been widely reported is that we can hear birdsong again. As traffic volume has diminished and we work at home, the level of noise around us has fallen to a point that most of us can’t remember. It means that we can hear things we haven’t heard for many years. On the flip side, we’re missing the sound of social interaction. As restrictions are relaxed, it’s interesting to consider whether we have learnt anything from this period of unexpected quietness and how it might change our lives going forward.
Who could have guessed, back in 2014, that a Kickstarter campaign would lead to an $80 billion market segment in just over a decade? But that’s what is happening with hearables, where a new report predicts that it will reach that size in 2025.
The growth of earbuds, which are now the “must-have” hearable for around 80 million users, has turned into the fastest growing consumer electronics product sector ever, eclipsing even the iPhone. That growth is set to accelerate even more with the launch of a new Bluetooth LE Audio standard at CES 2020, which allows designers even more freedom, higher quality and new audio applications.
It all started when Bragi managed to raise almost $3.4m dollars for a new concept – a set of stereo earbuds which could stream music as well as measuring your vital signs. A raft of other startups managed to raise over $50 million in crowdfunding investment between them before Apple arrived with their AirPods, and the rest is history.
In the five and a half years since I coined the term “Hearables” the market has grown at an amazing rate. At the time I estimated that the market for the things we put in our ears might grow to $7.6 billion in 2018. I think it just nudged over that to reach $7.8 billion. What I hadn’t anticipated was the success of Apple’s Airpods, which are driving adoption even faster, more or less doubling their sales volume every year. With the recent launch of Amazon’s Echo Buds, which could attract a new audience with the promise of a life which is “Always Alexa”, as well as the availability of a growing number of Bluetooth enabled hearing aids, the market looks as if it could reach $22 billion in 2020.
Hearables had a slow start. Although Apple probably started its Airpod design project as far back as 2013, the first thing that the public saw was Bragi’s Kickstarter campaign for their Dash earbuds. In March 2014, the Dash became famous as the most heavily funded Kickstarter project, raising $3.4 million. Another crowdfunded startup – Earin, beat them to market by a few months, but Bragi eventually got the Dash out in February 2016. In that first year of hearables, (or the first fifty-one weeks, as Apple finally started shipping Airpods in the last week of the year), global shipments from all manufacturers were probably not much more than 100,000 units, most of which were the early MFI compliant Bluetooth hearing aids. In that last week of 2016, Apple probably sold more Airpods than the rest of the industry had shipped through the course of the year. Four years on from that humble start, 2019 will probably see 75 million sets of hearables shipped. That makes hearables the fastest growing tech product ever.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the largest in the world, with around 2,500 different performances taking place each day. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors over the course of three weeks, sells almost three million tickets and showcases some of the best performances from around the world. It also seems to attract the world’s worst sound technicians, who think that volume is the only thing that matters. So it was refreshing to find a couple of shows this year which highlighted the issues of hearing loss. Around a quarter of us will experience hearing loss during our lives, so it is important that people become more aware of how to protect their hearing, as well as understanding the consequences of hearing loss and for society to remove the stigma of wearing hearing aids.
Mobile World Congress is an odd event. It’s where the GSMA attempts to set the mobile agenda for the coming year, where major infrastructure deals are done behind closed doors and where the rest of the industry shows off its latest products. This year, the big message was that 5G is coming, whatever that may be. The IoT was relegated to something that’s mainly happening in China and the startup community. What I found interesting was that audio was far more prominent than I can recall in any of the last 30 years of MWC and its predecessor shows.
There’s growing speculation that Apple will be launching their next generation of AirPods sometime this year, so I thought it would be interesting to try to predict what might be in their next generation of earbuds. The hearables market is moving very quickly and there’s no shortage of technology for Apple to choose from. But the AirPods are a little different to anything else that Apple has ever brought to market.
The biggest difference is the way it has changed their development model. Historically, Apple is a follower. They don’t invent product categories – they wait for other major companies to create the market, then come in with a slicker product which delights customers. They concentrate on everything which is needed for people to feel that Apple invented the experience. After that, they create clear water between themselves and their competitors by constantly increasing the level of delight. The AirPod is arguably the first product where Apple have made the market themselves. There was a smattering of crowdfunded earbuds before the AirPods were announced, but they were only shipping in tens of thousands. In contrast, AirPods are shipping in the millions. For once, Apple wasn’t competing with established industry giants, but small, often poorly funded startups. That’s what makes the question of what might be in an AirPod 2 or AirPod 3 so interesting.