Airpods – a Speculative Teardown

On 7th September, Apple announced the demise of the 3.5mm audio jack.  Alongside that, they introduced their Airpods, helping to stoke the momentum for a new world of hearable devices,  The loss of the jack was a move which generated howls of anguish from the wireophile community, along with a flurry of speculation about how Airpods worked as well as what Apple’s new W1 wireless chip was doing.

Having been working with wireless standards and hearables for several years, much of that speculation seemed ill-informed.  Once Airpods come to market in October, companies like iFixit and Chipworks will take them to pieces and we’ll have a better idea of exactly what Apple have done.  But those first tear-downs are still a few months away.  So I thought it would be interesting to try a speculative teardown, based on how I might have designed them, and on the limited information which is in the public domain.  I also think I know what Apple’s second wireless chip will be, and it’s not the W2.

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Hearables at the Mobile World Congress

For most people these days, personal music means phones.  Although our love for personal music started with Sony’s Walkman, it was transformed by Apple’s iPod, launching the iconic images of wires trailing from our ears.  Since then, billions of users have moved to smartphones as the device of choice for personal music, increasingly using streaming services like Spotify.  So the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is a useful touchstone to gauge how that industry is taking note of the way we listen to audio.

For much of the last decade what we put in or on our ears has changed little.  Dr Dre voiced his frustration at the “sub-dollar earbuds” that most people use, as a prime reason for manufacturing his range of Beats headsets.  But it’s only in the last year that we’ve seen the emergence of real changes.  The first is a sudden growth in wireless headsets, thought to be linked to the rise in mobile video and the inconvenience of cables when holding a handset.  The second is the shipment of the first hearables in the form of wireless earbuds, which fit into each ear.  They started with two successful crowdfunded campaigns, one from Earin in Sweden, the other from Bragi in Munich with their Dash earbuds, adds the further refinement of health and fitness sensors.  Both are now shipping, along with Doppler’s Here.  In their wake, over twenty other hearable devices have been successfully funded and a growing number of established manufacturers are joining in.  So I was fascinated to see what the industry would be showcasing in Barcelona.

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Is Hearing Loss the New Diabetes?

The twentieth century has seen many revolutions in the way we live our lives.  One of the less discussed is that it has given us the mass ability to actively injure our health.  Over the last fifty years, the miracles of modern science have turned the medical profession 180 degrees, sending maladies to the grave rather than its patients.  To compensate, we’ve taken the opportunity to find highly successful ways of throwing that newly found health and longevity away.   Throughout the twentieth century we have developed generational and lifestyle diseases on a massive scale as we live longer and indulge our addictions.  From smoking and lung cancer, alcohol and cirrhosis, to fast food, obesity and type 2 diabetes, humanity has shown its unerring ability to put short term pleasure ahead of long term health.  Each of these diseases impact society, not least because of the cost of supporting a population which is avidly collecting a growing range of self-inflicted, long term chronic conditions.

Another one, which we don’t talk about and generally don’t want to hear about is quietly joining the list of widespread chronic conditions – hearing loss.

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Here today. Hearing aids tomorrow?

It’s been a good month for hearables, at least if you look at the $17 million that Doppler Labs has just raised.  But it asks the question of where hearables are going, as well as what consumers think they’re getting?

Doppler Labs started off life a few years ago with DUBS – a high tech earplug aimed predominantly at concert fans to help protect their hearing.  Unlike conventional foam earplugs, the DUBS are designed to attenuate fairly evenly across the audible spectrum, so they reduce the volume without distorting the music.  They appear to have gone down well, with the Coachella Valley music festival buying 135,000 pairs to hand out to attendees.

However, what has got everyone talking is Doppler’s recent Kickstarter campaign for their Here active listening earbuds.  2,855 backers pledged $635k to help bring them to life (and presumably to help close the external funding).  The questions are what those backers think they’ve bought and why?

I ask that because the Here is an interesting device.  If you’ve not seen it, click Here.  It’s not a music player.  If you’re wearing it you can’t stream music via Bluetooth or a conventional wire.  What it does, some may say all it does, is act as a volume control to attenuate or manage what you hear.  It’s almost like a reverse hearing aid, which helps you hear less rather than hear more.  Much of the internal technology is very like that a hearing aid, but its application and customer base are very different.  That makes it a very interesting product in the hearables spectrum.  I suspect it may have an important impact on the hearing aid industry, but not in the way many might imagine.

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A Happy New Hear

Last year I coined a new term – “Hearables“, for things you put in your ear. Much of what’s happening in that space is being driven by developments in hearing aids. Hearing aids have made immense technical progress since the first electronic ones were introduced to the market over fifty years ago. Few people remember those early ones – they involved large battery packs and amplifiers which people strapped underneath their clothing. But the benefits of better hearing were so great that people were prepared to do that. Today hearing aids are so small that you hardly notice them, whether you’re the wearer or an observer. The technology within them has also made incredible strides. They may contain multiple microphones, which, along with clever digital signal processing lets you focus on sound coming from in front of you, behaving much like your ear. They can also adjust the way they amplify sound to cope with different locations, from noisy streets to the office, restaurants and the home. The amount of technology which has been squeezed into such a small space is incredible, surpassing other high tech products like tablets and phones for the sheer density of electronics.

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Hearables – the new Wearables.

There’s a new bubble in technology – the wristband. Fuelled by Nike’s success, Jawbone’s on the Up, Polar’s in the Loop, Sony’s trying to Force its way into the game, while Fitbit’s aiming to stay as number One. (If you’ve ever wondered how branding executives choose their product names, that’s how.) Analysts are falling over each other to estimate how large the market will be by 2018. They’re wetting themselves at the prospect of smart watches, seeing the wrist as the saviour of the high tech industry now that smartphones have lost their Shine. (Which has nothing to do with the wrist, but that’s another story.) Currently Credit Suisse holds the prize for unwarranted optimism with a prediction of a market value of up to $50 billion for wearables in 2018. I think they’ve all missed the largest potential market for wearables – a category I’m going to call Hearables. The ear is the new wrist.

Analysts making these predictions almost invariably assume the wearable market is intrinsically linked with the smartphone market – currently around a billion units per year and worth over $250bn. To them, wearable seems to be mostly about smart watches and phones which extend small parts of the phone experience to something we wear. They ignore the fact that we still purchase smartphones to make calls. All of those calls send audio to our ears. As well as voice, hundreds of millions of people use their phones for music, as evidenced by the ubiquitous cables trailing from ears. Sound drives the bulk of our technology use and earbuds are the only piece of wearable tech to have gained ubiquity and social acceptance. These devices are about to undergo a revolution in capability, getting rid of their cables and giving them the opportunity to be the standard bearer for wearable technology.

I’m currently writing a new market forecast report for connected consumer wearable technology. It argues that the biggest potential market for connected wearables will not be for devices we put on our wrists, but the ones we put in our ears. By 2018 it suggests that we’ll be spending over $5billion on Hearables. Let me know if you’d like a copy of the report when it’s complete.

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