Forget 5G and the IoT – MWC 2019 was all about audio

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.

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What’s next for AirPods?

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.

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Hearables. A Lust for Translation

And lo, they spake in many tongues.  And verily, some of them even began to ship.

So beginneth the first chapter in the Book of Hearables.  We have reached the point where you can buy a device that you put in your ear, which can translate what someone is saying to you in another language in real time.  After several years of marketing and hype, consumers are suddenly spoilt for choice, with Waverly’s Pilot, Mymanu’s Clik and Google’s Pixel Buds all appearing within a few weeks of each other.  It’s Google recent announcement which has caught the public imagination, but that’s mainly a result of the scale of their marketing machine.  With less media attention, other startup companies have been quietly beavering away, mostly in the crowdfunded arena.

Anyone who’s been following the evolution of earbuds over the last few years will have been aware of the trend.  After Bragi invented the hearable category with their Dash earbuds, others started to experiment with different features and applications, looking for ways to make the things we stick in our ears do more exciting things than just play music.  A startup called Waverly Labs was the first to concentrate on translation, back in June 2016, when they launched a campaign on Indiegogo for their Pilot earpieces, which promised to translate between five languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.  Others weren’t far behind, with Doppler (sadly deceased), Mymanu, Human, Inspear, Bragi, Lingmo, TimeKettle and a host of others joining in the race to wean us off Spotify and Pandora and start us talking to our fellow mortals.  (Although if we’d rather listen to music than talk to people who speak the same language, it’s questionable whether there’s a massive market in wanting to talk to those who don’t.)

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Hearables sales could reach $45 billion in 2020

Back in 2014, when I reviewed the emerging wearables market, I suggested that the sector with the greatest potential would be hearables.  Over the intervening two years it has seen intense activity.  Over $45 million has been pledged in crowdfunding campaigns for earbuds and stereo headphones from almost a quarter a million backers.  The value of sales of wireless headsets has overtaken that of wired headsets and now Apple has added momentum by removing the 3.5mm jack on the iPhone 7, as well as launching their own earbud – the Airpod.

One of the key reasons hearables are doing so well compared to other wearable sectors is because they don’t need to work out what to do with the data they generate.  Every other wearable is a slave to the treadmill of quantitative feedback, where it needs to make the data it produces compelling, or else risk being consigned to the drawer of doom.  Hearables are bought for consuming existing content in the form of music or videos, giving apps developers much more time and freedom to play with the accompanying data.  That is a massive advantage over anything that you wear on your wrist.

I’ve just published a report on the hearables market which takes these new developments into account.  It shows a growing opportunity, even greater than I’d suggested two years ago, which could rise to sales of almost $45 billion in 2020.  You can download the report – The Market for Hearable Devices 2016-2020 here.

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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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