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.
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.
Or so it appears if you look at where the funding’s going. This week Jawbone, maker of the Bluetooth headset and more recently of the UP wristband, managed to raise $93 million in debt financing based on sales of its new products, with the rumour of a further $20 million in VC funding to come. It’s not alone. Earlier this year Fitbit, founded on clip-on devices, but now another player in wrist real estate had VCs falling over themselves to give it an additional $43 million.
In contrast, the smart home market has begun to look decidedly unexciting. After the Nest love-in, which raised them $80 million at the start of the year, their German rival tado only managed a measly $2.6 million from its previous investors. I’d always tended to discount the Nest fundraise, not because of the product, but because of their heritage. Ex-Apple staffed start-ups in California with slick products seem to get VCs wetting themselves in much the same way as followers of the cult of Apple do at the launch of a new iPhone.
If you take a look at the media coverage, it’s also pretty obvious where everyone considers the action to be. It not what we live in – it’s what we wear on our wrist. Investing in Smart Home looks rather dumb.
Back in 2010, Mark Thomas, the head of PA Consulting’s Strategy and Market practice published a book called The Zombie Economy. In it he defined a Zombie company as one which is generating just about enough cash to service its debt, so the bank is not obliged to pull the plug on the loan. The issue with such companies is that they can limp along, and just about survive, but as they don’t have enough money to invest, they fall over once the economy picks up, as they become uncompetitive. The problem they pose is that by continuing to exist in this Zombie state they threaten the development of other companies, acting as a damper to more sustainable businesses.
It struck me that there’s a close analogy in the area of wireless standards where we have what are effectively Zombie wireless standards. There’s not necessarily anything fundamentally wrong with these individual standards, other than that they have failed to get traction and so limp along. Here, the problem is that they tend to jealously claim a particular application sector or market segment, blocking other more successful standards from entering. That has a damping effect on product development, creating silos which keep putting off innovation in the hope that one day the standard will gain traction, constantly delaying growth and interoperability. Because they’re not being incorporated into enough products, they have effectively lost their ability to function and have become half-dead, half-alive ‘Zombies’.
I think it’s time to recognise the damage that this is doing. Rather than pursuing multiple parallel paths, the industry needs to concentrate on a far smaller number of short range wireless standards. They in turn need to embrace the requirements of a wider range of sectors.
Most people have never heard of Appcessories, but they’re set to become one of the biggest growth areas of the decade, with a potential market value of over $130 billion by 2020, as shown in the new report “To Ubiquity and Beyond”. Most analysts have missed them, as they’re made possible by the convergence of a set of disparate elements coming together, most notably the incorporation of Bluetooth Smart in mobile phones and tablets, low cost and easy to use silicon for hardware developers, and published APIs which allows developers of phone Apps to talk to connected devices. Throw in the innovation that is arising out of crowd-funding initiatives like Kickstarter and indiegogo and you have the ingredients for a new revolution in connected consumer goods.
What is an Appcessory? Think of a cuddly toy for your three year old which interacts with the story on her tablet. Think of the stylus you use for sketching on your iPad, where squeezing it changes the thickness or colour of the lines you’re painting. Or a motor and rudder you clip on a paper plane which lets you control its flight by tipping your smartphone from side to side. LED lights that come on when you enter the room, which you can program the colour of, or which even sense your mood from the way you’re walking. Armbands that know you’re about to point at the TV and tell it to change channel before you even move your finger. Clothes that tell you they need washing. Many things that until recently were the preserve of science fiction, but are about to become possible and eminently affordable.
There are certain products that I’ve always wanted to see appear on the market. Not necessarily because I want to have one, but because they appeal to the imagination and the concept of what it’s possible to do. One of these is the Bluetooth toilet. It’s a product I’ve suggested should exist in various presentations I’ve given over the years as an example of something that may initially sound silly, but could be quite useful. My argument is that amongst other things it could be a valid way of checking how often a toilet is used, which could be an early indicator for prostate cancer. Normally you can count on the Consumer Electronics Show – CES, which kicked off in Las Vegas this week, for some fairly off-the wall, wacky products, but as far as the Bluetooth toilet is concerned, someone else got in first.
The first company that I’m aware of to wirelessly enable a toilet was Greengoose, who have a sensor that you can fit to the toilet seat to determine whether or not it’s been left up by the most recent male user. They see it as a fun application, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, just before CES got going I came across a far more serious Bluetooth toilet from Lixil in Japan. There’s even a promotional video of it.