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.
Today Apple announced their purchase of Beats Electronics for a spectacular $3 billion. It’s left many industry analysts scratching their heads. Although a little shy of the original, anticipated $3.2 billion price tag, it’s surprising how close it is to the amount that Google paid to acquire Nest earlier in the year. So what’s behind the new $3 billion price point?
There are some interesting similarities in the two acquired companies. Both were started for similar reasons – their founders were exasperated with the quality of products which were currently on the market. In the case of Nest, Tony Fadell wanted to design thermostats and other household products which were intuitive and worked, whereas at Beats, Dr Dre was exasperated that expensive music players and smartphones shipped with low quality earbuds which cost less than $1 and failed to reproduce the music. (The Register has a nice opinion piece on whether they succeeded.) Both companies have produced high profile, high end products to address these deficiencies along with very high media profiles for themselves and their founders in industries which have historically had little branding.