What is it that makes this technology so disruptive, and dangerous to the established hearing aid delivery system?
Why have most of the promises of ‘open platform’ technology that we in the hearing aid industry have been hearing about for the past fifteen years failed to make it to market?
With the rest of the consumer electronics market moving toward not only open platform systems, but also open source code, the hearing aid industry has stubbornly resisted all efforts to open their code, and in fact each manufacturer guards theirs, as being totally proprietary.
That means that while Sonova, Siemens, ReSound, Starkey, William Demant, and Widex work to solve the exact same consumer hearing issues, they do so in corporate isolation.
This competing, but closed software system even percolates downward into the spin off, or subsidiary labels of Unitron, Oticon, Rexton and Beltone, who all have their own teams of software engineers approaching the same consumer issues from even slightly different angles than their own parent companies.
This industry wide system has created a situation where control over the entire process, from chip architecture through software development, on down to and through access, and programming on the dispensing end is a process kept totally proprietary by each individual manufacturer involved.
This creates not only multiple programing interfaces and methods of interacting with the instruments being programmed, but also the need to find just the right software load, cable, cable adapter, or wireless interface (all again proprietary) any time the consumer needs service. Aside from the NOAH data base standards, there simply are no industry wided programing and interface standards.
This is not an issue as long as the consumer stays close to home, and where they purchased their hearing aids, but it becomes a real issue with consumers who travel a lot, and may need their instruments serviced far from where they bought them.
It also creates a rather isolated, and sterile development environment almost devoid of cross pollination of ideas with platform specific programing, interfaces and highly protected code running everything. Though everyone is working on the same basic engineering problems using standardised DSP engineering principles, it’s as though each company were its own ecological island, from a developmental standpoint, with each guarding their algorithms and even basic code jealously.
Contrast this environment with the enviornment created by Apple for their iPad and iPhone, and what Google is doing with its Android operating system. By opening their chip architecture and using source code open to developers, they have established a rich suite of ‘applications’ which can be purchased at their respective company stores that can be downloaded as desired, giving the consumer vastly more control and versatility from their gear.
How long before Adam Smith’s invisible hand creates such a market for audio applications that may be purchased, and downloaded as discreet applications to the equipment we formerly knew as hearing aids?
How long before this same invisible hand creates a market via the hacking of the current closed hearing aid equipment that will allow the users to select the level of sophistication that they want to load, not the ones bundled and predetermined by the manufacturer at the point of shipping?
While the ‘hacking’ of a hearing aid system isn’t something that we would expect from our fathers’ and mothers’ generation. The prospect of hacking becomes increasingly more likely as time goes by, as those using our equipment get younger, more computer savvy, and Moore’s Law continues to exert its influence bringing us ever more powerful processors with greater and greater memory capacity in smaller and smaller packages.
There is a point at which the invisible hand of the markets will make a hearing aid hack, inevitable as the potential power locked up in these incredible little gizmos just becomes too much for its owners not to tap.
So, with the capabilities already available, why hasn’t any manufacturer already opened their platforms and code to outside developers?
Why hasn’t the hearing aid industry embraced the idea of unbundled software applications that can be easily purchased after initial fitting and sale to be loaded after they leave their place of origin?
It is very simply that the first manufacturer to do so will unleash an entirely new way of doing business that is so radically different from the current business model under which the industry operates, as to upset everyone’s apple cart.
The industry simply haven’t figured out how to make it as profitable, as the current model and are absolutely afraid to be the first to introduce such a radical change in the delivery system. It would make too many people highly irregular.
Giving consumers control over the suite of programs loaded into their smartphone was easy by comparison. The demographic driving the use of smartphones, tablets has moved well beyond a small percentage of the population that can be considered in that five percent of what are called ‘early adopters’. Open platform, open source devices, with multiple uses, with software, or application algorithms, available from multiple sources, available across manufacturing platform have become the norm amongst consumers across the globe.
Can the proprietary, closed nature of the hearing aid industry continue to exist apart and separate from the rest of the consumer electronics marketplace for long?
How long can the industry cling to old, inefficient business and market models, that relies on the maintenance of regulations developed and adopted forty years ago, and never foresaw that the equipment that they were regulating would evolve the capabilities available in today’s chip sets and available in ear worn audio gear of all shapes and sizes?
How long before it is recognized that the hearing aid of the future is Not a Hearing Aid at all?