Particularly interesting is the information on the differences between companies who evolve to thrive in this new environment, and those who don’t. Successful evolution in the digital age involves the breaking down of internal institutional ‘silos’ with their traditional command, and control management structures.
The comparisons of how the hearing aid industry operates to that of the openness of Google’s Android, and Apple’s iOS, when it comes to the applications that run their gear couldn’t have been more stark
Stop for a minute to consider the possibilities that would open to our industry, should hearing aid manufacturers open their gear to the same kind of outside application development pioneered by Apple & Google.
Consider further that a huge, and growing percentage of our entertainment, and information is now coming from the small screens of our smart phones, and tablets. All of the applications that do so, need some means of delivering the audio portion of that data, or entertainment to ear level.
While our industry is beginning to make inroads with connectivity to the greater digital world with some companies, and models offering limited control of the hearing aids from these devices, we lag in our ability to connect to the wider world. This due largely to the closed developmental environment that limits collaboration, as well as issues associated with ultra low drain communications, either near field magnetic, or radio frequency in nature.
The trends are clear however, wireless, personalized delivery of audio information from multiple sources presents a huge opportunity for growth in the area of high quality ear level electronics.
Which is what the hearing aid industry is all about. But, we just don’t see ourselves that way.
Instead of recognizing the fact that we are already using application driven devices, we limit our ability to see their wider application, and the expanded market potential for the very same gear. Why?
The current delivery system is not only the one that evolved when hearing aids were single use analog devices, but the inherent scarcity created by our highly regulated delivery system of limiting access, serves to raise market price. While mandated professional intervention, and protocols assures additional revenue opportunities for those providing such services.
Herein lies our industry’s greatest opportunity, and highlights best the obstacles that stand in the way of our enjoying them.
With the recognition of Personal Sound Amplification Products by the FDA, the Federal government recognized not only that the public didn’t need protection from everything we put in our ears that makes, amplifies, or modifies sounds, they also created a very clear legal distinction, without a physical, or engineering difference.
Call the device in question a hearing aid, and market it for the correction of a hearing loss, and it is one, by that simple declaration, and stated intended use. As such, it carries all of the regulatory requirements that have evolved over the past fifty some odd years, and in most states can only be legally purchased through a licensed professional.
But, the exact same device if it is not marketed to correct a hearing loss, is a personal sound amplification product, and immune from those same very expensive and limiting regulations.
The opportunities presented to our industry to sell vastly more of their products to a wider market is evident. The reason they haven’t already lies in the fact that selling to the masses alienates those within the regulated hearing aid dispensing community who have traditionally relied upon their gatekeeper status to protect against outside competition.
Very simply; selling to, and through the highly regulated hearing aid dispensing chain provides the highest per unit profit to all involved in the transactions.
The current delivery system has traditionally fed a lot of people from these profits, myself included.
While there will always be a need for audiological, and advanced dispensing services, the ability to control, or regulate the sale of hearing aids will continue to erode. This will happen even as their capabilities, as multifunction communications devices grows with each successive chip printing. After all, remember, it is only a hearing aid when declared, and marketed as such.
As more players from outside of our industry recognize the opportunities being presented they will bring more, and higher quality ear level audio processing to not only those whom we in the dispensing profession have thought of as our protected market exclusively, the hard of hearing, but also to a much wider, and growing market thirsty for high quality, ear level wireless streaming of their entertainment, and data.
One of the dirty little secrets of the hearing aid industry is the fact that it already enjoys an open audio programming platform through the gear it manufacturers. The problem is, and has been that our entire industry has been anything but open with who can write, and load the applications to, and for these devices.
Instead, all manufacturers within our industry have reserved the sole control of which program applications get loaded onto their devices. By doing so, they control their retail price points, reserving the highest, and most effective algorithms for their top end, and loading basic processing onto their budget product. Though the only difference between the two devices in question is that program load, and their price.
Through the highly regulated delivery system of the past, the ability to control these program loads provided the highest level of per unit profit, and is the reason all major manufacturers still use this method of pricing their products.
Yet, this closed system of program development means that collaboration is limited to within the particular company, as all guard their developments jealously.
This traditional, and closed system also limits severely the ability to innovate, and take advantage of tangential breakthroughs from related industries, or expanded market opportunities.
Imagine the potential market for a company offering a high quality ear level, wireless audio device with dual microphone inputs, and a receiver in the canal, like our RIC instruments, that is shipped with the ability to load any number of audio, or communications devices from the user’s smartphone, tablet, or home computer.
Imagine further that this bold company established an online app store that sells, or gives away not only it’s own internally developed program application loads for use on their gear, but also hundreds, or even thousands of different audio, or communications related applications, perhaps for things as diverse as name recognition, or bird call triangulation and ranging.
Imagine further that this bold company also gives away a free download of it’s SDK, or standard developer’s kit, allowing anyone to write applications that could then be found on their website for download, and installation onto their smartphones, and tablets to operate, and control their ear level audio gear.
Imagine the innovations, and improvements possible. While lowering the cost of the basic gear through mass distribution, additional value creation opportunities would also derive from customization of their program load, customized fitting, or specialty receivers, repairs, as well as program and system upgrades, much like is done now with everything from desktops to smartphones.
Opening the programming possibilities to whoever wished to write, and offer would allow us to serve a much wider market, at a much earlier age, in ways we’ve yet to imagine.
Very simply, the gear we use every day, and have known as hearing aids, is now capable of doing so much more, for so many more. That is, if we’d only let go of the limitations of our old ways of thinking of them as simply being a hearing aid. Instead, begin to grasp the greater opportunities at hand, rather than trying to continue to shore up those eroding gates, and the old illusion of our ability control the evolving market of application driven, ear level audio devices.
As, McQuivey observed of the winners, they were, and will be the ones who digitally disrupted their old ways of thinking, and doing business intentionally. He highly advises that we all digitally disrupt our own views, and ways of how we do business, lest it be done by players we’d not even dreamed of, in ways we’d not even dared to imagine.