Or, how about a system that would only operate it's own manufacturer's software?
Yet, that is the very state of today's hearing aid industry. Burdened not only with regulations, and protocols designed, and written for an analog age, the hearing aid industry, like few others is trapped in an analog business model as well.
This industry wide, and willful failure to innovate, is limiting both the number of people wearing their products, as well as how their products are used by a potential market that dwarfs the one they now serve.
There is no doubt, nor argument that the ear level audio gear being produced, and sold by all of the major hearing aid manufacturers today is capable of amazing feats of audio signal processing.
The ability to amplify specific, narrow bandwidths of sound, based upon their type, location, classification, and the intensity of particular sounds, and sound environments, by these same manufacturers, is well documented. It is what allows them all to offer the advanced features of the products they provide.
All of these advanced features, and benefits derive from very complex algorithms running on ultra low drain, ear level, high speed, audio computers. And, all of these manufacturers have made the same business decisions about how these little ear level audio computers, with their signal processing applications, and amplifiers are to be priced, and delivered to the public, or dispensing professional, who does ultimately deliver them to the public.
Currently, no major manufacturer ships any of these amazing little audio computers in an open platform state that would allow either a hearing care professional, or consumer to pick, or change the programs loaded onto these incredible little devices.
At the time of this writing, no known hearing aid manufacturer offers any of their top tiered products in anything but a good, better, or best delivery and pricing option, where the total program package running on the devices is encoded by them prior to shipping.
While the output, and type of programs being run may be adjustable by a hearing care professional, or even consumer in some cases, none are free to change the overall program load.
None of today's major hearing aid manufacturer's equipment run an 'open' operating system.
None share their source code, nor offer developer's kits to encourage others to write applications for their gear.
All hold their operating systems, and program algorithms, as closely held, and guarded corporate secrets.
All continue to price, and sell their gear in the fixed good, better, and best price points established in the analog era, when there were actual, physical differences in the circuitry involved, and the equipment involved was a single use device, a hearing aid, and only a hearing aid. Where as the situation today involves the same chips simply being loaded with any number of different sets of program applications.
Currently, all of the program applications of any particular hearing aid manufacturer are created by, and loaded onto the gear, solely by this same manufacturer, prior to shipping.
However, due to the inherent processing, and wireless communications capabilities of the equipment today, it is capable of far more than the simple amplification of near field sound environments, which is the very thing defining the function of the hearing aids of the analog age, along with their evolved regulations, protocols, and high profits of the highly regulated delivery system that evolved along with them.
By maintaining total control, and operating from within closed corporate silos, using proprietary operating systems, the hearing aid industry has so far, been able to maintain the incredibly high per unit profits that come courtesy of a single use, analog heritage, with it’s regulatory protections, and the market restrictions afforded the medical device description, and designation that attaches to all things hearing aid.
So, while it is clear that the entire hearing aid industry has developed products that are truly amazing, it is also true that the entire hearing aid industry continues to perpetuate a delivery system that grew up around the definitions, protections, and profits afforded by the single use medical device description.
It is also clear that the entire industry continues along this path, because this protected medical model of dispensing continues to allow for the largest per unit profit possible, for all involved.
Now, take a minute to compare how the hearing aid industry treats the users of its gear, with how Apple, Google, and Amazon have approached application driven computing, and their customers.
Everything about these companies, their products, and systems is about openness.
From their operating systems, to the way both Apple, and Google have not only opened their operating systems for others to write applications to, they’ve both gone so far as to give away their programing tool kits, or SDKs, and set up entire websites devoted to the distribution, and sale of the hundreds of thousands of applications that can now run on their devices. While Amazon opened up it’s vendor associations to include thousands of small local merchants, and businesses who are free to offer their goods, and services on their shopping site.
In doing so, these companies not only created great wealth for their own stockholders, but allowed for others to create value, and wealth through the creation of program applications the original manufacturers hadn’t even envisioned.
As you begin to get your head around the huge differences between the closed system of hearing aids, and the totally open system of smartphones, and tablets, consider the likelihood of the following two statements being true.
An ever growing segment of the population gets their entertainment, news and data from the small screens of their smartphones, or tablets.
These same smartphone, and tablet users would likely enjoy high quality, wireless, ear level, stereo streaming of their audio entertainment, and voice communications, and in doing so create a growing market for anyone who can fill their personal audio delivery expectations.
Interestingly, most all of the top tiered offerings on the market today from all our major hearing aid manufacturers are capable of fulfilling those expectations, and a whole lot more. Some would currently need an intermediary dongle to do so. Some, like the Starkey Halo are currently capable of high quality stereo audio streaming directly from an iPhone, or iPad.
However, none publish their operating system, much less provide an open platform, or toolkit for program developers.
By clinging to a closed operating, development, and distribution system designed, and regulated for a single use analog era, while producing, and using an open digital system internally, the hearing aid industry has set itself up as a prime candidate to be hacked.
The ability to maintain that traditionally high per unit profit margin is already under assault, and breaking down, as more and more consumers turn to alternative sources and markets.
These alternatives already include such outlets as Hearing Planet, Costco, Sam’s Club, HealthInnovations and others.
In the digital era of application driven audio of the gear the industry produces, and uses, and with the only difference between personal sound amplification products, and hearing aids, being their declared use, and how they are sold, this legal distinction without a physical difference presents opportunities, and opens markets that dwarf that of the current hearing aid market, for the same physical gear.
This wider, evolving market presents also the opportunity to the first savvy manufacturer, or marketer who fills these needs, and expectations well, the opportunity to become the next got to have, too cool, personal audio system that becomes the ear level audio label of the next generation.
Where is this bold new ear level audio giant and household label of the future?
For though there are six major hearing aid manufacturers, whose gear could easily be opened to fill the wider audio, and communications needs of this greater market, the missing ingredient from all of them remains the simple boldness, and vision needed to redefine their products beyond their single use definition of the past, and to open their systems to the writing of applications by those outside of their company, and even our industry.
Such boldness would require the recognition that control of a closed, and regulated analog delivery system, in an open digital world is a fading illusion of the past.
The industry’s delivery system is already being hacked by such as HealthInnovations.
Whether one of the “big six” in our industry will open their operating systems, and sell their devices as open platform audio devices capable of being not only operated, but programmed by their owners, via the same smartphones, and tablets they are using to stream with, remains an open question.
What does not remain in question however, is the size of the potential market now. This potential market already dwarfs that of the hearing aid market, is international, and is continuously growing, extending potentially to every smartphone and tablet user on the planet.
The bold companies of the future will understand that in an application driven, digital world, function is defined by the applications running, and not by the devices running them. They will be the companies who open their operating systems, software development, and who market their products well beyond their single use as hearing aids.
They will also be the companies to reap profits far beyond those who continue to define, and sell the same goods, as though they were still the single use, analog devices of the past through a delivery system developed in the middle of the last century.
The question for the leadership of the ‘big six’, and our entire industry, isn’t whether their products, and delivery systems are to be hacked, that’s already happening. But rather, their question is whether to hack them themselves, and open their closed systems, and innovate not only their products, but how they are sold, delivered, serviced, programmed, and repaired.
Or, will they continue clinging to the analog ways of defining products, and business models of the past century, while allowing some unknown, outside player to recognize the equipment of today for what it is, and hack the entire industry from the outside, using the chips, parts, technologies, and software that have been developed for the closed hearing aid industry, in an open and unexpected way?
To hack, or to be hacked, that is the question!