The hearing aid industry right now is like a box of dry tinder waiting for a match. The tinder is a collection of digital and wireless technology standards that have the potential to transform a pair of smartphone earbuds into full-blown custom programmable hearing aids. The match is Apple’s iPhone.
With GN ReSound’s disclosure that it will introduce a new family of high-end “Made-for-iPhone” digital hearing aids this year, the race is on to provide seamless connectivity between high-end hearing aids and smartphones like the iPhone. Apple recently announced it is adapting its new iPhone iOS 6 operating system to connect with hearing aids and that it is “working with top manufacturers to introduce ‘Made-for-iPhone’ hearing aids that will deliver a power-efficient, high-quality digital audio experience.”
GN ReSound, which already provides wireless transmission technology in its popular Alera hearing aids that is compatible with Apple’s 2.4 gigahertz transmission protocol, will deliver the new iPhone compatible hearing aids in September, ReSound chief Lars Viksmoen told Reuters.
Apple’s Made-for-iPhone initiative is a potential game-changer for the hearing aid industry because it brings hearing assistance technology into mainstream consumer electronics markets. Every iPhone-toting Baby Boomer who has started experiencing mild hearing loss will now be aware that the coolest consumer electronics company on the planet has endorsed hearing aids and hearing assistance technology as the next big thing.
The fact that these technologies have all been around for a while is not what matters — most major hearing aid manufacturers now have wireless connectivity with peripherals that can stream audio from TVs, mobile phones and stereo systems directly inot their hearing aids. Rather, it’s that a consumer electronics colossus like Apple has the ability to create new mass markets all by itself. Case in point: there were plenty of MP3 streaming services before iTunes, but it wasn’t until Apple decided it was time for everyone to have an iPod that the market took off.
Will the same thing happen with hearing aids? Hold onto your hats.
Apple has telegraphed its serious intentions with two recent U.S. patent applications for new hearing aid technologies. Entitled Social Network for Sharing a Hearing Aid Setting and Remotely Updating a Hearing Aid Profile, they describe wireless technology enabling an iPhone or other mobile device to integrate with and control hearing aids. As with many technology patent applications, it’s unclear what specific consumer products might incorporate the technologies. But the fact that Apple is investing in the hearing-aid market and developing proprietary technology for it is a sign that the company sees a major opportunity.
With tens of millions of consumers with unmet needs for hearing assistance, one would expect to see double-digit growth in the hearing aid industry. But for years the industry has been stuck with single digit growth and, since the global financial crisis and recession in 2008, with less than five percent annual growth.
In fact, when ReSound parent GN Store Nord last week announced its second-quarter financial results, it proclaimed that its ReSound hearing-aid business had increased its share of the global hearing aid market. The catch was that ReSound grew its share of market with only a four-percent organic growth rate, outpacing the rest of the industry’s anemic three-plus percent growth rate.
Cracking the code for growth in the hearing aid market has stumped a lot of smart companies over the years. It will be exciting to see if Apple, the world’s premier growth company, can finally light the match that ignites the hearing aid industry.