Taking Back the Market

Could iPods Become the Next Hearing Aids?

Tim Nash - 2009.05.19

With about 50% of US households owning iPods and Apple holding on to over 70% market share, real growth has to come from abroad and from new markets, such as encouraging low cost paid-for-podcasts to take over from Music radio, discussed in How Apple Could Change the Face of Digital Music.

Hearing Loss

Baby Boomers are now in the age group where hearing loss is more and more of a problem. Aging rock musicians, many of whom sacrificed their hearing to over-amplified speakers at gigs, typify the problem. Trouble is, in western cultures, few want to admit they are getting older, and hearing loss is a sign of aging. With younger people, it is a sign of imperfection and again something most want to hide, as it can also lead to prejudice because of the association with aging and diminished mental sharpness.

The natural reaction is to leave using a hearing aid until it is difficult to function without one, making this for many a vanity market. Ads typically show young looking older people with hard-to-see hearing aids. In other words, miniaturisation rules the current market.

Now, thanks to Apple, white earbuds are everywhere. Because of the strength of Apple's advertising and sales, white earbuds mean an iPod. So instead of trying to hide the hearing aid, people could hide it in plain sight with a suitably modified iPod and earbuds. While this will not solve the problem for everyone with hearing loss, it will for many - and in particular the majority who would benefit but still try to get by without a hearing aid.

A Big Market

In Europe over 80 million are affected, ranging from 7% in France, to 20% in Germany, and to 35% in Spain. According to the FDA, there are at least 25 million Americans who suffer (2005 MarkeTrak Survey found over 31 million). Judging from the European figures, and because of the vanity issue, the true numbers could be much higher.

From just the USA and Western Europe, the potential market is over 100 million, most trying to do without a hearing aid. While cities stay noisy and many people live longer, the numbers will certainly go up. Worldwide, the market could be larger than the number of iPods sold to date.

With a "special edition" bundle of a good quality small microphone/earbuds, the net revenue for Apple would be above the iPod's usual average selling price and could be $250 to $300 if built around the iPod touch. So for each 5 million users in this price range, Apple would add $1.25 billion to $1.5 billion in revenue.

This iPod would become a medical device and thus need appropriate FDA certification, but for many uses of iPods in hospitals and for at-home tests for sending to doctors, FDA licenses will be needed anyway. The demo of a glucose monitoring system from Lifescan at the March 20 keynote and the medical category in the App Store show that Apple wants a part of the healthcare market, so it makes sense to put a team in place to get the necessary licenses.


With the rollout of the iTunes U. there will be more and more reasons for iPods in the classroom. The faster iPods become part of lessons, the sooner Apple will have a stronger hold in education, and helping the 1-in-10 young Americans with hearing difficulties can only accelerate this. In the meantime, being able to keep their iPods on in the classroom when the others can't will lead to more kids getting treated earlier. It may also lead to fewer hearing-related, attention deficit problems in class.

This special edition will also make iPods much more attractive to senior citizens, a market that largely looks on the iPod as "something for teenagers" and has yet to take it up in large numbers. This is a market where many have enough income, above their largely fixed expenses, to afford to buy this. Taking over this market will also make Apple the most attractive option for speech-to-text software on mobile devices, as many like to see it in writing to make sure they haven't misheard.


This is also a chance to effectively build iPods into the infrastructure. Many theatres, cinemas, etc. have induction loops so those with hearing aids can listen to the sound while enjoying the performance. It would be cheaper to install a WiFi channel. Everyone else with an iPod touch or iPhone would benefit too, as we could have the level of sound we want, and it would cut out the noise of popcorn and people talking.

With foreign language films everyone would have the choice of dubbed and original, removing any need for subtitling. In the home too, we could get away from walking into a room where the TV or radio is blaring.

Generally, the more it is promoted for other uses such as recording notes and podcasts, the more acceptable it will become to have the special edition. With more and more buildings, businesses, and homes having WiFi, the more useful apps (especially business apps) will become available, and the more carrying around an iPod touch (or iPhone) will seem natural.

Being the first choice of many millions more should bring them to try out other Apple hardware. Vanity may bring many to Apple retail stores, where they can buy the iPod "for other reasons", particularly when they see employees using iPods this way. It will make buying the special edition part of the standard shopping experience and much easier for many to do.

In the future, the complaint that gramps doesn't have his hearing aid on will be even more true - he'll be listening to classic rock while his kids talk about the stuff he's heard before.

For another generation, one of the causes of hearing loss will be playing their iPods too loudly. LEM

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Tim Nash is a Director of WattWenn which has a new approach to scheduling the production of TV and movies to make the most of budgets. The views in this article are his own and are prejudiced from spending more years working for computer companies than he cares to remember.

Tim lives with his wife, her website on the area ariege.com, two daughters, a cat, and a dog in the French Pyrenees. He lapsed for a while after the Apple II, but became a Mac fan when his wife introduced him to the Macintosh IIsi. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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