The Downfall of Doppler Labs: Inside the Last Days of a Hardware Startup | WIRED

Oh drat. So Doppler Labs is no more. This is very sad.

I love my Here One bluetooth earbuds, have recommended them to many people, and would do so again. For simple noise cancelling they run countless rings around every other headphones and earbuds I have ever tried, including top of the line Bose devices costing a lot more (not that these were cheap). The moment that you turn the external sound down and enter a state of blissful silence is miraculous. But they are so much more than that: having entered that world of silence you can bring up sounds that you want to hear, notably the voices of people around you or (more specifically thanks to 6 built-in microphones) in front of you (or, for secret agents, behind you). It is quite eerie to sit on a bus and hear, with fair clarity, the conversations of people around you but to barely hear the rumble and clatter of the bus itself. It’s not always perfect, but it is still pretty remarkable. I’ve even been able to talk with people on a float plane, with massively reduced rumble and noticeably enhanced speech, almost normally. And it is marvellous to be cycling while listening to music while being able to hear approaching traffic and other significant things around me well enough to be safe. Or to wander through a park in the heart of a noisy city and hear nothing but birdsong. I particularly love being able to sit in a crowded bar or restaurant and to hear the conversation of people on the other side of the table but not those of the rest of the room (though it still has difficulty dealing with over-loud music). As a former professional musician with consequent hearing loss, this is transformative: I don’t need a hearing aid (yet) most of the time but, for those odd occasions when my hearing fails me, Here One provides a great solution. To cap it off, the sound quality for music etc is top notch – vastly superior to any other earbuds I have ever owned (mind you, they cost more than twice as much as any I have hitherto owned, so I would hope so). I suspect that at least some of the reason for this is that they store a hearing profile for me that knows which frequencies cause me difficulty and that therefore shape the sound to suit me better. They are basically computers for the ears.

There are weaknesses, some of which have till now been improving through software upgrades since I got the things. It’s a big pain having to control the buds from a cellphone for even pretty simple stuff like volume control. Though there are a few things that can be done by tapping them/double-tapping them (like switching off the noise cancelling or answering a phone) the process is unreliable and there’s a limited range of things you can do that way. The battery life, though improved since the first release and now quicker to recharge, is not that great, notwithstanding the fact that you can charge them two or three times from the case itself. I would prefer to be able to plug in a cable and/or battery booster to use on long flights without interruption. Despite multiple options for earpieces, they don’t always feel firmly set in my ears and, because the seal is pretty solid when they are inserted right, it can get uncomfortable on take-off and landing in planes, especially if you have a cold. And they don’t have a flight mode so, technically, I shouldn’t be doing that anyway. It is really annoying when bluetooth fails as, inevitably, it sometimes does (even though it may not be the fault of the earphones). It is hard to pair them with multiple devices, and the set-up for non-supported devices (anything that is not an iPhone or Android phone, basically) is gruelling and unreliable. It would be nice if they were waterproof. They stick out a bit, albeit not as much as most bluetooth buds. Sometimes they fail to turn off and cause feedback when returned to the case. But these are things I can live with, in return for wearing a completely new category of smart device that enhances the quality of my life.

I was really looking forward to some of the promised new features, especially real-time language translations, but I guess that will have to wait until it is a standard cellphone/smartwatch feature because it is no longer going to come from Doppler Labs. I am much more worried about the loss of support, and the fact that what I have now is what I will have for as long as the buds themselves last: it was one of the appealing things about them that they got better with each software/firmware update. If security flaws are discovered, they won’t get fixed. More worryingly, next time I change my phone (a common event) I may not be able to install the software that is essential to making them work at all. Even if I can, my experience with older iOS devices is that upgrades to phone operating systems often render older software unusable, so they could become a very expensive bit of junk very quickly. It would be nice to think that Doppler Labs might open source their software so that this is not a problem but, from the article, it sounds like they will be selling off the patents to the highest bidder and the chances of opening things up are therefore pretty slim. I fear there are not enough of the things out there in the wild to spark a community-based alternative. On the bright side, no doubt the brilliant innovations will be snapped up by a bigger, more sustainable firm and will find their way into more mainstream devices (Apple would be foolish to miss this one), but I will miss this company and I will miss this product.

This is the second high profile and apparently highly successful Kickstarter device that I have owned to suffer this fate, and I fear the outcomes will be similar. My Pebble watch continues to do basic service but I don’t know for how much longer. There has been nothing new arriving for it since the company folded earlier this year, and the apps it used to run are diminishing every week, as services that they rely upon fold. In olden days, we used to be able to continue to use our devices no matter what happened to their manufacturers. Nowadays, not so much.

I doubt that I will learn my lessons well from this as I am a great optimist when faced with a revolutionary new technology, but it’s something we all have to remember: software embedded in our hardware is an ongoing commitment, and we are surrounded by the stuff at work and at home, from TVs to cars to watches to lightbulbs to routers to phones, and so on. Increasingly, we’re no longer buying a product, we are buying into a service, so the quality and potential longevity of the company is even more important than the quality of the machinery. The only truly effective way to keep it safe, reliable, and sustainable would be for it to be open source and/or to use open standards, and for it not to rely on a single cloud-based service to operate. Sadly, far too little of the Internet of Things comes close to that. And far too much of it is hidden behind DRM, closed APIs, and other sinful mechanisms.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.wired.com/story/inside-the-downfall-of-doppler-labs/

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/2812321/the-downfall-of-doppler-labs-inside-the-last-days-of-a-hardware-startup-wired

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

Leave a Reply