Following Apple’s acquisition of Beats Electronics, it was only a matter of time before one of their main rivals, Hewlett Packard (HP), found a new audio partner. Not many know that Apple & HP combined their efforts some years’ ago. Unfortunately the partnership didn’t last very long and was not very successful (Source).
Teaming up with Bang & Olufsen, HP hopes to be able to tune up the sound quality of its laptops, desktops, tablets and accessories.
Bang & Olufsen will “custom tune” upcoming HP gadgets it will also deliver clearer tunes by isolating audio circuitry and reducing the amount of metal used in the headphone jack.
“Audio plays an important role in the experience customers have on their PCs, tablets and accessories whether it’s watching a movie, listening to music or Skyping with friends and family” said Ron Coughlin, Senior Vice President, Personal Systems, HP. “With their passion and expertise, we are thrilled to work with Bang & Olufsen to create exceptional sound experiences for customers”.
“Bang & Olufsen and B&O PLAY have a long heritage in delivering great music and audio experiences for people no matter where they decide to enjoy their media” stated Tue Mantoni, CEO at Bang & Olufsen. “We are excited to collaborate with HP to bring our iconic sound to HP PCs”.
On the software side, HP says it’ll provide a new audio control panel for customising sound quality (again, just like what Beats did). On top of the usual presets, the user will also be able to manually tune the way everything sounds - hopefully, with the help of a software equaliser.
While Bang & Olufsen is likely a worthy replacement for Beats’ technology, its brand doesn’t carry the same weight in popular culture. Beats, after all, managed to convince regular consumers that they needed expensive headphones. It’s hard to tell if the Beats logo on HP’s devices helped sales, but whatever leverage it may have had is now lost.
The first tranche of products with Bang & Olufsen sound integration is expected this spring. The more up-market Bang & Olufsen brand will appear on HP’s Spectre, OMEN, ENVY and selected commercial PCs while the B&O Play brand will appear on HP Pavilion PCs, tablets and PC audio accessories.
Bang & Olufsen Chooses Innovation Over Novelty
Every new Bang & Olufsen product looks, well, new, but if novelty were the same thing as innovation, every brand would be innovative. Only most brands aren’t (press releases notwithstanding), and the process behind the new BeoSound Moment illustrates why Bang & Olufsen is a consistent exception.
Introduced at CES 2015 last month, the Moment is a smart music player that integrates music collections and cloud playlists with an AI that learns listener tastes, activated by a touch-sensitive oak panel or, when the detachable interface is flipped over, a circular controller that associates colours and distance from its centre with mood and song familiarity.
“We look for innovative problems to solve, and not just what a product could do, but how,” explained Marie Kristine Schmidt, Vice President, Brand, Design and Marketing. The company was intrigued when the importance of context (time, place, people) kept coming up in its research of cloud-based music user experience, even though those qualities were rarely addressed by product functionality. Most devices not only did the same things in much the same ways, but looked the same, too.
“We questioned that status quo, and we challenged ourselves,” Schmidt said, which led it to adopt the centrality of those experiential moments as the raison d’être for the project. It also yielded the would-be product’s name before the project was launched (a company first).
Then, it innovated its innovation process, starting with how it developed the product brief. Instead of creating a brief for its designers, it made the step collaborative, bringing together internal and external engineers, designers, and its concept managers for a 3-day working session. The resulting document defined the performance benefits of the Moment but also, thanks to the forge of debate that Schmidt calls “friendly fighting”, it arrived with buy-in from literally Day One (well, Day Three, actually).
Interestingly, Schmidt also credits the company’s brand for its innovation success, but not because innovation somehow resides in it, as many business claim. External team members on this and other projects are initially attracted based on respect for the 90 year-old brand, then long-term relationships are built around that deep and shared understanding.
It’s not something the company promotes or even talks about often, but it helps it balance the inevitable trade-offs during product development. Knowing what you will and won’t do, and why, is as important as understanding what’s possible, popular clichés about disruption aside.
Then there’s the matter of the wooden interface, which is also a first.
“If you look at the design of most cloud-based devices people use for music in the home, you find a lot of metal and glass” said Lyle Clarke, Senior Manager of User Experience Concepts, and Creative Lead of the Moment’s development team. “We wanted the interface to look and feel natural, and live in peoples’ homes”.
Uniting this contextual focus with touch functionality yielded an interface that seems more kitchen chopping block than tech gizmo, and you can imagine the wooden click wheel ageing over time, much like a guitar fret-board. The flip-side of the panel presents a circular electronic controller that finds song genres by ambient colour, and tees-up more radically novel songs when tapped farther from its centre.
This jibes with the company’s litmus-test for innovation which, according to Clarke, is to understand people and the technology in their lives, and to create new ways to embed the essence of experiences that will strike a chord that resonates with customers, and grows over time.
Will it succeed? Its unabashedly novel appearance and functionality are unlike anything else on the market, and its qualities (like the new wooden interface) could be adopted by other manufacturers down the road. But even with a deep understanding of its niche customer, an MSRP of US$2795 is asking a lot.
“Some people will love it, and some will hate it,” said Schmidt. “The risk is that you try to please everyone, so we focus on our customers”.
Isn’t that what innovation is all about?
Actual numbers here certainly do not come anywhere near close to the trusted ‘80/20 rule’ that many managers live by, which supposes that 80% of sales tend to come from 20% of products on offer. As far as music is concerned, it’s close to a 80:1 rule (that is, if we can speak of a ‘rule’ at all).
Did you know that 98.9% of all music tracks sell less than 1,000 copies? Or at least in 2011 that was the case. So, out of 8,020,660 songs, 7,931,408 of them didn’t sell at all! (Source)
And with the advent of Spotify, Deezer, YouTube and all the other online music streaming services (according to Nielsen there was a 54% increase in streaming during 2014 to 164,000,000,000 songs (Source)) that figure four years’ later is actually likely to be much lower!
A few more facts for all aspiring digital artists out there:
- 73.9% of all digital music tracks sold fewer than 10 copies in 2011
- 97.1% of all albums available sold fewer than 1,000 copies in 2011
- 58.4% of all albums in existence sold fewer than 100 copies in 2011 (513,146 out of 878,369 available)
- 400 albums released in 2011 accounted for 35% of all music sales
- 514 songs out of 8,020,660 available in 2011 accounted for 40% of sales
Bringing the situation right up-to-date, only 257 million albums (CD, vinyl or digital) were sold in 2014, an 11% drop from 2013’s 289 million “Total Albums Sold” tally.
The compact disc in 2014 experienced the most frightening drop: after selling 165 million units in 2013, another 14% eroded off that record low total, with only 140.8 million CDs being sold in 2014. To put it in perspective, only two CDs went platinum in 2014: Taylor Swift’s ‘1989′ (3,66 mln copies sold) and the ‘Frozen’ film soundtrack (3,52 mln copies sold). No other compact disc hit a million copies in 2014; cappella group Pentatonix’s ‘That’s Christmas to Me’ came the closest with 736,000 copies.
And with streaming hardware such as Bang & Olufsen’s BeoSound Moment now available, sales of digital and hard-copy music is likely to fall much lower in the coming years… the death knell for the production of new music? Perhaps.