Design that Captures the Buzz

Headset makers have been stocking up on fashion talent, hoping Bluetooth's day would come. And now it has.

By Deborah Kong, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- They're becoming the new sunglasses. Bluetooth headsets, once exclusively the province of early adopters who didn't mind the cyborg look, have crossed over from geek to glam.

In a bid to make wireless headsets the accessory of choice for the fashion-forward, leading headset makers Jabra, Motorola (Charts), and Plantronics are nabbing designers from Apple (Charts), BMW (Charts), and Nike (Charts) and teaming up with big names like Dolce & Gabbana and Oakley.

HANDSOME RETURNS: Bluetooth headset sales at Plantronics have jumped 80 percent since former BMW designer Caddes came aboard.
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Sleek design combined with good timing - manufacturing costs are falling just as demand for hands-free products is rising - is leading to strong sales. Shoppers bought more than 55 million Bluetooth headsets in 2006, a 69 percent rise in unit volume over 2005. That figure is projected to reach 145 million in 2010 a $3 billion market, according to research firm Strategy Analytics.

Perhaps the strongest sign that headsets are a new "it" item doesn't come from a researcher: Try walking through an airport or an upscale shopping center without spotting a business traveler or a mall rat wearing one.

The new emphasis on design is definitely playing a role in sales growth. At Plantronics (Charts), revenue from Bluetooth headsets jumped 80 percent after it introduced a line of products incorporating former BMW designer Darrin Caddes's design philosophy.

"We really start with human anatomy," says Caddes, who grew the Plantronics design team from five to 16 after becoming vice president for corporate design three years ago. A headset is "literally worn technology. Much like eyewear or a sweater or shoes, it has a tremendous impact on how others perceive you as an individual."

After a motorcycle accident left Caddes partially paralyzed six years ago, headset design became an intensely personal issue. "Being in a wheelchair, you really need your hands for everything," he says. "Headsets became a very important part of my life."

While it may seem like a leap from luxury cars to headsets, when Caddes talks about Plantronics's Discovery 655, his language reflects the curves and planes of automobiles. "There is a clean geometry to that product," he says. "The surfaces are fairly complex. You won't find any straight lines in it."

By contrast, Danish designer Jacob Jensen created the delicately angular JX10 for Jabra customers who want a headset that looks like jewelry. Another model, the BT160, lets users choose from among 33 interchangeable covers to match their mood, whether it's "wild, sporty, elegant, fruity, scary, or just plain gorgeous," Jabra says. "You don't have to look like a switchboard operator or a corporate madman anymore." Headset sales at Jabra doubled in 2006.

Competitor Motorola, known for the sleek design that made its Razr phone ubiquitous, began offering colored headsets in 2004. Sold with scarves, Motorola's pink HS815s flew off the shelves in Europe, the company says.

"We're moving from the geek factor to what you might call geek chic, and now to a must-have fashion accessory," says category director Kristopher Rich.

What's ahead? Look for headsets to emphasize sound quality, moving from mono to stereo capabilities as more people listen to music and watch videos on their phones. And expect the market for Bluetooth headsets to continue to grow. Four states - California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York - and a handful of cities have passed laws requiring motorists who talk on mobile phones to use hands-free headsets, says Matt Sundeen, transportation specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Chris Ambrosio, a director in the wireless practice at Strategy Analytics, estimates that up to a quarter of cell-phone owners already have some type of headset - "about 500 million potential Bluetooth headset users."

Now they don't have to look like cyborgs unless they want to.

Deborah Kong is a writer in Berkeley.


More from the March 2007 issue of Business 2.0:

Are you paid enough?

The quest for the perfect online ad

Make way for must stream TV

Building a wiki world

A startup's best friend? Failure Top of page

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