Apple Needs to Lead, Not Follow, On Hearing Loss Debate

Peter Burrows

One reason for Apple's loyal following, and its remarkable resurgence in recent years, is that it is more focused on addressing its customers' problems than many other companies. It can usually be counted on to take quick action, either proactively (say, by adding neat new features to its products that you never realized you needed, such as the MagSafe power adapter on the MacBook Pro) or reactively. For example, it won high marks last year by quickly responding to concerns from privacy experts about its ministore; within days, it had given iTunes users the ability to turn off the feature if they wished. And in recent days has shown its ability to deal with rising concerns about malware on the Mac.

Now, there's another issue in the news that Apple needs to take seriously--potential damage to hearing caused by earbuds. Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey raised this as an area of concern in a letter to the National Institutes of Health in late January. Today, he made public a response from James Battey, director of the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders. The upshot: that while more research is needed, there's reason for concern that earbuds do more damage than traditional "ear-muff" style headphones to people who listen to their music too loudly.

Of course, Apple is not the only company that makes portable music players, or that offers earbud-style headphones. And given that there's no conclusive data as yet, the company is under no obligation to respond. Indeed, the company could easily take the path chosen by most corporations--not acknowledge there's a problem or even a potential problem until it absolutely has to (For example, when's the last time you heard a cell-phone maker advise the public that their might be a link between cell-phone use and brain tumors?). Such a "caveat emptor" approach is made even more defensible by the fact that we're talking common sense, here. What kid hasn't already been lectured a hundred times about the danger of listening to their music too loudly?

Still, Apple is supposed to be different. And this issue is potentially far more important to its customers than a scratched iPod nano or a bit of malware. So far, it's PR staff is giving a "no comment." The company needs to do better than that, if only to show that it takes this topic seriously. It could publicly offer to work with the NIH or respected researchers to come up with the conclusive evidence that is now lacking. It could consider adding a few words to its marketing collateral, to educate customers about the debate. And of course it could proactively look into earbud designs that might minimize the risks.

Trying to get ahead of this issue is not just the right thing to do, but it's probably the pragmatic thing to do as well--because this one is not likely to go away. Now that so many millions of people--particularly young people--spend hours with their earbuds each week, the research will undoubtedly get done. If this potential health risk turns out to be an actual health risk, Apple will have helped itself by being ahead of the curve--both in terms of competitive positioning versus rivals, by limiting exposure to ambulence-chasing lawyers, and by giving its customers one more reason to remain loyal to the company.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.