Where Are ‘Made for Android' Earphones?

Wander into any electronics store and you'll soon come face-to-face with a wall of "Made for iPhone" accessories, especially earphones. Now, look around the store and find the "Made for Android" accessories area. No, go ahead. I'll wait.

Hmmm, hmmmm, hmmm, la de da, tada ta da — Gee, wasn't Irving Berlin a great songwriter? — Do dodo do...

Back? Find it? I didn't think so.

Which is bizarre, isn't it? According to the latest figures, Android phones comprised 36.4 percent of the smartphone universe, iOS "just" 26 percent, RIM/BlackBerry a shrinking 25.7 percent. Yet there are about as many universal Android-specific accessories as there are happy Miami Heat fans.

Here's why — and it's less obvious than you think.

I'm sure you think you know why there's a robust "Made for iPhone" accessory market and not one for Android — Apple has essentially one model phone and Apple can control its whole hardware/software/distribution ecosystem, while Android phones are made by a variety of hardware companies using a variety of Android operating system versions.

That's true, but not the whole story, especially where earphones are concerned.

First, you can buy accessory headphones for an Android phone — from the manufacturer of the Android phone. But HTC, Motorola, Samsung, et al, aren't exactly known for their audiophile acumen.

There are two Android-specific earphones available from bona fide earphone folks: the Shure SE115M ($150) and the Etymotic mc2 ($100), the latter also compatible with BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7 and HP webOS products when they get here. Shure also has an Android-specific accessory cable with an inline mic (CBL-M Music Phone Accessory Cable, $60) that can be used with the company's SE215, SE315, SE425, or SE535 earphones, which all have removable cables.

Other than that, the Android earphone pickings are slim.

Pin Placement

Yet, even though they're Android-specific, they aren't exactly feature-packed. For example, neither of the Shure nor Etymotic Android-specific earphones include volume up/down or track forward/back controls. Chris Lyons, a Shure exec, explained why in an email exchange:

An "Android phone" is like saying you have "a Windows computer" — it's a software standard, but the hardware can vary. So we also had to verify the implementation of the up/down volume control, and found out that different brands of Android phones require different switch schemes.

In other words, an up/down button that works with an HTC might not work with a Samsung, or the Samsung might not even support remote volume control. It wasn't practical to offer a distinct model for each phone model, so we ultimately chose not to include the volume up/down control, since we couldn't guarantee that the feature would work on all Android phones.

More specifically, according the Mark Karnes, managing director of Etymotic's consumer products division, it's a headphone jack problem.

You may have noticed, the male-end headphone jack has three rings, which divides the jack into four segments. The segment closest to the cable is the ground. The next two segments pass left and right audio, the tip passes voice.

Except that some receiving jacks on phones don't use that sequence. According to Karnes, Samsung often reverses the sequence for models in Asia. And, as he told us, "Nokia is notorious for reversing the pins, which is why no one builds earphones for Nokias except Nokia, which is why they don't sell any smartphones." Ouch. Meow!

Apparently, it was the carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile — who demanded 3.5mm headphone jack consistency. All smartphones, at least in the U.S., now support the same segment sequence.

No Central Authority

But getting the controls on the inline mic to work is about mapping those controls to both the operating system and the apps that use the earphone and its controls.

As we well know, Apple maintains a fanatical (some would say fascist) centralized control over hardware, OS and apps.

Google — not so much. Google pays little heed to headphone control parameters in its varying Android OS versions.

And since there is no oversight over apps, developers pay little or no attention to how volume up/down or track forward/back functions are mapped in their apps.

With no centralized control over any aspect of the Android un-ecosystem, no earphone control consistency is possible. So, no third-party earphone maker made Android earphones.

You Can Listen to Music on Your Phone?

But even if all Android phone makers and all Android developers configured their OS, their hardware and their apps to hew to single inline earphone control protocols, mainstream headphone companies still may not have produced "Made for Android" (or Made for BlackBerry) earphones.

Why? According to Etymotic, Android phone users don't use their smartphones to listen to music.

Now, don't shoot the messenger, because I was as stunned to learn this as you. But Etymotic polls its users monthly and, according to Karnes, 98.6 percent of its headphone buyers who own a non-iPhone smartphone still own an iPod, which they use for their primary music listening.

Karnes admits Etymotic buyers are primarily music lovers so this ridiculous percentage of two-device-carrying nincompoops likely doesn't carry over to the mainstream.

But that's still a stunningly high percentage that indicated a trend — that Android and BlackBerry phone owners didn't use their phones as their primary portable music listening device. And if you think about, you've probably seen folks listening to an iPod while checking texts or the Web on a separate phone.

But carriers tired of not raking in the profits other electronic stores earn on iPhone accessories and may soon demand a degree of Android earphone consistency, which may mean a wider choice of makes and models of Android-specific earphones.

I'll let you know.

About The Writer: Stewart Wolpin has been bloviating about consumer electronics for more than 25 years for the likes of DVICE, Tech Goes Strong, the American Heritage of Invention & Technology magazine, and elsewhere on the Web. Stewart is also an elector for the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame, and has written two books: Bums No More: The Championship Season of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, and The Rules of Neighborhood Poker According to Hoyle.

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