Tech Tonic | Why Indian tech brands are dominating the wearables industry

In our conversations nowadays, we reference the eras before and after the pandemic. Often, that timeline is a helpful illustration. Some years ago (in 2016, pre-pandemic, just to be sure), a relentless pursuit for cutting the cord, in the form of wireless keyboards and chargers, arrived at the doorstep of earphones and headphones. The transition to wireless headphones was comparatively more subdued, but when earphones shed the wires holding us back, everyone seemed to want one. The Apple AirPods (the first generation arrived in 2016) served as an inspiration. Phone brands began to jostle for market share. That was before Indian tech start-ups completely took over.

Noise’s latest Buds Xero are their most expensive earbuds yet, and (right) Watchout is bringing a smartwatch and earbuds into one form factor ((official images))

Back in the early stages, phone makers understandably had a slight advantage. They had design and manufacturing lines in place – a follow-through from bundling earphones with the phones they sold or selling earphones as additional accessories. Xiaomi, Samsung, OnePlus, Realme and Oppo were some brands that thrived on pitching the true wireless experience. Prices ranged between 5,000 and 20,000.

For the first generation of wireless earbuds, Indian start-ups focused on introducing a new product category for consumers, with some products priced at 5,000 skipping some features such as noise cancellation to keep costs down. Subsequently, wearable makers brought prices under control due to the increasing scale and volume of manufacturing (which made sourcing deals easier to crack with vendors), as well as the market forces dictating the competitive landscape.

A couple of years later, Indian tech start-ups that had begun to figure prominently in the accessories business (wireless speakers, smartwatches and so on) decided to play the price, value and volume game. If I were to draw a parallel to the automotive space, it is reminiscent of Maruti’s strategy of offering multiple options to consumers in a particular price band, hoping that variety will click with different user preferences. A shade of that strategy has been incredibly successful with wireless earbuds too.

Let me illustrate this with some numbers, for perspective. The latest data released in February by the research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) pegs India’s earwear shipments crossed 80.4 million units in CY23, a 16.9% growth year-on-year. Within the broader earwear category, the Truly Wireless Stereo (TWS) segment has a 67.3% share, up from 55.2% in the previous year. Would you like to take a wild guess as to which brands make up the top five in terms of market share?

Indian company BoAt (which holds a 26% market share), followed by an indigenous firm, Noise (12.1%), which is followed by another Indian company, Fire-Boltt (10.1%), with the combined efforts of OnePlus and Oppo (totals to a 7.8% share) and rounded off by yet another company based in India, Boult Audio (not far behind, with 6.9% share). This is, through the year, a complete domination by Indian tech start-ups, and the reasons for that are multi-pronged.

When most of us think of wireless earbuds, our brain tricks us into a visual recollection of Apple, Samsung, or audio legacy brands such as Sony and Marshall, or even the likes of Google or Nothing. Despite this, the leading factor behind consumer choice and portfolio curation remains: more is better. The sheer variety available for consumers is bound to find success. BoAt, for example, lists as many as 130 TWS earbud options between 899 and 4,999. Different variations, but similar trajectories of approach for Noise, Fire-Boltt and others. There are often slight variations between similar-looking products but that is the deciding factor for a consumer. None of the legacy audio brands or phone makers can maintain that width in their product portfolio. It wouldn’t make financial sense for them, outside of their core business.

This broad choice has likely worked in a largely price-sensitive demographic of new buyers and first-time adopters because of the price range. Experimental purchases often come with some restraint on the budget, but that challenge was largely eliminated. Making these products in India has helped open margins, and therefore price tags continue to hold value.

Even though a method for success has been decoded, there is still an active push to innovate. Another Indian tech start-up, the Mumbai-based Watchout Wearables (they’ve been seen on the popular TV show, Shark Tank) has come out with a new experimental product that has (mostly) successfully blended a smartwatch and wireless earbuds into a single device. My tests of the WearPods, as they are called, illustrated how their smartwatch performs quite well, even though earbuds (built-in and detachable from the smartwatch itself) need a broader set of features for tweaking sound profiles. Those are small details to work out, and they will. For a user, the proposition is incredibly convenient.

Then there is the push towards premiumisation. Noise’s latest product, Buds Xero, not only holds a much higher price tag (around 4,499) but also boasts of a wider set of features such as adaptive noise cancellation, titanium audio drivers and a water-resistant build, which justifies the higher price. Compare this with their second most expensive Air Buds Pro 2, which holds a price of around 2,699. There is a need to climb up the price ladder. Premium products that justify price tags, while still leaving room for value perception, is the next step.

Vishal Mathur is the technology editor for the Hindustan Times. Tech Tonic is a weekly column that looks at the impact of personal technology on the way we live, and vice-versa. The views expressed are personal.

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