Bluetooth Headsets for Cellphones Finally Small, Affordable

PHOTO: Jawbone bluetooth earpiece
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Once a novel and noticeable protrusion emanating from the ear, Bluetooth headsets have become small, sleek, and not so expensive. According to NPD's Mobile Phone Accessories Tracker, the average price of a Bluetooth headset in Q1 was $51.58, and prices have held relatively steady over the past three years.

To maintain differentiation, headset companies have now turned to smartphone software to add features that could be awkward or difficult to fit on the limited real estate available on most headsets. Here's what some of the Bluetooth boosters are doing with bits:

BlueAnt Wireless. BlueAnt's app, available for Android handsets, is a pretty straightforward app that helps with setup and usage tips for use with BluAnt's rugged T1 headset. The headset, though, already provides voice instructions for setting up Bluetooth support, which are a bit out of whack with those in the app. Once connected, the app allows you to check for updates; plus, it contains a guide to the various voice commands supported by the headset. The app can also read back SMS messages over the headset at various speeds.

Jawbone. Jawbone cut its client software teeth with MyTalk, a Web site that worked in conjunction with PC software that allows users to personalize the headset. Jawbone users can use MyTalk to change what the main headset but does as well as the "personality" used to update you on things such as talk time. For example, if a user chooses "The Ace" vocal personality, a confident female voice tells you, "I'm activated, ready for action."

Jawbone has followed up with Thoughts, which is a nicely designed iPhone app that lets you record audio messages and send them off to your contacts using e-mail, phone and a variety of other means. Thoughts can also send messages to a group of contacts created within the app, plus transcribe voice messages for text delivery via a service. The service allows ten message transcriptions before requiring users to purchase more. This handy and free app works with any Bluetooth headset; in fact, it doesn't even require a headset, and it can work when the phone is used normally without the headset or with speakerphone.

Sound ID. The most intriguing and integrated app companion for a headset is EarPrint from Sound ID. EarPrint, which is available free for the iPhone and Android headsets, is a collection of utilities -- several of which are unique.

For example, one part of the software lets you customize the audio output of the headset by tapping at various points around the handset's screen. Another is a button that allows the user to find a mislaid headset by having it beep very loudly. (You'd probably have to be in the same room to track it down, though.) EarPrint is limited to the company's flagship headset and requires the latest version of the headset's firmware to be installed before using.

Plantronics. Like Jawbone, Plantronics, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, hasn't tied its smartphone consumer software to its own headsets; it has, however, done the most to tie it to revenue by charging for its apps.

Bluetooth Cellphone Headsets Grow Up by Shrinking

The company offers two apps. One is Vocalyst for Android phones and BlackBerry, which listens for various speech commands to carry out tasks like setting a reminder, reading e-mail, and speaking the weather. The app is tied to a Plantronics service, which provides an introductory year of the service with its headsets, and then charges $2.50 per month ($25 per year) to continue. For abut $6 per month ($60 per year) Plantronics also offers Vocalyst Pro, which boasts longer recording time, voice-to-text, transcription of SMS messages, and integration with more Internet services.

Plantronics' other main companion app, which has more of a business bent, is called InstantMeeting. Also available as a $2 download for Android phones and BlackBerry, InstantMeeting accesses the calendar on your smartphone to find conference calls and automates the work of dialing in and appending bothersome access codes. InstantMeeting can also redial a conference call number and its access code if the call is dropped. It can be a great timesaver, but the software's ability to interpret access codes accurately depends a bit on how the invitation is formatted; and, unfortunately, there's no way to test in advance whether it will work.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin on Twitter) is executive director of industry analysis at The NPD Group (@npdtech on Twitter). He blogs at The NPD Group Blog as well as his own blog, Out of the Box

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