#Blockchain heralds a new railway age?

Last week, I suggested that digital currencies might be the new portals. Reflecting further on my work with Brave New Coin*, it also occurs to me that the growth of Blockchain resembles the railway mania of 19th century Britain. Hopefully it won’t end in the same over-investment and asset bubble – but there are some interesting similarities.

“Railway Mania” – Image sourced from Business Pundit

First, the railways displaced the canal system, just as canals overtook roads as the key means of transportation. For these purposes, if we compare roads to the Internet, and canals to the World Wide Web, then Blockchain is the next generation of the “information superhighway”. Blockchain and distributed ledger technology, along with crypto-currencies, digital assets and smart contracts are powering the “new” internet – the Internet of Things, the Internet of Money, the Internet of Value Exchange.

Second, and in a similar vein, the Internet was designed primarily as a means of communication. Then, the web enabled e-commerce, content distribution and on-line interaction. Now, Blockchain technology is supporting a range of new activities – such as tokenizing tangible and intangible assets; securing personal data and financial accounts; decentralizing networks, exchanges and registries; and validating immutable transaction data.

Third, the proliferation of public, private and permissioned Blockchains is prompting the development of technical standards for the design, architecture, security and taxonomy associated with this technology – as railway systems have implemented common safety and operating standards. There is also the need for interoperability between Blockchains, just as railway networks have had to address different track gauges among competing operators.

Of course, on the downside, railway mania led to heightened speculation, failed or over-optimistic prospectuses, and duplication of competing networks as developers sought to secure the most lucrative routes.

And let’s not overlook the issue of forking, which Blockchains are having to address in order to meet the demand for increased processing capacity and/or to iron out potential design weaknesses. In some ways this resembles the creation of railway branch lines – in some cases, these subsidiary routes would become more important than their parent main lines; and may even have outlived them, following the Beeching restructures in the 1960s.

Finally, for all the benefits that Blockchain undoubtedly holds, challenges remain with “on-ramp / off-ramp” access – a bit like disconnected transport interchanges or uncoordinated train timetables.

*Note: the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not represent the views of Brave New Coin or their clients.

Next week: Long live experts….

 

 

 

Music Streaming Comes Of Age

Last Saturday was the 10th International Record Store Day, an annual event to celebrate independent music shops. A key feature is the list of exclusive and limited edition vinyl releases, most of which can only be bought in selected participating stores – in person and on the day. But there are also loads of other promotions and live events, designed to get people browsing the racks in their local retail outlet. In an age when streaming services now account for the bulk of US music industry revenues, what is the future of the neighbourhood record shop (those that are still left, that is)? Will streaming services kill off digital downloads, as well as sales of physical product like CDs and records?

Despite the sense of doom that has permeated the record industry in recent years (if not decades!), there is also a feeling that, just as the internet has not yet managed to kill off the publishing industry, digital has not yet killed the radio star. The independent music industry in particular has found a way to survive, and retail stores are still an important part of the business.

So, what are the recent trends in music industry sales and business models?

First, the continued rebound in vinyl sales (at least in the UK) show that there is renewed interest in this 70-year-old format, with industry data showing a 25-year high (but not yet a return to the 1980s’ peak). Record Store Day is generally credited with boosting vinyl sales. And to be fair, even music streaming services have contributed to this growth, through curated content, recommendation engines and user preferences: meaning that listeners get exposed to a wider range of music and artists than they would from traditional Top 40 radio, and they get to explore and discover new music.

Second, digital downloads, once seen as the industry growth engine, are facing a pincer attack, from streaming services as well as vinyl sales. No wonder that Apple is expected to slowly and quietly retire the iTunes download store, and shift more focus onto its own Apple Music subscription service. The music industry (especially the dwindling number of major labels) didn’t really “get” the internet. Having just competed in the CD-format wars, the major labels then competed on digital file formats, and tried to lock their digital content to proprietary players and software protocols. Some of this reticence was justified – thanks to digital piracy and illegal file sharing – but they didn’t (and still don’t) help themselves by poor CX on their retail websites (if they have an e-commerce presence at all), and adherence to arcane geo-blocking.

Third, many musicians are benefiting from increased exposure via streaming services – although with Apple Music and Spotify seemingly leaving the other platforms far behind, the downside risks from a dominant duopoly don’t need spelling out. Especially as the royalty payments from streaming are generally much smaller than they would have been from physical sales, “traditional” downloads and radio airplay. This source of friction between labels, their artists, music publishers and online content platforms surfaced again earlier this month, in a spat with YouTube over fees for video streaming.

Fourth, in a new move in the streaming wars and the battle to win mobile screen real-estate, Australian startup Unlockd has just secured a deal with MTV UK to stream free music videos in return for viewing ads. It’s also a move designed to counter ad-blockers and locked screens, while finding another way to distribute sponsored content. Elsewhere, some mobile carriers are now including music streaming services as part of customers’ un-metered data consumption, although what this may mean for artist royalties and the revenue share from ad-supported content on Spotify etc. is unclear.

Fifth, as another example of how the music industry is having to adapt, UK startup Secret Sessions is using a combination of social media, independent/unsigned artists and major brand licensing deals to find new ways to generate revenue streams for artists that can no longer count on income from traditional sales-based royalty deals, especially with the diminished licensing revenues from streaming services.

Sixth, as further evidence that all is not well in the world of music streaming, SoundCloud continues to lose its way. Once the music service of choice for user-contributed content created by independent and unsigned musicians, it got greedy and has been subject to recent speculation about its financial health and future.

Initially, SoundCloud was all about the makers and producers – helping artists connect with their audience, via a simple but effective website and mobile app. It also meant that at first, SoundCloud charged musicians and labels under a “pay to publish” model, while listeners could simply stream (and sometimes download) all this content for free. Then, it alienated many of its earliest supporters and champions, by introducing “ad-supported” streaming (with priority access going to labels and artists with big marketing budgets, who could also attract/demand the lion’s share of the advertising revenue).

SoundCloud also seriously messed with the app, making it far less useful to artists, and then introduced its own subscription-based streaming service, SoundCloud Go. Only, it wasn’t satisfied with just one subscription model, and recently announced an “upgrade” – whereby the “old” service became “SoundCloud Go+“, and a “new” SoundCloud Go was launched. Confused? You will be….

Meanwhile, Bandcamp continues to outperform the industry, in terms of annual sales growth, and has become a unique platform that offers music streaming, digital downloads and even physical product. (Frustratingly, Bandcamp is still blocked from selling digital content directly via iOS devices – even though much of this content is unavailable on either iTunes or Apple Music. Surely that’s anti-competitive?) And now there’s an amusing string of “SoundCloud vs Bandcamp” memes doing the rounds which may say a lot about the respective fortunes of these rival services.

Finally, the last word on the current state of music streaming and digital downloads should go to the artist known as L.Pierre. He has just announced the release of his latest and final (vinyl-only) album under that particular moniker, with an accompanying artist statement which could be seen as both an indictment upon and a requiem for the music industry.

NOTE: Apologies to my readers for any confusion regarding the timing and accessibility of this post. Thanks to WordPress, this article “missed” its scheduled time, and the outgoing e-mail notification had a faulty link. Normal service will hopefully be resumed next week…

Next week: Startup Vic’s E-commerce Pitch Night

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne