A main use of my iPad is creating music. In my experience, iOS has provided a convenient and relatively low-cost way to explore and experiment with music synthesis, sampling, looping, audio processing, programming, sound design, production and dissemination of my semi-amateur home-studio recordings. The numerous developers involved in creating music-related apps have produced some of the most innovative products available.
At times, these developers have pushed the envelope when it comes to app design, functionality and interoperability. Even though many of these developers are involved with the design and production of hardware instruments and technology, and writing software for laptop and desktop computers, they also recognise that the iPad offered another way to interface with digital music tools. In some cases, iPad apps can connect to or interact with their hardware and software counterparts (e.g., touchAble).
Elsewhere, developer vision has pre-empted and even overtaken Apple’s own product design. A good example is IAA (Inter-App Audio), introduced by Apple in 2013. While some app developers were quick to adopt this feature into their own products, in the same year the team at Audiobus took this functionality to another level, with a fully integrated platform within iOS that allows multiple apps to be connected virtually. Eventually, in 2019, Apple countered by upgrading their own Audio Unit (AU) infrastructure that introduced another way to connect separate apps.
There remain some anomalies in Apple’s approach to competing music apps and their commercial models. Although Apple has enabled developers to offer in-app purchases and upgrades, it is noticeable that to this day, Bandcamp does not sell digital music via its mobile app (thought to be due to Apple’s hefty sales commission on digital content?); but Bandcamp customers can purchase physical goods via the app. While over on the SoundCloud app, users can purchase in-app subscriptions offering ad-free streaming and off-line content, but Spotify customers cannot purchase similar premium streaming services within the corresponding app.
The latest move from Apple has got some developers quite excited. As well as bringing its professional video editing suite, Final Cut Pro, to iPad, Apple has launched an iPad version of Logic Pro, its professional music DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Now, I don’t have a problem with this, and I can see the attraction for both app developers and Logic Pro users.
I myself use Ableton Live (and not Logic Pro or Apple’s consumer-level product, GarageBand), so I am not planning to add another desktop DAW. Besides, Ableton enables third party developers to integrate their AU and VST plug-ins on Mac. In addition, Ableton has launched a mobile app, Ableton Note, that can interact with the desktop program, which just confirms the co-existence of these platforms, and user preference for interoperability.
My concern is that with the introduction of Logic Pro on iOS, Apple may close off some inter-app functionality to third party apps if they do not support integration with Logic Pro. We’ve seen the way Apple can shut down external innovation: without getting too technical, until 2021, and with a little effort, users could run iOS music apps on their Macs, and within DAWs such as Ableton. Apple then closed off that option, but more recently has enabled iOS-derived AUv3 plugins to run on M1 chip-enabled Macs.
Hopefully, Apple recognises that an open ecosystem encourages innovation and keeps people interested in their own products, as well as those from third-party developers.
Following a recent upgrade to Apple’s iOS software, I found myself forced into some serious housekeeping on my iPad. I hadn’t realised how many dormant apps I had accumulated over the years, so I took the opportunity to do some culling.
First, there were apps that could no longer be accessed from the app store. These are programs that have been removed by their developers, or are no longer available from the Australian app store (yes, even in this digital day and age, geo-blocking still exists). I estimate that these accounted for about 20-30% of the total apps I have ever downloaded.
Second, apps that are not supported by the current version of iOS, because they have not yet been updated by their developers. (Luckily, I keep an older version of iOS on a separate iPad, which can allow me to retrieve some of these apps via some digital archeology.) These represented another 15-25% of my apps (a variable number, given that some of them may get upgraded).
Third, apps that I seldom or never use. Thankfully, the iPad Storage settings provide the “Last Used” date, but don’t enable users to rank by chronological use (or by frequency of usage; the “Search” function within Storage only lists apps alphabetically). Perhaps Apple can refine the Storage Management to help users better manage over-looked/under-used apps? Anyway, these forgotten or neglected apps accounted for another 25-30%.
In total, I estimate that up to 75% of my iPad apps were redundant, through disuse, obsolescence or inaccessibility. Research shows that 25% of apps we download are only used once, so unless these are free products, it feels like a large chunk of the US$900+ bn in app purchases could be going to waste…
Next week: Apple, iOS, and the need for third-party innovation
Anyone familiar with product development should recognise the image below. It’s a schematic for a start-up idea I was working on several years ago – for an employee engagement, reward and recognition app. It was the result of a number of workshops with a digital agency covering problem statements, user scenarios, workflow solutions, personas, UX/UI design and back-end architecture frameworks.
At the time, the cost quoted to build the MVP was easily 5-6 figures – and even to get to that point still required a load of work on story boards, wire frames and clickable prototypes….
Now, I would expect the developers to use something like a combination of open-source and low-cost software applications to manage the middle-ware functions, dial-up a basic cloud server to host the database and connect to external APIs, and commission a web designer to build a dedicated front-end. (I’m not a developer, programmer or coder, so apologies for any glaring errors in my assumptions…)
The growth in self-serve SaaS platforms, public APIs and low-cost hosting solutions (plus the plethora of design marketplaces) should mean that a developer can build an MVP for a tenth of the cost we were quoted.
There are obvious limitations to this approach: anything too complex, too custom, or which needs to scale quickly may break the model. Equally, stringing together a set of black boxes/off-the-shelf solutions might not work, if there are unforeseen incompatibilities or programming conflicts – especially if one component is upgraded, and there are unknown inter-dependencies that impact the other links in the chain. Which means the product development process will need to ensure a layer of code audits and test environments before deploying into production.
I was reflecting on the benefits and challenges of hermetically sealed operating systems and software programs over the weekend. In trying to downgrade my operating system (so that I could run some legacy third-party applications that no longer work thanks to some recent systems and software “upgrades”), I encountered various challenges, and it took several attempts and a couple of workarounds. The biggest problem was the lack of anything to guide me in advance – that by making certain changes to the system settings, or configuring the software a certain way, either this app or that function wouldn’t work. Also, because each component (the operating system, the software program and the third party applications) wants to defend its own turf within my device, they don’t always play nicely together in a way that the end user wants to deploy them in a single environment.
App interoperability is something that continues to frustrate when it comes to so-called systems or software upgrades. It feels like there needs to be a specialist area of product development that can better identify, mitigate and resolve potential tech debt, as well as navigate the product development maintenance schedule in anticipation of future upgrades and their likely impact, or understand the opportunities for retrofitting and keeping legacy apps current. I see too many app developers abandoning their projects because it’s just too hard to reconfigure for the latest system changes.
Taking its cue from some of the economic effects of the current pandemic, the latest Startupbootcamp Melbourne FinTech virtual demo day adopted the theme of financial health and well-being. When reduced working hours and layoffs revealed that many that people did not have enough savings to last 6 weeks, let alone 6 months, lock-down and furlough have not only put a strain on public finances, they have also revealed the need for better education on personal finance and wealth management. Meanwhile, increased regulation and compliance obligations (especially in the areas of data privacy, cyber security and KYC) are adding huge operational costs for companies and financial institutions. And despite the restrictions and disruptions of lock-down, the latest cohort of startups in the Melbourne FinTech bootcamp managed to deliver some engaging presentations.
Datacy allows people to collect, manage and sell their online data easily and transparently, and gives businesses instant access to high quality and bespoke consumer datasets. They stress that the data used in their application is legally and ethically sourced. Their process is also designed to eliminate gaps and risks inherent in many current solutions, which are often manual, fragmented and unethical. At its heart is a Chrome or Firefox browser extension. Individual consumers can generate passive income from data sales, based on user-defined permissions. Businesses can create target data sets using various parameters. Datacy charges companies to access the end-user data, and also takes a 15% commission on every transaction via the plugin – some of which is distributed to end-users, but it wasn’t clear how that works. For example, is it distributed in equal proportions to everyone, or is it weighted by the “value” (however defined or calculated) of an individual’s data?
Harpocrates Solutions provides a simplified data privacy via a “compliance compliance as a service” model. Seeing itself as part of the “Trust Economy”, Harpocrates is making privacy implementations easier. It achieves this by monitoring and observing daily regulatory updates, and capturing the relevant changes. It then uses AI to manage a central repository, and to create and maintain tailored rules sets.
Mark Labs helps asset managers and institutional investors integrate environmental and social considerations into their portfolios. With increased investor interest in sustainability, portfolio managers are adopting ESG criteria in to their decision-making, and Mark Labs helps them in “optimising the impact” of their investments. There are currently an estimated $40 trillion of sustainable assets under management, but ESG portfolio management is data intensive, complex and still emerging both as an analytical skill and as a practical portfolio methodology. Mark Labs helps investors to curate, analyze and communicate data on their portfolio companies, drawing on multiple database sources, and aligning to UN Sustainable Development Goals. The founders estimate that there are $114 trillion of assets under management “at risk” if generational transfer and investor mandates shift towards more ESG criteria.
MassUp is a digital white label solution for the property and casualty insurance industry (P&C), designed to sell small item insurance at the consumer point-of-sale (POS). Describing their platform as a “plug and sell” solution, the founders noted that 70% of portable items are not covered by insurance policies, and many homes and/or contents are either uninsured or under-insured. MassUp is intended to simplify the process (“easy, accessible, online”), and will be launching in Australia under the Sorgenfrey brand in Q2 2021. For example, a product known as “The Flat Insurance” will cover items in and out of your home for a single monthly premium. As MassUp appears to be a tech solution, rather than a policy issuer, underwriter or re-insurer, I couldn’t see how they can achieve competitive policy rates both at scale and with simplicity (especially the claims process). Also, as we know, vendors love to “upsell” insurance on tech appliances, but many such policies have been seen to be redundant when considering existing statutory consumer rights and product warranties. On the other hand, short-term insurance policies (e.g., when I’m traveling, or on holiday, or renting out my home on AirBnB) are increasingly of interest to some consumers.
Ontrack provides B2B white label digital retirement planning solutions for financial institutions to help their customers in a more personalised way. There is a general consumer reluctance to pay for financial advice, but retirement planning is deemed too complicated. Taking an “holistic” approach, the founders claim to have developed a “best in class simulation engine” – founded on expected retirement spending priorities (rather than trying to predict the cost of living in 20 years’ time). Drawing on their industry experience, the founders stated that a key challenge for many financial planning providers is getting members comfortable with your service. I would also add that reducing complexity with cost-effective products is also key – and financial education forms a big part of the solution.
In Australia, the past 10 years has seen a major exit from the financial planning and wealth management industry – both at the individual adviser level (higher professional qualification requirements, increased compliance costs, and the end of trailing sales commissions in favour of “fee for advice”); and at the institutional level (3 of the big 4 banks have essentially withdrawn from offering financial planning and wealth management services). At the same time, there have been a number of new players – including many non-bank or non-financial institution providers – offering so-called robo-advice and “advice at scale”, mainly designed to reduce costs. In addition, the statutory superannuation regime keeps being tweaked so it is increasingly difficult to plan for the future, with the constant tax and other changes. Superannuation (a key success story of the Keating government) is just one of the “pillars” of personal finance in retirement: the others are the Commonwealth government aged pension (means-tested), personal wealth management (e.g., investments outside of superannuation); and retirement housing (with the expectation of more people opting to remain in their own homes). I would also include earnings from part-time employment while in “retirement”, as people work longer into older age (either from choice or necessity) – how that aligns with the aged pension and/or self-funded retirement is another part of the constantly-shifting tax and social security regime.
This product describes itself as a customer data platform that powers stored value, and was described as a “Safe harbour” solution (I’m not quite sure that’s what the founders meant in this context?). According to the pitch, consumers gain a fair and equitable outcome (consumer discounts), while retailers get targeted audiences. The team have created a vertically integrated gift card platform (working with MasterCard, Apple Pay and GooglePay), and launched JamJar, a cashback solution.
Similar to Harpocrates (above), RegRadar is a regulatory screening platform that helps companies “to set routes and avoid crashes”. The tool monitors regulatory changes (initially in the financial, food and healthcare sectors) and uses a pro-active process to developing a regulatory screening strategy, backed by analysis and a decision-support tool.
Having worked in legal, regulatory and compliance publishing for many years myself, I appreciate the challenge companies face when trying to keep up with the latest regulations, especially where they may be subject to multiple regulatory bodies within and across multiple jurisdictions. However, improved technology such as smart decision-support tools for building and maintaining rules-based business systems has helped enormously. In addition, most legislation is now online, so it can be searched more easily and monitored via automated alerts. Plus services such as Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis can also help companies track what is currently “good” or “bad” law by tracking court decisions, law reports and legislative updates.