Audiobus – a case study in app collaboration

An elegant solution for audio app management

Like many leading CEOs and successful business people, I think it’s essential for all of us to have a creative outlet or a hobby, something that is not directly connected to our working lives.

For my part, I like to compose and record music using iOS apps, under an assumed nom de musique. Several of my compositions have been broadcast on national radio, and occasionally listeners are kind enough to purchase and download the music from my artist website.

In exploring this newer form of music-making, I am fortunate enough to gain access to pre-release and beta versions of new apps, which allows me to provide constructive feedback on new designs and recommend suggested features. This activity also provides some insights on best practice for collaborative app development:

  • Listen to your customers and their needs
  • Listen to your customers’ suppliers and their problems
  • Create a common technical standard (not the same as an open standard)
  • Encourage early adoption by making the standard available to key suppliers
  • Embark on an engaging programme of pre-release marketing via social media
  • Underpromise and over-deliver (but always deliver what you promised, and on time)
  • Repeat the process ad infinitum

There is a very active community of iOS musicians. This community is a thriving cottage industry: most practitioners are non-professionals; some are working on the fringes of the music industry; and a few are well-known software developers, producers and commercial recording artists in their own right. It’s a supportive community, and one where it’s easy to find your own level. It also tends to be a highly collaborative environment, with most participants willing to share their knowledge and provide help and advice. There are dedicated micromusic blogs, helpful product review sites and supportive technical forums.

Which brings me to Audiobus, one of the more interesting new apps that is gaining a lot of attention from developers, users and reviewers alike.

Music apps can be divided into 3 broad categories:

The problem is that most of these apps were not designed to “talk” to one another. Initially, it was possible to connect some apps using MIDI tools, but for many amateurs, this is probably a technical stretch. Besides, in the real world, I can plug a guitar and a keyboard into the same amplifier, or connect them to my desktop recording software via a single interface, easily enough.

Unfortunately, real-time audio generated in one app could not be connected to another app. Audio recordings could only be shared across multiple apps using some tedious save/copy/paste functions, or long-winded export and import processes. Audiobus solves this problem with an elegant design solution that works so simply, you have to wonder why Apple didn’t think of it themselves.

Rather than provide a technical overview of Audiobus, I’m more interested in the business model, and the potential case study it offers for future collaboration between app designers and content developers:

1. Audiobus is a collaboration between the developers behind two of the more successful audio apps, SoundPrism and Loopy HD

2. The developers have released an SDK for easier integration of new and existing 3rd party apps

3. There were a reasonable number of existing apps compatible with Audiobus when it launched, and more are being added all the time

4. As one reviewer has commented, buying the Audiobus app actually increases the useability (and therefore the value) of other apps

5. The key to Audiobus is providing a common standard for handling and processing audio recordings created in different apps

At least one app developer abandoned a new design for audio sharing between his own apps when he realised that the Audiobus solution would offer much more flexibility.

When combined with apps like AudioShare (a document management and conversion tool for audio files) and SoundCloud (THE social media platform for audio), Audiobus is really helping to open up and foster a multi-function environment for musicians through content compatibility, integration, sharing, exporting and collaboration.

Frustratingly, I sometimes struggle to figure out which of my iOS apps I need to use to open, edit and share text files, pdf documents, spreadsheets and slides. All too often, files suffer from incompatible formats, fonts, layout and graphics. If only we could have the same level of collaboration for e-books and productivity tools that Audiobus has fostered for music apps!

Outside of a small circle of friends, there’s only connections…

"A Dance to the Music of Time" is an epic tale of friendships and relationships

How many true friends can a person really have? Friends you would go to the cinema with, and who would walk out with you if you didn’t like the film? Friends whom you would invite to stay at your home for the holidays? Friends who would tell you when you had made a fool of yourself, but not hold it against you? Friends from whom you would borrow money or to whom you would lend money?

Social networking makes it all too easy to connect with people we’ve barely or never met. Instead of investing our time and effort in cultivating meaningful and lasting friendships, social media encourages us to “collect” as many virtual friends as possible, and we spend increasing amounts of time in vicarious “sharing” – but how many of these “connections” can we actually count on as our friends?

The question occurred to me as I read the First Movement of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, a literary tour de force situated somewhere between Marcel Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” and Evelyn Waugh’s sequence of novels from “Decline and Fall” to the “Sword of Honour” trilogy.

At the heart of Powell’s 12-novel saga is a group of four friends – Jenkins, the narrator, and his three contemporaries from school – Templer, Stringham and Widmerpool. As we follow their adventures over a 50-year period, we discover the interweaving relationships and often tangential connections that run through their lives. We also witness the subtle change in relationships between the main characters – especially the ebb and flow of their individual circumstances as they fall out of favour and lose contact with one another for years at a time. The reflective and considered format of the novel allows us to see that as in real life, there are periods when the friends positively dislike each other and are frequently disappointed by their personal shortcomings and irritated by their annoying habits.

Powell’s epic work of fiction reminds us that even among our strongest and most enduring friendships, there can be episodes of absolute dislike, as well as times of empathy, loyalty and support; and of course, being only human, our opinions and views of our friends can change over time. Powell’s perspective also confirms that most of the people we encounter in social and professional situations are mere acquaintances. We must surely recognize that our personal friendships are each valued on their own merits, and we enjoy different friendships for different reasons – we do not simply have a homogenous group of “connections” that are all exactly the same. There is nothing wrong with being part of well-connected and inter-related networks, but we must guard against reducing all these relationships to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, most social networking platforms operate on a binary structure where we are forced to make simplistic choices of either “friend” or “unfriend”, “like” or “unlike”, “follow” or “unfollow”. And there is something rather materialistic and incredibly narcissistic in the way that the number of “likes”, “follows” and “shares” we collect on-line is not only representative of our popularity, but it is somehow an indication of how fabulous a friend we really are.

Unlike the real world, these on-line platforms do not recognize the subtle dynamics of our true friendships, nor do they acknowledge that we value each of our friendships for the different experiences that we draw from them. We also have different friends with whom we enjoy doing different things, and we probably don’t introduce all our friends to one another (and certainly not at the same time).

Of course, younger generations who have grown up with social media may have no qualms about the reductionist nature of social networking, and the inherent opportunity it affords them to “connect” with as many different people as they can. But for someone like myself who is quite happy to count fewer than a score of people as my true friends, I relish the quality of my friendships, not the quantity.

Apologies to Phil Ochs for (mis-)appropriating his song title.

Social Media – finding its own level?

Social media is accessible to all...

Social Media is accessible to all…

Recently I’ve come to see that as a communication tool Social Media is just like any other resource or commodity – it’s not an end in itself, it’s what you can do with it that makes it valuable.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say that Social Media is most like water – not just because we seem to be swimming (if not drowning) in the stuff; but because like water, it will find its own level. And as Myer CEO Bernie Brookes found out this week, something that sustains us can also be unleashed against us.

As content pours into our Social Media aquifers, it will naturally flow, collect and disperse. The rivers of content being uploaded daily* suggest that unlike other resources, Social Media will not run out any time soon:

  • Twitter: 400 million Tweets posted per day
  • Instagram: 40 million photos uploaded per day
  • YouTube: 72 hours of videos posted every minute
  • Facebook: 2.5 billion content items shared per day
  • LinkedIn: 175,000 new profiles created every day
  • SoundCloud: 10 hours of audio uploaded every minute

These reservoirs of digital content that we are creating could be put to good use (like dams that provide hydro-electricity). Viewed from this perspective, Social Media can be seen as a potential source of energy. Rather like waterwheels that harness the power of rivers, Social Media can be used to drive a range of applications; but left to its own devices, and with nowhere else to go, all this content will simply collect in stagnant pools – sometimes you need to use part of that energy to keep the water flowing downstream.

In just the past week I’ve been exposed to three more Social Media platforms, each of which is at advanced beta stage: @IFTTT – a tool to re-publish selected updates to multiple platforms via a series of automated decision trees; @Poptip – a tool for conducting polls via Twitter; and a personalized viral marketing tool which I probably cannot mention by name because I had to sign an NDA in order to participate in the pre-launch.

Each of these new platforms is trying to harness the potential of Social Media and keep the communication flowing (the waterwheel analogy). Similar to other Social Media platforms, these tools also act like aqueducts carrying water to where it’s needed. It’s as if we are using the content to feed a Social Media irrigation system – the results of which allow us to harvest followers, “likes” and customers.

The question is, who will we look to for inspiration when we come to write Social Media’s epitaph – will it be Smith, Bell, Coleridge or Goethe?** Will we end up drowning in the stuff (but no-one will notice until it’s too late)? Will we wish we had used it more sparingly? Will we be faced with an abundance that we cannot actually make use of? Or will it be a case of “be careful what you wish for”? (Clearly, King Canute is of no assistance, as it’s far too late to turn back the tide….)

* Note: Statistics gathered from a casual internet search of company websites, press releases and industry commentaries. No claims as to accuracy, currency or verification.

** Literary references: Stevie Smith – “Not Waving but Drowning”; William Bell – “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry)”; Samuel Taylor Coleridge – “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

Broadcastr signs off: 9 Challenges for Social Media

Social Media platforms – there seems to be one born every minute. By the time you finish reading this article, another 5 will have been launched somewhere in the world. And probably 5 more will have been shut down.

A recent casualty of what I call the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome is Broadcastr, a user-contributed audio content platform for location-based story telling.

In their farewell note to the Broadcastr user community, co-founders Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum stated:

“While we’d love to keep Broadcastr alive, technology requires money, active development, and maintenance. We’re a small team, and, sadly, don’t have the resources to continue development.”

Broadcastr has inevitably lost out to category-killer SoundCloud, an earlier site that dominates Social Media audio content (and is also the likely cause for the wavering fortunes of MySpace). In recent months, iTunes has withdrawn its Ping social networking application for music fans; Webdoc has rebranded itself as Urturn (possibly due to confusion surrounding its name) and Yahoo! has just announced it is withdrawing a number of Social Media products – not forgetting that Yahoo! dumped Buzz, a social news site that was hard to distinguish from Digg. There are even some mutterings that Google+ does not yet justify the hype as a serious Social Media platform to take on Facebook or Twitter.

Even if you are first to market with a new Social Media platform, most sites are just a different (not necessarily better) mousetrap – same bait to tempt you in, same tools to capture your attention. The sheer volume of sites means that they are hard to differentiate from one another – hence the “50 Shades of Social Media” syndrome. Each Social Media site is trying to become THE destination for its target audience, but as The Cure once sang, “In the caves, all cats are grey.” Despite their differences, all Social Media platforms end up looking pretty much the same.

In light of the heated competition for market traction, here are 9 challenges to success in Social Media:

1 There are essentially only 5 types of Social Media platform:

2 There are only a limited number of activities you can do within these sites, such as “like”, “follow”, “share”, “post”, “publish”, “comment”, “recommend” and “tag”.

3 Increasingly, single-purpose or single-interest Social Media sites are attempting to cross over into adjacent domains, in an attempt to build scale and stickiness, and to improve the user experience.

4 This diversification means Social Media lose focus, dilute their original offering, and potentially alienate users.

5 Every Social Media platform starts out claiming to be different and offering something unique – but both the content and the business models are relatively easy to replicate, which is why we see multiple variations of the same concept or minor iterations with each new site.

6 As we engage with multiple Social Media platforms, we need our own personal media monitoring and management systems just to keep tabs on everything, especially when sites start to overlap as they encompass richer media formats and enhanced content functionality.

7 Meanwhile, the increasing inter-connectivity between different sites means that as individual users we can multi-channel as if we are our own mini cable networks.

8 But as with cable TV, multi-channelling leads to audience fragmentation and narrowcasting (which in turn has an impact on advertising revenue).

9 The Social Media industry will be subject to further mergers and acquisitions like Facebook’s purchase of Instagram, and consolidation will inevitably result in an oligarchy of dominant players, as happens with all media.