KILLER APP: The Movie

We open on two college students driving through the woods at night. One is peering at the bright screen of their phone, giving directions.

“Can’t this piece of junk go any faster?”

“If you want to get out and push, you’re welcome.”

“I heard that if you get to the party before anyone else, you get, like, a lifetime supply of everything.”

“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen any other cars for the last twenty -”

The phone starts beeping.

“Holy shit, it’s here!”

The car screeches down a narrow track. They arrive at a clearing where a very expensive, very high-tech tent has been set up.

“Looks like we’re the first!”

They high-five, and sidle in.

“Hey, we’re here for the app, is there -”

Screams begin.

Smash cut to –

“KILLER APP”

We pull out from these words projected onto a massive screen. It actually says “Clear’s next Killer App” where Clear is a logo for an internet company. The screams turn into rapturous applause. We’re at a press conference, a cross between an Apple keynote and an interview.

A young Cillian Murphy is on the stage.

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“Now, did I hear you say two *billion* users?” asks the interviewer?

“Two point *one* billion users,” corrects Murphy, with a twinkle in his eye. Everyone chuckles.

“What’s the secret of your success?”

“It’s simple. We created an app that helps people help each other. These are hard times, and I believe that we should always be there for our friends and family, whether that’s doing work for each other or just throwing a party together.”

“But it doesn’t hurt that you take a cut of every transaction made on the app, does it?”

“Not much,” he admits, twinkling again. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re providing a valuable service and the revenues let us improve the product and reach more and more people.”

“Earlier this year, you acquired Twitter. Everyone wants to know, who’s next? Microsoft? Facebook? Apple?”

He looks thoughtful. “How can I put this? We’re a forward-thinking company. They aren’t. I don’t want to be dragged down with dead weight.” Continue reading “KILLER APP: The Movie”

Worrying and Thinking

Over the past few years, I’ve been worrying over a knot of problems that seem to defy any straightforward answers, including:

  • How can we use Google, Facebook, and Amazon’s services when we know they’re putting people out of work, centralising information, and often acting against our interest?
  • There are no more jobs for life, so why aren’t we fighting harder for improved social security?
  • How can we avoid being made miserable or broke by advertising?
  • What happens if we don’t have the time to properly think about what the good life consists of – or we don’t have the means to enact it?
  • Is it possible to resist, or even question, the total political dominance of capitalism and free market economics?
  • How can we possibly criticise massive corporations when we, as consumers and workers, feel complicit in their existence and operation?
  • What can any individual do to change any of this, when meaningful solidarity appears to have totally evaporated within many rich countries?

These are not the only problems in the world; they’re not even among top ten problems humanity faces. Nevertheless, I consider them to be serious problems and given that some people are better placed to address some problems than others, it’s worth thinking about them.

Neither are they wholly new problems. We’ve lived – unhappily – with overpowered corporations, fractured communities, and inadequate social security for decades and centuries. Yet they are affected by technology and culture, and so these problems require new kinds of solutions every generation.

I intend to spend the next few months writing about this, in a ‘thinking-out-loud’ kind of way. Many chapters of A History of the Future were about these problems. Spoiler: I don’t have any quick or easy solutions, but I do think that these worries are shared by many others who would dearly like to do something about them.

The Podcasting Software We Deserve

As summer draws to a close and the evening appears ever nearer, a young man’s fancy naturally turns to the production and distribution of podcasts.

I listen to several podcasts and I co-host The Cultures podcast with Naomi Alderman and Andrea Phillips. As such, I feel I have the bare minimum amount of experience required to examine how the process of making podcasts could be improved, across recording, editing, and publishing, in the form of an imaginary dream super-app.

Recording

If you can’t get all your hosts in the same room every week (e.g. because they’re in different cities), then you’ll need to use something like Skype to hear each other. Skype is free and easy to use, but the call quality is not perfect. For the best results, each participant should record their own microphone feed ‘locally’; these multiple feeds can then be combined later on for a much clearer sound.

As mentioned, Skype is free. Call recorders can be found for a relatively low price (free to $25), such as Rogue Ameoba’s Piezo and Audio Hijack, and Ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype. These are a little fiddly to use, but not too annoying. For The Cultures, I use Audio Hijack Pro to capture my own microphone input along with the Skype audio from Naomi and Andrea; we don’t all record locally because I don’t have the time to edit the podcast. Audio Hijack pretty straightforward but I had to play around with the mix settings a few times before getting it quite right. Certainly there weren’t any preset ‘podcast’ settings.

If we all recorded locally, as most other podcasters do, then you can multiply the fiddle-factor by three. Again, it’s not that annoying if you know how to use computers, but if you don’t, it’s a frustrating experience.

Ideally: I would like a dedicated app, let’s call it “Podsoft”, that each host would install. The app would make recording easier by automatically syncing with the other hosts (through a unique code or user auth) so that we could confirm that everyone was recording, receiving audio, and ready to go; and it would sync with online time servers to adjust for frame loss.

During the podcast, we could type in timestamped comments in a shared document (similar to Etherpad or Google Docs) which would make it easier to compile show notes and set chapter marks. Once the podcast ends, the each app syncs with Dropbox or perhaps just sends the audio file to the designated ‘master’ host automatically, thus avoiding any emailing-and-attaching-file shenanigans. Incidentally, the app would be capable to recording all participants from a single computer (similar to my current Audio Hijack setup) as a backup.

Editing

Editing can produce a tighter, more coherent podcast, and better-sounding podcast, but it takes time. For me, the choice is not between ‘no editing’ and ‘some editing’, but between ‘no editing’ and ‘no podcast’. It’s different for other hosts, however.

If you get your hosts to record their audio locally, then you need to assemble those multiple audio files into a single file. On the face of it, this should be easy – just drag the files into separate Garageband tracks, line up the start times, and away you go. In practice, I’m told that frame loss means that the files can drift out of sync over the course of the podcast, which makes editing tricky. You might also want to reduce noise and control the volume so that everyone sounds equally loud.

An experienced editor can do this in their sleep, and probably has access to (or has written) scripts that automate some of these tasks. However, amateurs aren’t quite as lucky and may end up struggling through the process.

Ideally: Podsoft combines and syncs the multiple audio files automatically. It includes presets to reduce noise and normalise voices; not as well as a professional, but better than an amateur.

Publishing

Libsyn are the podcast host of choice these days, mostly because it ‘just works’ and isn’t too expensive ($5-15/month). However, their content management system looks and feels awful; I’ve made more than one mistake using it in the past.

Ideally: Podsoft allows you to compose all the podcast metadata, including title, description, image, and release data, within the app itself. When you’re ready, you hit submit and it upload it all to Libsyn without you having to deal with the website.

Cost, problems, concluding thoughts

The vast majority of podcasters don’t make any money at all, which may worry developers. Yet while I don’t make money from running, I still pay a decent amount for good trainers, because it’s an entertaining hobby that I spend a lot of time on. Likewise, podcasting is a hobby that a lot of people spend a lot of time on, and I can’t help but think they’d be willing to pay a decent amount for software that makes their lives easier and results in a better podcast.

I think people would be willing to pay around $50-100. If you sold around 1000 to 10,000, that’s not a terrible business given that it’s a Mac app with the potential for upgrade sales every couple of years.

Of course, it’s not a massive amount of money and there’s only so many podcast creators out there. The real opportunity lies in creating a Libsyn competitor – which of course would be a much easier job if you already had a great podcasting app out in the market. Then you could work on providing other services for podcasters including improved statistics, crowdfunding tools, community features, nice-looking website, and so on; not to mention improved discovery for listeners. I don’t suggest this because I hate Libsyn – it’s a decent website that works and isn’t too expensive – but it’s healthy to have competition in a market, since it improves the service.

For the avoidance of doubt, neither I nor Six to Start are about to make this app – we’re plenty busy working on other stuff. But I would love it if someone like Marco Arment or Daniel Jalkut worked on it, given their previous form (Overcast and Marsedit). We can live in hope.