App: The Human Story

Back in July 2014 I backed a Kickstarter project called App: The Human Story. As with another long-delayed project, it’s just delivered, some two years after the original estimated date.

It’s a 70-minute documentary about the people who make apps. The main narrative thread isn’t anything we don’t already know about the app market: 10 years ago, revolutionary new consumer devices were launched; this enabled the democratisation of app development, and many people jumped in; over time, app prices and revenue fell through the floor; now, only large companies or those with investor support are likely to have continuing success.

So what makes this film interesting are the main subjects. Melissa and Nicki learned app development at an expensive bootcamp and are now shopping their apps around, looking for investment. Cabel and Steven are the co-founders of Panic, an established Mac software firm. Their initial forays into iOS development are not progressing as well as they expected. Finally, Ish is one of the early ‘nobodies’ who has enough success with a breakout app to go all in on this new career. Will he be able to sustain his success? (Spoiler: of course not.)

The film is well-made. It’s sharply edited, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and has great, subtle visual effects and a lovely score. On the downside, it does feature (thankfully briefly) my arch-nemesis Marco Arment. Worth watching.

Following Spotify playlist curators around New York’s live music scene

In an otherwise boring conversation about some press release or another, a Spotify PR person mentioned to me that an artist who had a big hit on the platform’s Fresh Finds playlist was discovered when one of the curators just happened to see them play a show in Bushwick. I was as surprised as anyone really can be by an email from corporate PR.

Fresh Finds is one of Spotify’s prized products, a weekly playlist crafted from a combination of two different data inputs: it identifies new, possibly interesting music with natural language processing algorithms that crawl hundreds of music blogs, then puts those songs up against the listening patterns of users their data designates “trendsetters.” What’s going to a show in Bushwick have to do with it? I had visions of a bunch of suits using their business cards to get into cool shows for no reason other than to feel like Vinyl-era record execs for a night. It seemed extremely redundant, and more than a little like posturing. Why bother?

“It’s basically their job,” I was told. Okay but, excuse me, how is that a playlist curator’s job? To find out, I asked if I could tag along with on a few of them on their nights out. I did not expect the answer to be yes, mostly because I thought it should be obvious that my intention was to point out how weird the whole thing was.

But the answer was yes. So, for three weeks, I went with Spotify playlist curators to live performances in Chinatown, Bushwick, and an infamous club on the Lower East Side. I got dozens of half-answers to the question: Why are you here?

Source: Following Spotify playlist curators around New York’s live music scene – The Verge

Spotify traditionally focused on using data and algorithms to surface new music. Apple Music, when launched, made a big show of their human-curated playlists. With the former’s interest in IRL listening, and the latter’s acceptance that computer-generated playlists can be good at scale, it seems like the differences are receding.

Apple acquires Workflow

Apple has acquired Workflow, a popular app for automating iOS actions.

I don’t use Workflow as much as I would like to, but, for some tasks, it saves me a lot of time and energy. I’d like to delve into it more deeply.

Gruber:

This certainly provides ammunition against the argument that Apple no longer cares about power users. For me this is Apple’s most intriguing and exciting acquisition in years.

Gabe Weatherhead is less convinced, highlighting how Apple described the acquisition by giving prominence to Workflow’s accessibility features rather than automation:

I think this is bad news for anyone that relies on Workflow to make iOS useful. If all your eggs are in that one basket then you better hurry up and build a new basket. I’d love to be wrong on this front, but I don’t think automation is a priority for Apple or for iOS. The URL support isn’t just languishing on iOS, Apple has actively killed access to some features in launcher apps. But, who knows. Maybe these three new hires will completely change the Apple culture where Sal couldn’t.[^sarcasm]

(He’s referring to Sal Soghoian, who was Product Manager of Automated Technologies at Apple until they removed the role late last year.)

Whatever happens in the longer term, some predictable changes have been made already:

Apple Music’s new personalised playlists

Reggie Ugwu’s Inside Apple Music’s Second Act for Buzzfeed:

The other big change is the addition of two new personalized playlists: My Favorites Mix and My New Music Mix. The playlists are generated by algorithms, a first for the service, which has largely relied on human curation for its playlists up to this point. Revealing how the mixes operate for the first time to BuzzFeed News, Apple claimed a potential advantage over similar algorithmically personalized playlists, including Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Pandora’s Thumbprint Radio: deep historical knowledge of individual users’ tastes and habits, based on years of data carried over from iTunes.

If you gave high ratings to a song or album in your old iTunes library, or just played it a lot more than others, you’ll find that behavior reflected in your My Favorites Mix. Meanwhile, the My New Music Mix algorithm serves recently released songs — as well as songs that Apple Music knows you haven’t played before — that the service’s music experts have flagged as similar to others in your taste profile. Apple Music executives suggested even more personalized playlists will follow in the series; but only after prototypes have been vetted, with all possible outcomes — intentional and otherwise — given careful consideration.

I’m still using Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Release Radar on a daily basis, but the two Apple Music playlists are a good start. Looking forward to seeing more.

Update: Spotify are rolling out Daily Mix, similar to Apple Music’s My Favourites Mix.