April 25, 2014

Apple is positioned to put PayPal in the ground

I stumbled upon this great WIRED article that points out something we should have realized long ago: Apple has all of our credit card information.

Through the release of their recent earnings call and the slew of data that came with, it was suddenly apparent that there are 800 million Apple IDs for iTunes purchases, and most of those have credit card info to go with. That's 800 million users who may, very soon, radically change the way they pay for things.

Apple is in a very unique position. Over the course of a decade, they have inadvertently created a huge market for a valuable digital service. That position is unique for two reasons: first, the number, and second, the trusted Apple brand.

Wireless payment methods already exist, but even established services like PayPal don't have the kinds of numbers that iTunes commands. WIRED writer Marcus Wohlsen reveals that existing services and other eCommerce sites - PayPal, Google Wallet, Amazon.com, Bitcoin - don't have even half of Apple's 800 million users. This means that, were Apple to offer a secure wireless payment service using Apple ID confirmation online and quick fingerprint scan authorization on the iPhone, they would already have a huge audience for that service. No customer acquisition required - just a brief stint of user education to encourage people to start implementing their new Apple iPay (I just came up with that name, but it's pretty good).

Apple's second strength is the fact that, well, that it is Apple. One of Apple's strengths is product and service integration. Their cloud service functions seamlessly across its varied products. The existing Apple ID set-up and iTunes purchase methods are intuitive and functional. If Apple were to implement a large-scale wireless transfer service using those same devices and the Apple IDs that users have already grown accustomed to, we can expect the same flawless cross-platform functionality.

It would be a natural step on the path towards the digitization of currency. Outside of the states, mobile and digital payments are the norm. Instead of using an Apple ID, in Europe, near-field communication is the norm - simply swipe your smartphone over a sensor at the register and your credit card information is gobbled up. In Africa, where carrying cold, hard cash can be a dangerous practice, SMS transfers are the preferred method of payment. In the same way that you might text CROSS to 55555 to donate to the Red Cross, cell phone users can text to their creditors mobile banking number to pay their bills or to purchase a product.

Whether for security's sake or efficiency's, mobile credit is the way of the future. Americans have just proven to be slow adopters. Perhaps they just need the right shepherd to show them the way. And Apple has got a mighty large flock.

April 14, 2014

FiLIP: solving parent paranoia in the digital age

It just makes you shake your head in disappointment. You see a family of four out to eat. The children - a daughter, looks to be about nine, a son, seven - both clutching cellphones. And they're iPhones no less. Look across the restaurant and see another two parents; their babysitter quit on them before their weekly night out to dinner. Their two-year-old starts to wail at the table, so mommy hands him an iPad like some sort of digital pacifier. Maddening.

Personally, I didn't own a cellphone until age 13. I was always trusted to get to and from school on the bus without incident. If ever I went to a friend's place, they knew that I could call them on a house phone to check in, so they resisted the cellphone "fad" for a long time. My parents only gave in when, in high school, after-school marching band rehearsals had varied and unpredictable end times. I was constantly borrowing my friends' cell phones in order to make calls at a time when unlimited minutes were a luxury. They cracked and I had a Sony Ericsson flip phone for two years.

I'm not saying my parents did it perfect, nor am I saying that parents who give their children cellphones too soon are bad people. They're trying to adapt to the digital age, and the digital age is scary. We believe that kidnappers, pedophiles, and predators lurk in windowless vans in every neighborhood, and fear for the safety of our children in perpetuity. With so many dangers, technology will surely provide an answer. So we thrust fragile, hundred dollar communicators into the grubby little hands of elementary school students and feel relief. Now you can call your son or daughter at all times, even track them using Find My iPhone. That is, of course, if they haven't dropped it in the toilet, shattered it on the playground, or had it taken up in class because they were caught playing apps.

Y'see, kids don't need cellphones. They're already growing up in an age of technology that spreads focus so thin that studies are finding suffering attention spans and levels of intercommunication in children. They certainly don't need a gateway to those influences in their hip pocket. But parents still want (note: 'want', not 'need') a way of contacting their child and knowing they are safe. In comes the FiLIP.

April 11, 2014

project ara: will I ever give up my iPhone?

We're taking a break from the music reviews this week, but I did listen to the free single (and didn't like it very much). Instead we're talking about smartphones.

The iPhone continues to dominate the smartphone market. Though phones playing host to the Android OS are spreading like wildfire, the cheapened iPhone 5C dampened that surge. Apple led the charge and Microsoft and Google scrambled to play catch-up, but Apple's first-adopter advantage carries on seven years after the release of the first gen iPhone.

I love my iPhone 5S, specifically how well-integrated it is with all things "Apple". It syncs all my contacts, messages, email, music, photos, etc. to and from my laptop like a champion, and creates a bond between them that Apple aficionados are accustomed to. It's a clever function, because it creates a dependency on the iPhone's natural connectivity. To switch to another phone - no matter how fantastic it may be or what features it offers - would be a mistake if it doesn't have the interconnectivity of my iPhone.

I once had a professor ask me what it would take to give up my iPhone. After really considering it, I told him there wasn't any other product that could get me to give it up. But I think that I may have finally found something to derail my Apple allegiance. Watch the first minute of this CNET video to get acquainted with Project Ara.

April 7, 2014

"Cheap Sunglasses" by RAC feat. Matthew Koma

I once had a pair of RayBan sunglasses. They were an awesome graduation gift from my dad: gunmetal aviators, fit perfectly to my face, with just enough tint. They were tucked away in my backpack when it was stolen a couple years ago. Damn, I miss those glasses. As a poor replacement, I bought a collection of cheap sunglasses from an online retailer called RedStar, and they are really cheap. Nothing like the RayBans I once had. Because of this somewhat traumatizing experience, I find myself strangely drawn to this week's free single.

André Allen Anjos has now taken over the RAC project.
RAC stands for the Remix Artist Collective, and was originally exactly what that implies: a group of artists who developed remixes of any song they saw fit, ranging from indie obscurity to pop songs by Lady Gaga and the like. Over the course of about five years, they produced more than 150 remixes (all of which are available on SoundCloud). All that remains of the original collective is André Allen Anjos, the group's founder, who has now taken over the RAC name. As he writes on his website, "RAC used to stand for Remix Artist Collective. That name doesn't make much sense anymore. Who cares?"

Anjos carries on, and has just released Strangers, a full album of original songs in collaboration with other artists that RAC worked with in the past: Tokyo Police Club, Katie Herzig, Tegan and Sara and Matthew Koma, who sings this week's free single. The result of this blessed union is a tight electronic pop song that commits to an elaborate lyrical metaphor. My favorite.

March 31, 2014

"I'm Only Joking" by KONGOS

Contrary to the title of this song, I seriously like iTunes' efforts this week. Not one, nor two, but three free singles available for download before tomorrow. Now, they're not all winners - I think I can rule out Latin heavy rock as a genre of interest - but each of this week's songs has something that makes it valuable.

iTunes is pushing out these Latin free singles, and the exposure to music that isn't in English is really cool. Thanks to De La Tierra, I'm listening to Latin rock for the first time (I don't like it, but hey, nothing ventured). Simone Felice's "Running Through My Head" is a heartfelt song that takes the latter half of a cheesy pick-up line and turns it into the lyrical basis for a beautiful chorus. The featured free single, "I'm Only Joking", is essentially an introduction to a whole new kind of rock n' roll. When you consider that the genre has been around for six decades, it's quite the accomplishment.

The band to achieve this feat is KONGOS, a group of four very talented brothers. They're the sons of one-hit wonder, John Kongos, best known for "He's Gonna Step On You Again" which reached the Top 10 in 1971. If you compare these two singles, you can hear where KONGOS gets their musical influence from.

Their music is strange for us as Americans to listen to. It sounds vaguely like Southern rock with the use of accordions and occasional fiddles, but that isn't the right label. The grim chords, reverberating vocals and distorted guitar sound like grunge music, but they're not really comparable to groups like Nirvana. If you listen to the other tracks on their album, Lunatic, you'll hear reggae, you'll hear trance rock, you'll hear alternative vibes that allude to The Killers or CAKE. All of this is to say that KONGOS barely fits within the burgeoning "alternative rock" genre, especially because of their distinctly African tribal influence.

Yep, you read that right. The brothers of KONGOS, and their father, are from Johannesburg, South Africa, and it really influences their music. One reviewer called it "rock-tribal", especially applicable to this week's single. But enough talking about the music - let's listen to it.

March 21, 2014

"Me and My Broken Heart" by Rixton

In less than 12 hours I'll be on the road to Gulf Shores, Alabama for Spring Break. Not relevant to this post, but I'm pretty excited about it, so I thought I'd share.

Now, this week's free single isn't something I'm likely to play from a boombox on the beach this week, but the group that wrote it is pretty awesome. "Me and My Broken Heart" is a trite little pop hit, but the group that put it together is a foursome of budding pop stars from the UK calling themselves Rixton. They released their first single last year, "Make Out". It's pretty standard party anthem fare - very catchy. What stands out is the music video, which parodies Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and Robin Thicke in one fell swoop.

If this music video serves to do anything, it showcases how creative and unashamed Rixton is in their quest to show off their talent. And someone noticed (a very important someone at that). Scooter Braun - famous for signing Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen and others - signed Jake Roche (lead vocals), Danny Wilkin (bass guitar/keys), Charley Bagnall (lead guitarist) and Lewi Morgan(drummer), and the group changed their name from Relics to Rixton to prep them for the pop scene. They've released their first EP sharing the name of the free single, Me and My Broken Heart, and they accomplish a sound that harkens to Maroon 5, but with an English twist and a youthful abandon that you don't get out of Adam Levine anymore.

All that said about the group, the choice of free single doesn't do much for me. Let's look at why.

March 17, 2014

FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven journalism organization: making data journalism cool

Nate Silver is a name that I learned and then forgot. He earned a lot of repute after predicting the results of the 2012 election with near perfection. Many praised it as miraculous, an accomplishment against all odds, but Silver says it was all just data.

"Certainly we had a good night. But [the prediction] was and remains a tremendously overrated accomplishment... It wasn't all that hard to figure out that President Obama, ahead in the overwhelming majority of nonpartisan polls in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin, was the favorite to win them, and was therefore the favorite to win the Electoral College.

Instead our forecasts stood out in comparison to others in the mainstream media."

And it is because of Silver's discontent with some of the practices of the mainstream media that he is striking out with a venture in the field of data journalism.

FiveThirtyEight is the relaunch of Nate Silver's data-driven coverage with the backing of ESPN. The new site launched today (March 17) and, for a WordPress site, looks fantastic. Silver promises a broad coverage of topics in their subsections: politics, economics, science, life and sports.

FiveThirtyEight is now working with a team of 20 journalists. Silver says that though they're big on data, not all of their reporting will be driven by gritty statistics.

"By no means do we think that everything can be broken down into a formula or equation. On the contrary, one of our roles will be to critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage. At other times, we'll explore ways the consumers can use data to their advantage to level the playing field against corporations and governments."

March 14, 2014

"Lift Your Spirit" by Aloe Blacc

Another week, another free single, another bout of mixed feelings and mild disappointment. This week's single was written by rising pop artist Egberts Nathaniel Dawkins III. Sorry, you probably know him better by his stage name, Aloe Blacc. If that doesn't ring any bells, then you probably recognize the voice of that guy that sang (and wrote) that Aviicii song.

Egbert... excuse me, Aloe Blacc has been creating music since 1995, and apparently wallowed in relative obscurity for 18 years before being instrumental in a pop hit that reached #1 in 102 different countries. Talk about perseverance. He has worked in a slew of different genres including soul, R&B, jazz, hip-hop and funk, before reaching mainstream propriety and achieving pop music status.

This week's free single is the title track for his latest album, Lift Your Spirit, Blacc's third solo album. Having listened to samples from each of his three albums I can say that Lift Your Spirit is definitely a change of artistic direction for him. And I think that, regrettably, this is his best-received album yet.

March 10, 2014

"Believer" by American Authors

This week we have another band from the east coast delivering our free music. You may recognize American Authors from their recent radio hit, "Best Day of My Life", which rose to platinum status after being featured in a handful of commercials and a summer movie trailer. That single was integrated into their first full album, Oh, What a Life, released this March.

Unlike some of the indie trash we've been listening to, the American Authors have a solid pedigree. Its members - Zac Barnett (lead vocals), James Adam Shelley (guitar, banjo), Dave Rublin (bass) and Matt Sanchez (drums) - met while studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. They graduated in 2006 and went on to form a band called The Blue Pages. In 2012, the band moved to Brooklyn and reinvented itself into the group we know today, American Authors.

Their alternative rock sound is peppered with full-bodied choruses, Shelley's folksy banjo accents, and background vocal work that is infectiously easy to sing along to and provides beautiful harmonies. This first album is convincingly energetic and passionate thanks to Barnett's vocals. Either there's something in the water at Berlee, or they really are teaching them something. Our free single, "Believer", is the first track on the album, so without any further ado, we'll dive into it.

February 24, 2014

"Nothing But Trouble" by Phantogram

I tell you what, it has been a hot minute (read: a long time) since I last posted, and it's a real shame that I return to the blogging scene to review this song. We're basically two months into 2014 and iTunes has yet to really impress me. I could crack a joke about the free singles being nothing but trouble, but that would just be too easy, wouldn't it?

Before I rip into this song, a bit about the artists responsible. Phantogram is a two person outfit from New York state. Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter have been working together since 2007 and produced their first full album in 2009. The release of this single, "Nothing But Trouble", heralds their second album, Voices, released last week. They've toured with some pretty prestigious names in indie pop: Metric, Minus The Bear, Ra Ra Riot, and The Glitch Mob to name a few.

I don't care to flatter them with any further description, so we'll dive right into the song.