The Playstation Paradox – Guest post from Bram Bos, developer of Ruismaker, Troublemaker and Ripplemaker

finger on a tablet computer screenHow a software-first approach can be an answer to the iOS hardware rat race – by Bram Bos

X marks the spot

It feels bad every time I retire a precious hightech gadget; like an iPad, iPhone or laptop. I tend to take good care of expensive things (I have never cracked or even scratched a screen) so usually they still work and look as if they were just unboxed. However, OS updates or the latest music app requirements are constantly nudging me towards an inevitable upgrade to the latest and greatest model.

Did you know that US$21billion worth of gold and silver went into the production of high tech gadgets in 2012 alone? I wonder how much of that has ended up in trash heaps by now.

We’ve all been there, I guess. And Apple’s recent introduction of the ludicrously expensive iPhone X – a device most people will only use for two years – marks a good moment to ponder the (un)sustainability and wastefulness of this upgrade cycle, and whether we’re willing to keep up with it just for the sake of being able to use the latest synths and DAWs.

The US$1000 phone has arrived. Ready to take the plunge?

Breaking the upgrade cycle

Lately I keep hearing how the iPad Air 2 (essentially ‘last year’s iPad’) is becoming too slow for serious music work. How can that be? I refuse to accept it, because on paper it’s an incredibly powerful machine which should be capable of virtually anything we throw at it. A decade ago I couldn’t have dreamt to have *this* much power in a sleek device the size of a glossy magazine folded in half. And yet we were all happily making music back then.

You could argue that this is simply progress; the way it has always been. The moment you buy a new computer everything’s great – and then the experience will gradually go downhill from there on. Until you upgrade again. But this is not a universal truth. There is a mainstream product category where upgrade cycles are about 7-8 times longer than those of mobile phones, and where the end user experience typically improves as the product gets older: gaming consoles.

The Playstation Paradox

In a nutshell: you typically buy a Playstation or XBox at a relatively affordable price; the actual expenses go into building your software collection. Early on in the console’s lifespan games are slightly better than last generation’s games. But then the game developers get more comfortable and creative with the new platform and the quality of new software steadily improves – eventually reaching levels that were simply unimaginable at the beginning of the lifecycle.

I call this the Playstation Paradox: the older the hardware, the better the user experience will become.

Case in point: the Uncharted series on the PS3. Same hardware, vastly improved visual fidelity over the course of 5 years thanks to improved software.

Stepping out of the arms race

Hypothetically, this model could also be applied to iOS. If Apple were to step out of the arms race with Android manufacturers (“moar cores! moar RAM! moar pixels!”), introduce a powerful iPad Pro and promise developers and consumers at least a 5 year lifespan, we could see a renaissance of innovation going beyond just 1-upping each other’s component specifications.

R&D efforts of 1st and 3rd party developers could then be invested in crafting better designed software and cleverly optimized frameworks that really get the most out of the given hardware. Over time we’d get applications (not just music and audio) that are truly symbiotic with the hardware platform, likely outperforming what we get with today’s lazy annual incremental hardware updates by a substantial margin. Additionally, it will give product designers and innovators much more time, stability and breathing room to focus on innovative applications and new usage paradigms.

Yay! No more annual upgrade anxiety to deal with. Far less waste of precious materials and manufacturing resources. Far less exploitation of cheap labor force in the Far East. More opportunities for meaningful job creation all over the world instead.

Two minor obstacles

However, there are two little things that need to be considered before this can become a viable paradigm: capitalism and consumerism. No, this is not about politics, so hear me out.

Apple would need to ‘sell’ this new paradigm to its shareholders first. They expect annual growth and short-term results, which seems quite incompatible with longer product lifecycles. And to many consumers iDevices are as much a status symbol (or at least a fashion statement) as a practical appliance. Having the same phone for 5 years may not be as appealing on an emotional level as it is on a rational level. Unfortunately, humans are not rational beings. And neither are shareholders.

New iPhone day…. typical Apple Store scenes of the day of a new product release….

Some paradigm shifts and unorthodox creative strategies would therefore be needed to apply the Playstation model to the mobile world before it becomes a healthy business model for Apple and an attractive value proposition for consumers.

Solutioneering

One part of the solution could be to apply it only to the iPad at first, essentially decoupling the iPad’s update path (slow lane) from the iPhone’s (fast lane). This would probably result in iOS becoming two different platforms. But that may not be a bad thing in the long run, because the iPad market is moving at a slower pace than the phone market anyway (i.e. people keep using their tablets longer than their phones, so sales have been slowing down since the introduction of the iPad).

Another part of the solution is making software development a more attractive proposition. iOS is great for developers because Apple offers great publishing services and software piracy is virtually absent. iOS blows chunks for developers because apps are considered low-value, throwaway goods. The stigma of a decade worth of Flappy Bird software-twinkies is hard to escape.

Does the App Store pricing model create a user mind-set where the value of software is under-appreciated? correctlyvalued?

Regardless of how this is solved, software prices need to go up to make software an attractive alternative to hardware sales to both Apple and the developer/publishing community. But hey.. the $600 you don’t invest in a new iPad will in the end buy you plenty new applications (some of which may not even have existed in the old model) which will likely work problem-free for much longer than today’s apps.

In summary

A steady, long-living hardware platform would give clever developers and designers the opportunity to improve the performance and user experience of our mobile apps without requiring the dreaded annual hardware upgrades. The gaming console world has already convincingly shown for two decades that this is a model that works. But it will take some serious rethinking of established business models; and the stakes are enormous when you’re dealing with some of the biggest companies in the world.

For now, all this remains an interesting thought experiment. But the next time you retire your ‘old’ iPad, you’ll remember this piece and cringe realizing that it could have had another three years of life in it if more love would have been given to software engineering, instead of banking on planned obsolescence.

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    Comments

    1. Hi All…. I don’t often put up guest posts here on the Music App Blog but, when I get something interesting directly from a valued member of the iOS music app development community, it is always welcome….. Anyway, thanks to Bram for offering to share his thoughts on this particular aspect of the iOS ecosphere…. and feel free to comment below :-) Very best wishes, John

      • I have to go with Bram on that. I guess I’ve been into the ipad from the very beginning as far as music is concerned. Between Mr. Walden’s Music App Blog and the Soundtest Room, I have over 300 apps. You’re right. How much do I really use?

        But I do have my favorites workhorses. Cubasis, iMaschine, Audiobus, Launchpad, Blocs Wave, Beathawk, Sythnmaster, Chordbot and I really like Trouble Maker. When I’m standing on the subway, it’s iMaschine, and Trouble Maker. When I can get a seat…

        The reason I like these apps is for what you stated and why Japan was able to change its image from a copy cat, cheap tricks, Really? kind of a nation in the 1960’s to a world leader in High End Good Quality Technological products as a nation!

        They did exactly what you said. They took a great idea and made it 20 times better. And on the way, it triggered the creative process and evolved into new product lines pretty much with TroubleMaker hitting the scene followed up by RippleMaker. Then the Random feature in TroubleMaker and RippleMaker had scales and keys! How rad is that?

        I can see it in the other members of my band who think the ipad is a piece of crap. Meanwhile, I can see it in their eyes, “How did he come up with that?”

        I also think that the music industry is in a dilemma. A lot of Bigtime software manufacturers like NI, Ableton, Korg, Propellerhead and Steinberg treat the ipad like a toy and I understand the reasoning. I’m selling Cubase for $400 – $600 on the MacBook and Cubasis for $50 on the ipad. Of course, I’m not giving you the same functionality but what happens when the ipad becomes robust enough to support a fully featured version of it’s Macbook Model? What happens when the code becomes seamless between platforms? Different platform… same price. What happens when the functionality of the ipad exceeds the Macbook from an innovative perspective? Korg already copied Gadget from the pad to the pro…

        Bram, thanks for sharing and John thanks for letting him.

    2. AndyPlankton says:

      This is something I have also given a lot of thought to and I think Bram has got the endgame correct…..software needs to be more expensive to make it a viable money maker to replace lost revenue from selling less hardware units….the problem is how to get both companies and consumers to understand and accept this.
      Users generally do not want more expensive software….but are prepared to pay more money for hardware….some who would complain about paying £50 for an app would pay £1000 for the latest phone without issue….
      I think it is the same yearly upgrade is part of what makes this happen…..if you are expecting to change your iPhone/iPad every year, you are not expecting your software to last very long so are not prepared to spend as much on it….there are no guarantees that developers will continue to upgrade their apps to the latest iOS versions, and why should they when they have to do it essentially for free. It works for apps that bring income through micro transactions, like Candy Crush, as if the developer doesn’t upgrade, then that revenue will disappear, but for outright purchase software like the excellent synths and drum machines that Bram creates it simply doesn’t work as those same users who will happily spend £5-£10 per week buying gems for their latest game…will not happily stump up £15 for an app they could potentially be using for the next 5-10 years…
      Subscriptions are a way to try and solve this….but they suffer because of the following…
      When buying a piece of hardware you are getting something in your hands…something to show off….this isn’t true of software…there is no wow factor for apps like there is for the newest devices, so vanity and fashion are playing their part in all this too.

      Currently it seems that the vast majority of users are happy with upgrading regularly, perhaps this is partly due to the way phones are sold as part of a monthly contract with free upgrades every 2 years (not actually a free upgrade, because if you didn’t take the new handset your monthly bill would reduce)
      The manufacturers are obviously happy to sell units to their existing customers every year, it is far easier than trying to get new customers.

      It is the minority of non-casual users that are not happy with the upgrade process….that is a tiny voice to the manufacturers…..currently the iOS ecosystem just isn’t the place for long term software investment from a user perspective. It could be, and for the benefit of us all it should be……It is only the current marketplace, driven by users, that makes it this way. It is a shame but a reality. This isn’t limited to iOS either, Android suffers the same thing..albeit to a lesser extent due to cheaper devices being available.

    3. Wondering if Apple is spawning “bloatware”. I believe it happened on PC’s when hardware components got cheaper and larger. Why write tight, efficient code when ram, disks and processors get bigger and faster.?

    4. Substance242 says:

      Interesting article. I started on 8-bits and even now I adore for example Assembly demoscene, what they can do is amazing. So I often wonder “how come this app is so big” or “hey app, how come you can’t keep up with me typing, you’re running billions of CPU operations per second, dammit!” :-) Anyway, music apps is the only reason I got an iPad, and they’re pretty good.

    5. I often wonder if Steve Jobs was still at the helm would Apple be creating “throw-away” expensive crap.

    6. Interesting post with some good points.

      Apple exisits in an overall tech market – a market that it doesn’t control. The release cycle Apple has is determined by that market.

      At least it isn’t as bad as the modern “fast fashion”, where stores have new stock turned over every 10 days…

    7. Post more than Great , Kindly Thanks

      spot7.org

    8. Dave Carter says:

      Apple would adopt the PlayStation model if it would directly increase revenues and profit for Apple, short term and long term. They are certainly looking for game changing innovation and getting this article into the hands of the right people might change things. I’m not sure who that would be. This is one of the best articles I’ve seen on the subject and I tip my hat to John for posting Bram’s brilliant analysis!

    9. Still using my MacPro 2008 and MacMini 2011. Desktops seem to be longer lasting than iDevices.
      But regarding iPads.. I must have a new one every other year, to keep up with the pace.
      A very interesting article, and I totally agree with the analysis made by Bram.

    10. The viable life cycle has been very short because the mobile market has been growing rapidly. To their credit, Apple does have a program for recycling their iOS devices so there’s never any reason to throw them away. Yes, to date iOS devices are pretty much like a 2 year lease rather than a traditional purchase. I think the iPad market has slowed because many users only use browsers, social media, media players or casual games on their iPads rather than more specialized apps which benefit from the increased functionality of the hardware. iPhones haven’t slowed down because consumers have grown used to replacing their phones frequently and use them more frequently.

      The iPad market still hasn’t matured as iOS devices are just now having sufficiently powerful processors. AR could be a game changer if music app developers decide to utilize it especially for iPhone based music apps. The file management, backup, and support for AU, IAA standards all have to be significantly improved to help developers create more reliable and useful apps. Apple has to close the gap between their iOS devices and MacOS computers in terms of having iOS devices being able to run independently of computers.

      I believe once these changes are implemented then the viable life cycle of iOS devices will be longer. Apple could make up for lost iOS device sales if the sale of niche apps was strengthened by higher quality apps people were willing to spend more money on.

      Other than hyped to the hilt marketing for iPad Pro, Apple has made little substantive change to iOS until iOS 11 to support pro apps. If they invest more into making it easier for users and developers to have pro apps including changes in the App Store to support them, then I think the Bram Bos vision will start to take hold.

    11. Brilliant article. Truth.

    12. I suspect Apple is well aware of all the great points raised here, plus others not raised and currently have decided to make the wrong decisions. With luck there will be noisy backlash that grows until sustainability takes a higher priority.
      A small irony for me is that as a composer I see a wave of too many people thinking music should be free. If it’s free who will compose music except for amateurs? So who will write the software I need to be a professional composer if I don’t pay the coders a fair price so they can afford to create awesome apps?
      I’m for a more sustainable model that is good both for hardware and creators.

    13. Another reason why I use Hardware for primary music production as it does not age. I am still using machines that I bought 15 years ago and they are still valid today and I suspect I will still have them in 20 years time and still using them to make killer tracks. The whole Laptop/iDevice thing just pisses me off as it is out of date within a year and I have to chuck it.

      A lot has to change for computers to be more useful and valid in a longer term view. I just don’t see this happening any time soon. For now they are just a flashy tape recorder with a nasty habit of slowing you down rather than helping you.

      • ‘The whole Laptop/iDevice thing just pisses me off as it is out of date within a year and I have to chuck it.’

        I disagree. IMHO this only has to do with shifting expectations. My iPad 3 with Samplr still runs fine.

        Back in the day if you’d bought a DX7 you’d also need to ‘upgrade’ for the shiny D50. And the M1 a year or two later. For a lot of cash. But only if you feel you ‘have to chuck it’.

        That’s simply progress. If anything, the whole software revolution made the upgrade bar a lot lower.

        • People saying HW lasts longer than SW are wrong. Nothing prevents you to not upgrade your iPad or ios and still use your beloved app. Same with desktop and laptops. It’‘s just that with computers you can do so much you are pushed to think you have to upgrade. When you buy a HW synth, you do it without thinking you’re gonna upgrade it. Why not thinking the same with say iPad 2 with Animoog ?

    14. Great article! I think two issues have had a big impact on iOS hardware/software. The first is that developers seem to exploit the hardware capabilities at a much faster rate (especially in the music and game genres. This obviously results in the appearance or feeling that you have obsolete hardware.

      The other issue is the iOS store model doesn’t allow developers to generate revenue from upgrades. Their only option is to release a new version of the software and rename it, and then force previous version owners to pay full price or higher for the updated software. In my opinion Apple prevents upgrade pricing because it would generate less revenue. The technology could certainly handle a upgrade model option.

    15. I realy lové the (for me) right mix of real hardware and the fast changing apps on the iPad.
      Something to touch and some apps to fill the gap between my keyboards and my fantasy.
      I will not have 20 Synths in hardware. But I love to test 20 Synth-Apps and find a special app like Ripplemaker fm or patterning to make ( for me ) beautiful music and have fun.
      And I do not have the money for old fat synths and also not the Time and fun to repair and so on.
      A Microkorg a midicontroler and an iPad that is a lot for me.

    16. Many coders have simply dropped off the Apple gravey train as it’s simply too much hassle, the market is great but to have the API rug continuously pulled from under you feet is a time consuming mess. It’s easier and more profitable time wise to write for desktops.

    17. The idea is nice, the public thinks otherwise. The irony is of course that Sony & Microsoft are moving away from the classic console model. That’s what free market does for you.

      And to be honest, I never used my ZX81, Atari XL, ST or PC for more than three years or so either. Looking at it from that perspective, my trusty iPhone 4 set a record with 6 years of usage. And it’s still being used, just not by me…

    18. Also, I wouldn’t exactly call what Apple does ‘lazy annual incremental hardware updates’. As a matter of fact the CPU team alone is pretty highly regarded for what they pull off each year.

    19. Over time, the problem will fix itself.
      Someone mentioned the fact that desktops last longer nowadays, and this is true — but in the past, a 4-year old computer would be completely outdated as well. Remember: In 1985 there was Windows 1.0, in 1990, you would use Windows 3.0; in 1995, Windows ’95 came out.
      Nowadays, the speed increases on processor level for desktops/laptops are not that impressive. I like the fact that I can use my hardware longer.
      We are not there yet on mobile. With the A11 chip Apple managed again to cram much more processing power in the SoC. When they released the iPad2 with the A5 chip, I thought that was massive. Compared to the A11, it is absolutely nothing.
      I see this period as a transition period, in a few years from now we will have the same situation as we have with pc’s; and let’s hope Apple will shift iPad/iPhone releases to a 2-year cycle.
      With regard to software prices: don’t forget that the low prices enabled many people – like me – to discover music making on the iPad. If Nanostudio would have been 30 euros, I would never have started with it. I hope there will be a market always for the little apps like Caustic, Sunvox. I have noticed that there is already a tendency for price increases with new releases, which is fine with me, but as I said, it is important to have some simple apps as well.

    20. This whole post starts discussing the iPad air 2 and I think its based on the wrong foundations, some guys on the audiobus forum (and to some extent the Facebook group) get really paranoic about every little detail eventually seeing so many things that aren’t even there… The iPad air 2 its completely fine for anything music related. This slowdown of old devices its coming to an end already, iOS 11 barely changes the speed of old devices compared to iOS 10 and iOS 10 from iOS 9 was the same. Barely changed anything speed wise.

      Maybe its the trauma that was going from iOS 6 to iOS 7 and then iOS 8, (which were pretty rough on pro users of iOS)
      But some people go really crazy about updates.

    21. I find Apple hardware to be the longest lasting, most reliable, sustainable devices – period!

      My iPhone 5S is still going strong at 4 years old and showing no signs of becoming unusable any time soon, iPad Air is fantastic for making music, but then I stopped updating it on iOS 9 and just put up with the sociopathic reminders to update every single time I use it and that maybe I can’t have the latest and greatest – but so what? Mac Book Air 3 & 1/2 years old and going strong on Mavericks! I do not expect to replace any of these devices for as long as I possibly can. I am seriously expecting another 2 to 3 years.

      So, yes, it’s a people issue – the greedy shareholders wanting more profit all the time so they can stuff their faces getting fat at other peoples expense. In turn this necessitates the relentless psychological warfare waged by the manufacturers to impose a sense of lack in the unsuspecting public that makes them think that they have to have the latest gadget because their old one isn’t good enough any more… and the the public themselves for being so damn gullible.

      I was happy to see that the iPhone 8 queues were virtually non-existent – maybe this is a good sign that things will start to change – lets hope so because if we all carry on like this we will most definitely be totally screwed in a few years time as materials simply become unavailable :)

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