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Hey look, a tech company from Winnipeg on TV!

My wife likes to catch up on her Dragon's Den and it makes for pretty good background listening while I study in the next room. The episode she was watching tonight featured an app called musi made by some local Winnipeg talent.  Cool, right?!

Not quite.

On the TV

As I started to tune in, I heard the most important question get asked which was how they sourced their content.  The presentation could have ended after that question was answered.  It was all I needed to know to put together a guess in my head as to what they were doing.  With my skepticism locked in, I paused what I was working on to watch the rest, hoping that at least one of the dragons could pick up on the warning signs I - as a developer - was hearing.

Right away, numbers of downloads predictably made an appearance.  Nothing about active user base.  Then the amount of time spent developing and cost to operate came up.  Only $25 dollars for a single server and everyone was just blown away - who are these geniuses?

What was there not to like?!

As a Developer

Honestly, I gotta hand it to them, they got great play out of something that would be laughed off elsewhere. I have a few friends I speak with regularly about the crazy digital world we live in and some of them would say that these guys were geniuses.  Perhaps to an extent, they are - but the kind of attention they gained won't leave them remembered as tech geniuses.

Most cloud providers offer some kind of 2 core, 2gb server for $20-30, so what exactly were they hosting on there for a million users?


A traceroute on the IP for their web site reveals an Ubuntu VM on AWS!  My brain was in full-on debunk mode and I had it figured out pretty quickly.  Here's what these guys are doing:

  • A wrapper UI for video platforms
  • Some quick and easy ad banner integration
  • The server they spoke about is probably just for their web site because...
    • The binary is hosted in the app store
    • Purchase entitlements are handled through the app store APIs
Anyone who parades around their web hosting costs to impress a potential investor is trying to pull a fast one.  If someone told me they actually ran mission-critical code on that infrastructure, then I might be impressed.  But what this app does is hardly novel.  In fact, the model it follows is an evolution on an old formula, cookie cutter apps and aggregators.

Google and some other services make APIs available so that people can better access their data.  But through their terms of use, it's quite clear that they don't want any misrepresentations made.  These are very permissive terms to access the data, but make no mistake, if an app isn't delivering the data alongside their own algorithm, it is nothing but a glorified middle-man.

Worse still is that if an app draws the wrong kind of attention, it could end up going the way of other music services.  And rest assured, the lawyers representing publishers that orchestrate these shutdowns don't care that someone is simply an aggregator.  Just like musi, they only care about presentation as well.

Anyway, it was reassuring to later read that this app did not pass the smell test.  I think people would be surprised to find out just how many offers die after airing.  It's exactly why I took the time to look it up and got inspired for this blog post.

Impact

The impact of this is subtle, but there's a part of me that can't respect the ego of anyone rushing to get on television with whatever concept they can.  I almost always see it as a play to promote their personal brand, not the sad product they're flogging.

Winnipeg is desperately trying to find relevance in the digital economy and when we prematurely send marketers and nascent talent like this, I worry that we're sending the message that we have no substance.
I'm going to empathize for a second, feel free to join along...  If I was an investor and every tech idea from Winnipeg was some smooth talker trying to steal other peoples' data or sell me aggregator apps, I'd come to a quick understanding about the state of this city's potential.

We do have good ideas here.  But I don't see them being featured on national television.  We seem to focus too much on the self-promoters: Bored marketers and extreme-exercising wannabe CEOs.

If Winnipeg wants to be known for tech, we need to get way more serious about it and actually deliver some technical substance.

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