Percussa micro super signal processor

Screen grab: John Biehler

For those of you who are interested, Apple’s WWDC keynote has focused today on the iPhone 3G and the iPhone SDK. Macworld has a nice live blow-by-blow.

Here’s the bottom line for me. First, Apple has done an incredible job of demonstrating the potential of rich media apps in general, mobile and otherwise. They’ve showed off a powerful set of third-party applications that go beyond what most people think of on phones, including rich 3D, positional 3D audio (via OpenAL), and music apps. And it’s nice to see those rich media apps alongside things like push messaging. We’re seeing phones as mobile creative devices and not just as phones or even game systems. Music apps in particular prove to be massive hits with mainstream audiences, not just “pro audio” audiences. See our round-up of iPhone/iPod Touch music apps for a glimpse of what this can look like. Band, a set of software instruments, made an officially-sanctioned appearance right in the keynote to widespread cheers from a non-musician audience. And the fact that it’s official means you’ll get great new apps even without hacking your iPhone in the near future, as we hoped.

And this is, of course, what musicians and live visualists have been saying since the iPhone’s release: third-party software development, far beyond what Apple alone can imagine, is what really makes mobile devices interesting. Here on CDM, we’ve seen novel applications like VJs running live visuals in clubs and Pro Tools controllers, among other things, and now a lot of that is likely to become official. And given music apps for Nintendo portable game consoles and Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs, this should be no surprise. But what is a surprise, perhaps, is that mainstream audiences are excited about these things as we are.

We also now know the iPhone 3G will be US$199 and available in more countries, which means volume is likely to increase fast.

I don’t need to hype up the iPhone, though — I expect you’ve got the whole blogosphere for that. But platforms are about tradeoffs; there’s no such thing as a perfect platform. And with all the iPhone lust, we seem to be missing some of the downsides of Apple’s approach:

The major draw for some, the major downside for others: Apple’s development ecosystem is both its strong and weak point. But that means that as well-tailored as Apple’s environment is for some, an alternative could be for someone else — and that’s a good thing. Image: Phil Dokas
  • You have to wade through Apple’s reality distortion field to get at what’s really unique. 3G? GPS? A conventional headphone jack? Live maps? Push contact information? Online uploading? Let’s just be clear — some of this isn’t really news so much as Apple plugging obvious downsides of its version 1.0. And hyping up these features distracts from things that Apple is doing first (like shipping a real, rich media-savvy SDK).
  • Apple squeeze? Aside from another $100 subscription fee for data services, I think what’s silly is iPod Touch users having to cough up yet another ten bucks for a firmware update. Does $10 really make a difference? Of course not. That’s why it’s especially annoying. It’s like American Airlines’ new $15 bag fee. It’s just not something customers will feel good about. I’ve never had to pay for firmware for any device, let alone for a firmware update whose main feature is the ability to buy more stuff. (How about a $10 rebate for software purchases, at least?) Update: Commenter sqook points to an Engadget report in which the upgrade fee is an accounting requirement. Perhaps someone can explain why competing media players like the Zune and Archos seem to get firmware updates that add new features free. Updated again: Some of you have spoken up, and …well, let’s just leave it at this boils down to some legal issues I don’t fully understand. Let’s just swallow the ten bucks and go back to complaining about the MobileMe subscription fee. Unless that’s an accounting thing, too … sigh.
  • The developer tools aren’t free, and that means a lot. Sure, $100 isn’t much to pay for a development kit with which you can test on the device. (The free download is currently a beta and doesn’t include a license for testing or distribution.) But that’s just the beginning — think "free and open source." Compare NetBeans and Eclipse, open-source tools for mobile development. The open source tools run on any OS (Solaris, for crying out loud), whereas Xcode is Mac-only, Leopard-only, and even Intel-only. The open source tools tend to have (arguably) richer feature sets and wider communities. If they don’t do everything you want, you can easily customize them and extend them. That’s not to say some people aren’t happy with Xcode, but the free apps can offer more value to developers – and they’re getting better at a breakneck speed.
  • Apple’s platform tools don’t work elsewhere. Past mobile frameworks like JavaME/MIDP have certainly had their problems, but they allow developers to write apps that work in more places. Now, Apple may make a value proposition to developers that says its own platform is worth being on. (See also: Mac, Apple II.) But by definition, someone’s left out of the party – meaning there are other opportunities elsewhere.
  • Apple controls functionality and distribution. This one’s a little trickier, as it’s a glass half-empty/half-full situation. On the half-full side, Apple’s new developer store could make it easier for developers to sell software. On the half-empty side, the developer keeps only 70% of the revenue and remains at Apple’s whim. By contrast, I could write a Java app right now for Blackberry and various phones, put it on my website, and give it to anyone, which in the age of Google is a very valid way to sell software.
  • Sometimes Apple seems to have a one-track mind: I’m also disappointed that we still don’t have a hard disk iPod with the iPhone/Touch software interface. Keep in mind that the iPod is still Apple’s number one-selling device. And speaking of Apple’s bread and butter, while WWDC thankfully has three tracks (iPhone, Mac, IT) and plenty of Mac focus, the Mac seemed noticeably absent from the keynote today.

But my point isn’t really to criticize the iPhone — I think it’s a fantastic piece of work. Smart design and smart technology are about making trade-offs. Many of these downsides (Apple’s control over the development tools, APIs, and store) are upsides for some. But that means for each of these points there’s an opportunity for someone else.

Beyond Cupertino: The Multi-Platform Ecosystem

The OpenMoko may not woo you away from an iPhone, but developments in Linuxland could be coming to the mainstream very shortly — and that means they provide fully open-source alternatives for those who need or desire them. Photo: phauly.

The point is, Apple’s solution isn’t the only solution out there. And I think competition is what will make this whole area interesting — and more interesting still for iPhone lovers, too, because competition will keep the whole area moving. It’s important to note that, while Apple rightfully deserves credit for shipping something great and shipping it first, the enabling technologies aren’t necessarily from Apple.

The soul of the iPhone is, in generic terms:

  • New mobile processing technology with more brains and less power consumption
  • Increasingly-affordable display and touch technology
  • Desktop-class rich media capabilities: video, 3D, and sound. 
  • OpenGL ES mobile graphics, a new mobile standard for rich 3D
  • OpenAL positional audio, also an open standard
  • Desktop-class OS frameworks to put it all together

Apple’s implementation is indeed something special and something Apple owns. Their patent portfolio for multi-touch and gestures, for instance, is deep, and it’s stuff that isn’t easy to develop. And the way you develop on iPhone is dependent on their self-sufficient ecosystem of the Mac, Cocoa, Quartz (the display framework), and Xcode. And it’d be a mistake to underestimate the work they’ve done in hardware and UI design. But it’s also just one gadget, and part of what it demonstrates is the untapped potential of these technologies.

There are cross-platform, sometimes open-source ecosystems evolving, too, which could bear fruit in the long run:

  • Java, which is about to get a major kick in the pants from JavaFX (which includes new development tools, new media codec support, and the ability to work with other Java tools)
  • Linux, which arguably has a leg up on modularity and customization to different hardware configurations, and could wind up on quite a few devices
  • An open source development toolchain (likely to include development tools like NetBeans and Eclipse)
  • Google’s Android platform
  • Adobe’s Flash/Flex, which finally is getting more mobile-savvy and more open (at least in parts of the development chain and player)

That’s not to say this set of tools is superior to the iPhone/iPod Touch — on the contrary, so far, while there are some "smart" Linux devices out there, there’s not much shipping in quantity and the rich media toolset integration has a long way to go.

But is it a wide open playing field? Absolutely. And while the window of opportunity could close quickly, Linux and Java platforms have an opportunity to play for mobile development that they didn’t really get on the desktop. The ability to have an open alternative is likely to motivate both sides and create a more mature environment overall.

"Mobile" isn’t limited to phones, either — see the fun, LEGO modular-like do-everything, open-source BUG gadget. We hope to have some features on developing for it on CDM Labs soon. And there’s the GamePark Linux-based game console, as well; there are various reasons to think game-specific features may still have some appeal. (The DS isn’t losing any steam soon.)

The desktop could be transformed by these changes, too. Lower power consumption, richer media support, more affordable computing and display technologies, and easier cross-platform development all matter to music and visual software on laptops and desktop machines as much as handheld gadgets.

Google: unlikely to take this sitting down. But we are still waiting for a lust-inspiring Android-based phone, meaning the iPhone has a distinct edge. Photo: Zach Klein.

New Creativity, Hopefully Including the iPhone

Back to what this means for musicians and visualists, I think we’re about to see mobile devices that get some powerful and wonderful features alongside our computers. Think mobile apps with powerful recording, synthesis, music making, and effects capabilities, or VJs with mobile devices triggering videos right off their player or controlling computer visuals by remote multi-touch. (In other words, think about what we’ve been seeing — but just imagine more of it.)

The important thing is, the iPhone is just a part of this larger puzzle. Eventually, I think we’ll see Apple’s mobile devices benefit, as well, not only from Apple’s toolchain but multi-platform software as well — provided Apple doesn’t squash that kind of innovation by keeping it out of their store.

I’m not deluded. I know that crazy drum machines or VJ apps won’t exactly determine the fate of the mobile computing business. On the contrary, I think our role as artists is to show what can happen at the bleeding edge when we push these devices to be expressive. And I think people enjoy that it’s weird and not just business as usual. The technologies that will allow us to do that, though, are intimately tied to those that drive mainstream applications for sound and visuals.

Apple has raised the bar, no question. If its competitors are really listening, they’ll learn from what Apple is doing right — and see opportunities to do things differently, rather than just ape the iPhone blindly, to take advantage of what is on the flipside.

Being as this is CDM, I bring up this rant in part to tease out what I hope we’ll cover on the site, which is how to develop for some of the multi-platform tools; we’ll definitely be tracking that and the open-source development that happens as well as the proprietary goodies.

And if you all start reading this on your mobile device, I’d better start being less … verbose. (I know: I’ll type on my phone. That’ll fix it quick.)