The tech press stopped today to keep up with Apple’s new SDK, version 3.0. It is a huge overhaul, and let’s give Apple credit where it’s due: they’re relentless in improving their mobile software, and they do listen to complaints and respond. I don’t think you can classify copy and paste as news, given Apple is the company that popularized the concept eons ago. (How long ago? Not only was Reagan President, but MTV still played music videos.) But 3.0 is a huge upgrade. Most mobile devices develop some usability quirks and functionality holes and leave them for years on end; Apple is actually improving their device.

Synthtopia goes out on a limb and says iPhone 3.0 kicks ass for music.

Well … sort of. The thing that makes the iPhone special for music is that it has Core Audio and can run C/C++ code. Google’s Android, by comparison, currently has a limited set of APIs and, as near as I can tell, no easy way to get a real synthesis or effects library going. That’s allowed the likes of Pure Data and ChucK to run serious real-time synthesis and audio processing, in the guise of consumer-friendly apps. Think this doesn’t matter to non-CDM readers? Tell that to the zillions of people who bought Ocarina for the iPhone as a toy. This is, mark my words, a very big deal. It just isn’t any more of a big deal in iPhone 3.0.

The other improvements still have the caveats that the iPhone has always had. The iPhone still has a closed ecosystem that’s dependent on iTunes, plus restrictions on hardware and software that keep it from being, well, as open as your Mac or Windows computer is, or even many mobile devices. Now, what you do with those limitations is up to you. I believe in dissent and disagreement on the Web, and I think the iPhone has no shortage of cheerleaders. I’m not a fan of Apple’s model. That’s my bias, and I’m upfront about it, I think.

But my opinions aside, let’s talk specifics.

The good

  • Peer-to-peer connectivity for multiplayer music + visuals: iPhone and iPod touch can now connect to each other wirelessly over Wi-Fi, as well as auto-discover each other via Bluetooth. Think sync, data exchange, and multiplayer music and visual apps — something, incidentally, promised in early prototypes of Tenori-On and then dropped.
  • iPod Library Access: Long overdue, you can now finally get at music files on your device, as the Android could at launch.
  • Hardware control, audio recording: The iPhone can now access hardware connected to its dock. That was possible before, but with weird workarounds and non-documented APIs. Now it’s official, which should open the floodgates for accessories like iPod-connected audio recorders. Very good news.

The coolest things I imagine will come out of this, and unmistakably good news a result — I think you’ll get more-powerful, more-connected music apps (controller apps like Mrmr and brilliant musical toys like those from Smule). And I think your iPod is more likely to be useful as a recorder.

For a definite example of the bright side of all of this, Smule, with Dr. Ge Wang (CCRMA) showing off how geeky music tech can have mainstream appeal:
Smule at iPhone Software 3.0 Announcement

Tech always involves tradeoffs, though, so let’s be frank about some of the caveats.

The mixed and the not-news

  • Sync is still iTunes-only: Access to your library of your own music is a good start. But it’s only available to apps. What still isn’t available: any kind of sync API for getting your own files to and from the device. That’s a huge deal-killer for music apps, which have had to invent their own hacked solutions, and it means that Apple’s iTunes monopoly is so important, Apple is willing to keep their 2009 device from having mid-90s PDA features – seriously?
  • Peripherals suffer from reinventhewheelitis: Here’s another question, not only for Apple but the entire mobile industry: what happened to standards for connecting hardware? On a computer, the ability to connect hardware and communicate to it is not news. On mobile devices, you’d think someone had invented some new technology – because they probably have, because hardware connections get reinvented each time there’s a new device. Apple has a fantastic record of championing standards like DVI, USB, FireWire, SCSI, and many others. It’s too bad mobile devices don’t have standards. And on that note …
  • Hardware is still stuck with “Made for iPod”: Dreaming of a MIDI connector for your iPhone/iPod? My guess is, dream on. Apple requires proprietary licensing just to have the privilege of making hardware for the thing. Weirdly, that means you can’t even use the headphones you want with the new iPod shuffle. Now, I’m aware more people want to buy dockable speakers than MIDI connectors – I get it, seriously. But what this means is, practically, people doing oddball things will continue to jailbreak their device, and jailbroken iPods will be cooler than factory models. On Hack a Day, someone in comments points to Arduino running with iPhones. Nice.
  • Apple can still block your app. And sometimes they do it for no apparent reason, not only as with a powerful, free multitouch tool the reviews folks didn’t understand, but also with Cycorder, a wonderful video recording app whose crime seems to be being better than Apple’s. (Oops.)

Party like it’s 1996: standard serial port, no licensing or special chip required just to make an accessory, and a sync conduit that will work with any app. Ah, progress. (And yeah, I owned one of these, too.)

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think the iPhone and iPod touch have wonderful potential. The problem is, there are some disclaimers attached. And they’re not there to protect you from driver instability or damage to your mobile carrier — they’re there because they can be there, for control. These devices are a leap backward from ordinary computers so that they protect us from things from which we previously didn’t know we needed protection. Things like, you know, unauthorized headphones (the horror!) or transferring our own files to our own device (no, stop!) or installing an application (hey, there are children listening!).

And, practically speaking, the upshot of all of this is that some things — like unusual hardware accessories — may turn out to be mere pipe dreams. And because progress isn’t progress, I do feel obligated to point these things out, and wonder if there isn’t another way.

I hope that Google’s Android goes a different path; some things about that device are very promising, though generally, I think it’s too soon to tell — not only for Android or iPhone, but smart mobile devices in general.

That said, know what a jailbroken Mac is called? Your Mac.

Just sayin’.

  • dumaisaudio

    The "Made for iPod" license is to ensure that third party products actually work with Apple's device. Read MacDailyNews' commentary below:

  • Well, wait a minute, I can't even read that headline with a straight face:
    "iPod shuffle has ‘authentication chip’ on headphone interface because Apple cares about customers"

    They're headphones.

    You're now forced to use crap headphones with the shuffle because nothing else will work without a special "I'm an authorized set of headphones" on the chip.

    I've got a previous-generation Shuffle here, and it works with any headphones because it has buttons on the already-tiny hardware.

    If Apple cares any MORE about me, I may lose my mind.

  • Sadly, this does kill the plans I had for my Shuffle-detonating exploding headhpones I was going to make, too. 😉 Good thing Apple has that chip in there to stop my nefarious plans…

  • Alex

    Apple will never make a device/software which isn't fully controllable by them. If they ever make a move like this, they won't be Apple anymore…Their products will always have strictly restrictions on what their users are allowed to do with them. Save your money for something better. Its your choice! You can choose not to buy an iPhone, not to support Apple. They are not the inventors of the world! We can leave in peace without Apple's products. There are other companies with similar products too!

  • samu

    "Apple will never make a device/software which isn’t fully controllable by them."

    The Mac? They do still make those…

  • dumaisaudio

    They are making a low cost headphone adapter for the new Shuffle, it just wasn't available at launch. I would agree that the earbuds that come with the ipods are crap, no doubt about that.

    "Well, wait a minute, I can’t even read that headline with a straight face:
    “iPod shuffle has ‘authentication chip’ on headphone interface because Apple cares about customers”" – Peter Kirn

    That headline was from the story they were posting from another publication, and their commentary at the bottom is making fun of that article.

  • Well, indeed, the idea that this was "DRM for headphones" was overstated … I'd say both sides are overstating their argument, so I'll try to avoid doing the same.

    Two issues:

    1. certification requirements for the "made for iPod" program, which, for the record, are mandatory, not voluntary for using iPod/iPhone connector devices, as I understand it.

    2. the authentication required for shuffle headphones as it relates to (most importantly) the fact that the shuffle removed its onboard controls.

    Now, for #2, the idea that Apple needs authentication to ensure headphones work with the shuffle is something of a circular argument — Apple were the ones who nixed the controls in the first place. In that case, this seems not to be Apple being control freaks so much as *design freaks*.

    That said, I think it is important to note that not anyone can come up and design oddball hardware for the iPod/iPhone. And furthermore, the fact that the devices eschew any kind of standard mechanism for talking to the hardware (and didn't really talk to the hardware at all until the 3.0 update) is still worth noting.

    That's not to say it isn't a pain to get hardware working with PCs/Macs, too. But it still seems to me to be a step backward.

  • Jobot//

    I remember when Apple was about innovation and furthering progress. Anyone who inhibits progress is, to me, an enemy of science and technology.

    Come on guys, you're only hindering eternal life (eg: Technological Singularity) =D

  • TJ

    Looking at it from Apple's POV (& after 18 years of owning Mac, I'm NOT a fanboy), their device is selling peripherals. So here's a way for them to get a cut of the pie.

    Apple is proprietary as f***, has been for 24 years. They like to lock you into their expensive stuff when they can. Help the customer???? Don't make me laugh: their own forums prove how much time they worry about that.

  • Before anyone takes this the wrong way:

    1. Part of what I'm saying is specific to music applications (since that's the subject)

    2. Other things I'm saying are NOT specific to Apple
    (like the complaint about proprietary device connections), but mobile in general.

    I just think the stuff that would be really cool to music folks would require a proper sync conduit and easier hardware access. I hope, though, that the new hardware API does mean that external hardware gets easier.

  • tobamai

    There's nothing to stop manufacturers from reverse engineering the control interface (if there isn't a "DRM" like protection scheme then there's no legal penalty for reverse engineering the interface). But of course Apple would prefer you license the interface instead.

  • > That’s a huge deal-killer for music apps, which have had to invent their own hacked solutions

    Oh please, Peter. It's time to put this sorry excuse to bed. Apple provides a very rich networking interface on the iPhone. And there are mature solutions for moving files to and from and iPhone without resorting to any "hacking". Developers need only the CocoaHTTPServer, a BSD-licensed open source library that they can link with any iPhone app to give it the ability to use HTTP, any browser and optionally Apple's Bonjour discovery service to move files around.

  • Also access to the iPod music database in iPhone 3.0 is a huge feature. It will allow apps to create any iPod interface they can imagine — something that Donald Bell called for a few years ago in reaction to the iPod. Apple has delivered. This may be a reaction to Android. Who knows?

  • pieter

    Is there any news on java for the iPod/iPhone as an API?

  • piezo

    > These devices are a leap backward from ordinary computers so that they protect us from things from which we previously didn’t know we needed protection.

    These devices are a great leap forward from totally closed platforms such as games consoles and earlier iPods (and almost all other mp3-players out there btw).

  • @pieter: No, nothing on Java, and the anti-VM policy on the iPhone is still in place.

    @RichardL: Yes, it's true you can do those things, but the end user still doesn't have any ability to directly manipulate files on their own device, and the fact that there's no standardized API for file sync means that you have tons of developers doing things different ways with varying degrees of success.

    In fact, ironically, the upshot is a *less* consistent user experience, because you never know what crazy sync app someone will cook up. If the whole system had been more open in the first place, you wouldn't have that problem. Now, I appreciate some of this is an anti-piracy method, but in Apple's "1,000 new APIs" you might think there would be some opportunity for standardization.

    I'm all about solutions, though, whatever it takes – and I know the Beatmaker and folks are working on making their own conduit for music apps. So whatever my criticisms of the developer environment here, that would, of course, rock.

  • @RichardL: Yes, FWIW, Apple has responded. I hope likewise that Google responds in their own developer to-do list. I am impressed by the progress here.

    @piezo: I'm using the game consoles as a specific example, and, yup, they're worse. But I think a 'game' also has traditionally constituted a very specific, higher-budget sort of app, and the consoles have different needs. I *also* think that as people's expectations for variety and choice are rising on the consoles, and as they're having more trouble differentiating themselves, some of those requirements may start to loosen.

    It's also not just about open/closed, it's about how easy development is, as many have noted. To me, the absence of a few APIs are marks on an otherwise sparkling platform Apple has put together, and it's respect for the rest of that platform that I think is why people raise these objections.

  • cobalt

    Nice post, but I think you're missing one new feature in particular: purchases within apps.

    That would allow app developers to develop control apps within a shell (so to speak), instead of releasing a different app for each control surface architecture, while still being able to charge for additional functions. (At the very least, hopefully it will reduce the number of individual e-books in the app store).

    There's also the opening up of bluetooth within apps, and stuff like streaming voice and other audio content within apps.

  • Pingback: Apple iPhone 3.0 OS, mobile platform will get over 100 new features()

  • Apple can be really underhanded. For instance on the Ipod video, the cable for watching video on an external tv (8mm to Red, White, Yellow RCA) had the Yellow and Red inverted, presumably to trick users into buying the Apple cable for 34 bux.
    On the Ipod Touch, you HAVE to buy the $50 cable with the descrambler chip embedded in the cable to watch video externally. So I'm not sure "DRM headphones" was overstated and I've purchased my last Apple product.

  • Lsd25

    This is great news I did a RPM challenge record in a month last month using mostly iPhone Apps and Korg DS-10. I was able to overdub some apps and my vocals and vocorder in my DAW.

    It is so much fun to have some convient stuff to compose on the train during commuteing time.

    I realize that people have complaints about apple but the iPhone has pushed the envelope on phones in the US at least.

  • Apple has alway had a tight hand on its platform, but that has let it do things like the PPC and Intel hardware shifts, the conversion from OS9- Mac OS to the much more powerful and interesting OS X, which is very hard in the cowboy-like hardware/software environment of the PC world.
    Better Bluetooth, standardized and simplified Bonjour and streaming, access to the iTunes library, and the wallet opening new in-app store API and subscriptions are very enervating improvements, and certainly give me a lot to think about as I come up with more apps. The main thing I missed in this update was live video API support.

  • mitchell

    >>>they do listen to complaints and respond

    Which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for that other little music app they peddle, what's it called again? Oh, yeah, Logic… wanna see an unhappy bunch of folks? Read the Apple Logic forum- clearly Apple doesn't.

  • Martin

    Sony phones always had proprietary heaphone jacks, you can´t use a normal connection but instead you have to use their calbels for power, sound and data transfer. No one ever claimed it. I wonder why people do bash apple for things almost any other company does too.

    iTunes, i wonder why people don´t like it. i like to have an app that displays what´s on my phone, my computer, in a good visula way and makes syncing (almost;) hassle free. i´m no famnboy but apple always one the cpompetition for me amongst an other computer companies. if i have a problem with one of their problems i just don´t use it.

    one mentioned bad user support before, in 13 years of sing various macs i never had a problem i couldn´t fix myself, lucky me.

  • Martin

    sorry for the typos, i just woke up:)

  • RichardL

    Peter, I think you've underestimated a huge potential win for music devices through the iPhone OS 3.0 accessory interface.

    Your call for standards support and a MIDI interface in the iPhone is fine, but I think it's short-sighted and based on the common mistaken perception that iPod/iPhone = mini desktop computer replacement. But that's not what the iPod/iPhone is. And standards-based plug-and-play device support is a completely different problem from what the iPhone Accessory Interface is addressing. Besides, that problem has been solved elsewhere — in netbooks and UMPCs and ultralight laptops. Talk about re-inventing the wheel.

    The accessory interface of the 3.0 iPod Touch and iPhone will enable iPod/iPhone devices to function as the control panel to other devices.

    How many times have you given up using some really compelling device/instrument/synthesizer only because the thing just couldn't talk to humans through the limited buttons and LEDs on the front panel. I've got a closet full of them. And frankly music devices are really among the worst offenders in this area. Now imagine you plug the device into the iPod in your pocket and now you've got a high-res touch screen interface to every parameter and option in that box.

    30 million iPhones and iPod Touches is ubiquitous enough to get the attention of even the most stuborn synth and peripheral makers to consider adopt this protocol.

    Even the latest generation of boxes could benefit from a richer human interface. The current trend is to tether to a high power laptop or desktop computer. But many of these boxes have enough power on their own and they are really just using the computer for a richer user interface.

    Leave the MIDI interfaces on the MIDI devices. Leave the multi-track audio recording in the recording devices. The iPod/iPhone is about human interface and human-to-device communication.

  • Well, but by that token, a lot of those synths could just use a better editor. And if they can't properly design a hardware front panel or software editor, I'm not putting my money on them successfully pulling off an iPod editor.

    Here's the bottom line: to do what you're talking about, I think we're better off with some real standards, not Apple standards. That's, ironically, what the app rejected last week was trying to do. Using something like TUIO or OSC (and Eric's wonderful mrmr), it's not just about Apple's device any more — it could be a netbook or an Android phone or a homebrewed device or what have you.

    Now, I imagine areas like medical monitoring fit into this category, too. (Jeez – do I want my heart monitor to be an iTunes exclusive?!)

    Of course, I think you're right — I think Apple's got the edge here, because those of us advocating open source and open standards right now are advocating devices that aren't keeping pace. So I'd better just shut up and get back to work. 😉

  • RichardL

    Good points.

  • JCardinal

    > Leave the MIDI interfaces on the MIDI devices.
    > Leave the multi-track audio recording…

    WRONG! Why not have the iphone send note on/off to the live gear via midi? Why not record multi-track audio on the iphone?