The day the iPhone was announced at Macworld, some of us immediately wanted to use it as a simple multi-touch controller for music. It’s no substitute for a dedicated, large, expressive multi-touch controller like the JazzMutant Lemur. But it’s also far less expensive, useful as a phone/Internet device/media player, and could easily be a simple, multi-touch controller. Basic multi-touch gestures could be a powerful tool for controlling music. Then, the sad news came that development wasn’t going to be open. Hearts sank.

Good news: Masayuki Akamatsu, the brilliant Max/MSP developer who first bridged the popular modular audio and multimedia environment to the Wii remote (see aka.wiiremote), is on the case. It’s still early in development, and for now is an extremely simple implementation: it only routes buttons and text on a Safari webpage to a Max/MSP patch. What’s cool is that it uses the OpenSoundControl (OSC) protocol to do it (with PHP on the Web end), and it works (you can even use it now if you’ve got an iPhone):

aka.iphone Preview
Discussion on the Cycling ’74 Forums

Let’s talk about what this is not: it’s not multi-touch. In fact, if you want buttons for an interface, you could use a US$20 numeric keypad. This helps demonstrate just how little Apple has done to support development on their iPhone. The multi-touch capabilities are reserved by the Safari browser for zooming, and not much else. Given that interface design and gestures are a big part of the iPhone formula, that means everyone is missing out on one of the important capabilities of the phone. Given that the rest of the mobile phone industry is going to be gunning for Apple’s phone in the coming months, I’m holding out hope — even if faint — that Apple will open up this aspect of their phones. Supporting music and visual artists isn’t, and shouldn’t, be high on Apple’s priority list for iPhone. But the entire development community could help differentiate the iPhone with better access to hardware input.

In the meantime, what this is is another demonstration of how cool Masayuki is, and how great it is that Max/MSP/Jitter makes it possible to do this stuff. There’s lots of discussion of open source/free software, and rightfully so. But part of openness is also extensibility, and it’s something proprietary software can benefit from, as well. Max/MSP is the definition of an extensible proprietary platform — musicians and artists can create powerful custom tools and even code their own objects using the same interface as the developer. For everything else, we’ll just have to keep hacking.

(Thanks to vade for spotting this before I did, over on Create Digital Motion.)