Assuming you’ve survived hours of waiting on line or weathered various technical problems, Apple’s app store is online. Anyone with iTunes can have a look; it’s right inside the iTunes Store (formerly the iTunes Music Store). But while Apple’s development platform is impressive, early in the game a lot of the actual music apps seem to me to be, frankly, underwhelming. (Some of the non-musical apps look far better, like the lovely free client for awesome note-taking service Evernote.)
Click through to App Store > Music, and you may feel like you’ve entered a time warp to simplistic handheld music apps from the Palm and Windows Mobile platforms, only dressed up with shiny new eye candy – and $5 and $10 prices. You’ve got your choice of several guitar tuners and metronomes, and various sound toys that mimic instruments. Also, I find the iTunes interface rather annoying. You get a bunch of shiny icons but it’s hard to find specific tools. So, after all these years, are we still struggling to catch up to late 90s Palm apps? Really?
There is one potential standout: Karajan is a polished-looking handheld music theory tool for quizzes on intervals, chords, scales, and pitch. Then again, Karajan will cost you US$15. For free, you could head to Ricci Adams’ musictheory.net and get more detailed lessons and trainers in your browser. (It’s even Creative Commons-licensed, so if Flash ever runs on iPhone, we could see a port.)
Don’t get me wrong. The platform’s new, and I expect we’ll see better offerings over time. In fact, I think it’s natural that early offerings would be on the simple side. The problem is, the hype from the iPhone loving crowd is amped up so high, you begin to feel like we’ve left reality entirely. I wonder if the press will overlook real handheld music apps, like the powerful offerings available for PSP and Nintendo DS. And I feel obligated to point out that, bizarrely, you can get a heck of a lot more power for handheld music by hacking a game system and download free games than you can by paying hundreds of dollars on hardware, potentially many hundreds on service, and (in many cases) spending money on apps for Apple’s official mobile platform. (Maybe some of the talented developers are more drawn to the hacked platforms, anyway, contrary to conventional wisdom – partly because so many interesting mobile apps are labors of love, done outside their day job.)
To have a really good time, I’d be tempted to fire up a used Palm or PocketPC for the wealth of music apps available on those platforms – real sequencers, notation software, and unusual instruments. And that’s to say nothing of the PSP and DS. Sure, the iPhone may have powerful hardware, but as we’ve seen with Nintendo (ahem) that doesn’t necessarily yield great game design. I’m not crazy, right? Doesn’t this look like more fun to you, too? And without the hassle of a big mobile carrier. (The iPod Touch, at least, fares better, and it’s not as though there are many cool apps for the Zune.)
Then again, maybe all of this is a good thing. Old hardware is notoriously hard to recycle, hard on the environment, and loses its value quickly. Musicians, after all, form affectionate relationships with old instruments. Maybe it’s best to leave the disposable gadget culture to the tech freaks, and go find tools that’ll really give us a musical experience. Someone’s got to pick up those cheap eBay PDAs.
Updated: See comments for some insight from Chad, who’s written some awesome PalmOS apps at minimusic.com. He talks a bit about some of the specific hurdles facing developers for writing mature music apps — which, by definition, are tougher to develop and more demanding of the platform.
Given the iPhone/iPod Touch OS’ audio features and horsepower, there are clearly some interesting apps down the road. But then, that’s part of why I point out that this generation is a bit lacking — it’s because I think it’s a shadow of what’s possible and what we should see. We’ll be watching.