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’.