Wanting something is different from needing something. And bending something to musical activities is different from requiring something for musical activities.
Apple introduced a promising-looking update Monday to the iPhone. I didn’t really see much reason to talk about it, because there’s nothing specific in the update to music, even if it is a worthy upgrade. On CDMotion, the new onboard camera and video publishing features led to a larger discussion about what to use for capturing video for live visual sets, from comments including mention of the older 3GS and even a phone from Nokia to cheap stabilization solutions. But apart from a gyro sensor likely to be used in a new Smule app and a faster processor, there’s nothing essential to music apps — good news if you already own an iPhone, in fact.
So, if you want an iPhone, go get one. What I find surprising is that this device is inspiring some of my music tech blog colleagues to say things that I don’t think are true.
Now, regular readers know, I haven’t shied away from covering mobile music tech. If it’s a platform, and you can make sounds with it, I think it’s worth noticing, be it an iPhone, Game Boy, Arduino, teletype machine, steam organ, whatever.
But even with all the development activity around these devices, it is possible to lose perspective, or overstate what these gadgets are. And as a result, I feel a bit obligated to point out some observations I thought were self-evident, but evidently aren’t.
The iPhone isn’t cheap, because of the whole phone part. Here’s the thing: smart phones tied to contracts are expensive. The iPhone’s sibling, the iPod touch, is a pretty great deal, especially if you grab a refurb. But the iPhone is pricey given a lot of the world’s currency translations and actual buying power, and the device typically adds costly phone service contracts and potential cancellation fees if you’re on the wrong carrier. In fact, switch to a cheap prepaid SIM and stay off the phone, and you can probably afford a Kyma instead in the time the contract lasts. (Tell people you’re synthesizing and can’t talk to them anyway.) That’s not to slam the iPhone – it’s a problem with the cost of smartphones and the accompanying data service in general. But it means the claim the iPhone costs “a couple hundred dollars” just isn’t true.
If you’re spending a lot on mobile plans anyway, then you can justify the price. But it’s very unlikely anything with a contract is ever going to make sense from a purely musical point of view – not unless Ableton starts having you sign a two-year contract in order to upgrade your copy of Live. (Uh, don’t get any ideas, please.) The music apps are nice because they give more value to a purchase you may be buying anyway. That’s the whole point.
The iPhone isn’t the top mobile music OS. That’d be … Windows. Seriously. Top handheld, yes. Top mobile, no, because the remaining popular “mobile” solution for music is a laptop. On Monday, as Steve Jobs took the stage in California, I was on various modes of transport between Portugal and New York. I wound up finishing a couple of tracks on trains, airport waiting areas, and planes, from 0 to 40,000 feet. My tool of choice: an inexpensive Asus laptop, leaving smaller but less-powerful gadgets (including an iPod touch) in my backpack. And I’m not alone. Windows is still popular, for instance. Digital Music Doctor’s Internet popularity numbers for music software show that PC-only tools FL Studio and SONAR still rank high. On CDM, the iPhone, iPad, and iPod rule mobile readership rankings by a lion’s share …but not as a share of overall readership. There, even Linux-based readership of CDM manages to outpace the iPhone by a wide margin, to say nothing of Mac and Windows.
iOS and tablets may be the future. But laptops remain the present, at least for most people not running a gadget blog. And that means it is absolutely possible for the music tech industry to get so excited about this new platform that they miss opportunities on the older ones.
You don’t need one. Want one. Get one, even. But you don’t need one. In 5 Reasons Musicians Should Get An iPhone 4, James at Synthopia lists a number of reasons to buy one that to me just aren’t quite right:
“spending a couple of hundred bucks on an iPhone” – well, see above. It could be a couple of thousand bucks by the time you’re done; it depends on your situation.
“The iPhone lets you connect with friends and fans from almost any location.” Actually, there’s a technology for that, called the Internet. When there’s not “an app for that,” there’s something called the Browser. Both of these technologies work everywhere. And while apps are cool, before any website makes an app, they should make an awesome mobile version of their website. If they have that nailed, then they should be allowed to make an app. (Maybe Apple can add that rule to their developer agreement.)
“The iPhone 4 gives you access to the de facto industry standard for digital music.” Well, wait a minute, that’s called the Internet again, and formats like MP3 and OGG. You certainly don’t need an iPhone to download podcasts, which are an open, XML-based format that shouldn’t discriminate by player.
In fact, not needing a device or a platform is part of the beauty of this being the year 2010 and not 1984. In 1984, a sea of incompatible computers with proprietary standards for everything from simple serial connectors to displays cost more money, were harder to operate, and eventually wasted your time. (One plus: they hooked up to your TV set, no DRM-locked HDMI cables required …but I digress.)
Now, we live in the future. We can choose from platforms that use standards, that communicate via standards, that talk via The Internet and Internet Standards and Browsers so it doesn’t matter what gadgets your friends might have. We have obscenely cheap electronics, so you can make electronic music with $30 in parts and a speaker, not a six-month residency at a prestigious Research Institution in Paris.
It wasn’t always this way. When Max was first extended to add audio features, it needed a NeXT audio box. When MIDI was invented, it required specific interfaces running specific sequencers on specific computers just to make a sequence. When digital synthesis was invented, Max Mathews had to take a train across the Hudson to get timeshare access to a mainframe. Platforms can be wonderful things, but they’re even more wonderful when they disappear.
The iPhone is a beautiful gadget, and that’s great. But what’s even better – what’s even more a sign that you live in the future – is that you don’t have to buy one. So if you do, relish the thought that it’s an indulgence. It’ll probably make unpacking it more fun anyway.
Or, as Lady Gaga would say…