February 22, 2013 at 3:36 pm

The Problem With Apps Is Smartphones

We love our music apps, and the smartphones that made it commonplace to carry around advanced, diverse music functionality, rather than relying on a “dumb” iPod or waiting until you get back to your computer to try the cool stuff.

However, phones are getting in the way of apps.

Case in point: You’re listening to music over your Sonos system, maybe while making pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning. Maybe you’re listening to this. Then, lo-and-behold, something horrible starts playing — that one Billy Joel song you can’t stand, from an internet radio station, or maybe it’s a thrash metal song from your computer’s MP3 collection. Wherever it’s coming from, you need to Make. It. Stop. Now. With each passing second, your pancake reverie erodes.

If you use music apps, you know the following routine (we’re not picking on Sonos here — the same would be true with other apps, and in fact Sonos offers a dedicated hardware remote — but we want to keep our pancake-making scenario, and Sonos works great for that):

1. Pick up your phone.

2. Turn it on.

3. Type in the security code (unless you’re the carefree type who doesn’t care if evil phone thieves read your email and do who knows what else).

4. A) Swipe the screen until the app shows up; or B) search for the app, if you have tons of apps installed and don’t know where each one lives.

5. Run the app, probably waiting a few seconds to for it to fire up. Maybe you have to sign in, too.

6. Click the Down arrow or the Skip button.

7. Collect the shards of your shattered pancake reverie.

This is not cool. On grandpa’s CD player, skipping a song took about a second, and involved pressing exactly one button on a remote control. You call this progress?

Well, it is progress in a sense, because the whole point is that we now have instant access to way more music than a CD (or an iPod, for that matter) could ever hold. But as a physical interface between human and music, the smartphone might actually be considered a big step back, because they’re designed to do everything. If you need tweezers, sometimes tweezers are better than a Swiss Army Knife.

Luckily, smart people are working on this problem — if not directly, than in such a way that our apps should be freed from our smartphones, computers, and tablets within, I don’t know, the next decade. Check it out — it might not be too much longer until you can use a wide variety of music apps without facing that oh-so-familiar accusation: “You’re always staring at that #(&$*&# phone!”

In the early days of Evolver.fm, we were mightily impressed by these big love/hate buttons. Instead of firing up an app or walking over to a computer, you march over to the wall and slap the button when you want something to happen:

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The clever folks at “physical-digital interactive agency” Breakfast New York are onto something, although they told us they had no plans to bring these buttons to market.

You know what would be great? A bunch of buttons on the wall of any or every room — maybe near the lightswitch, or maybe as just rechargeable, modular tiles that you can slap on wherever you want. Maybe velcro could be involved, and maybe these buttons could be assigned any function, musical or otherwise, and you could draw little icons on them. All I know is that walking over and pressing buttons for up volume, down volume, skip, like, unlike, and share would be better than futzing around with my phone, which I was probably using for something else at the time anyway, or which I don’t need another reason to look at. And of course you could get a duplicate remote control for those buttons, just like grandpa used to have.
The “internet of things,” or “web.3.0,” as some people call it, should have great implications for music apps, music fans, and pancake party people alike, and buttons like that should be a part of it. But there are other indications that the smartphone might get out of our way, too. My former employer, CNET, confirmed about an hour ago that Google Glass will go on sale — like, to actual people who don’t work at Google or write about technology — within the 2013 calendar year, and that it will cost “under $1,500.”
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It’s not easy to see Google Glass’s potential for controlling music apps, offering visual navigation possibilities that Siri can only dream of, and the price is certain to drop with time, as usually happens.

Then, there’s all the crazy gesture stuff, and not just on game consoles. Following a strong appearance at Music Hack Day SF earlier this month, we’re becoming a little bit obsessed with the Leap Motion Controller, a little box that lets you do stuff like navigate Spotify by waving your hand in the air, and can even form the basis of app-derived musical instruments (a sort of evolution of this concept).

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People are also building gesture-based laptop interfaces that bounce ultrasound waves off of your hands and pick them up via microphone:

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Other people still are inventing dummy heads and putting binaural microphones in them to record 360-degree music that you can control with your face, for crying out loud. On the other end of the equation are these buttons, sensors, and augmented reality glasses that can detect a wider range of user controls than today’s smartphones can, even with their touch screens, microphones, accelerometers, and (scarce) buttons.

In other words: So long, smartphones, and thanks for all the apps.*

*The author is exaggerating, because these technologies are bleeding-edge, and nobody thinks we will stop using smartphones entirely, but hopefully you get his point: The phones will start getting out of our way while we’re trying to make pancakes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.kenyon2 Mark Kenyon

    If you have a Windows phone, most of the music apps (I use Slacker and this is how it works) will let you skip or pause from the lock screen. So it’s 1) turn on the phone 2) skip 3) more pancake time!

  • Palle

    winamp has got skip from lock-screen function..

  • Dave Grant

    Same for Android… you can do this from the lockscreen or notification shade. I haven’t used iOS in a while, but I’m wondering if this is a problem limited to that platform.

    The problem with buttons on the wall that control all manner of things in your home is: Kids. I’d rather have control of these things limited to the device that lives in my pocket, at least until they reach a reasonable age.

  • Amanda Smith

    Alternatively, you can learn how to use your phone. Almost every OS has controls from the lock screen including iOS and Android…

  • http://profiles.google.com/jessewardclark Jesse Clark

    Push the home button twice dummy. The music controls have been appearing there on the lock screen for years.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristopher.mortensen Kris Mortensen

    Along with Mark’s comment, I’m pretty sure most music apps on the iPhone do the same thing. I know for a fact this is true with the Music app and Spotify. Double click the home button, hit next on the music controls that pop up.

  • http://twitter.com/Tim_Hegberg Tim Hegberg

    It’s on iOS as well. Double tap the home button. It’s been there since iOS 1.1.1 which came out 4 months after the original iPhone was released. Basically, the author is an idiot.

  • http://twitter.com/Tim_Hegberg Tim Hegberg

    While I like the idea of a physical button on the wall from a design standpoint, it leaves way to much room for trolling from coworkers/parents/children/hipsters/etc. Using a smartphone is easily the most convenient method created as it requires the least effort. Would you rather pull out your iPhone, double tap the home button and press skip (or the equivalent for Windows Phone or Android) or would you rather walk across the room to a push a button? If I’m making pancakes, I don’t want to walk away from them. I’d rather have one hand on my spatula and another on my music controls.

    Also, the author is an idiot with first world problems.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1279142830 Ray Nath

    Hah. This article had to be troll bait right? The author obviously took a hell of a long time to type this out knowing that you can do all this from the lockscreen just to see how many people he could get to respond. A long way to go for a joke though…..unless the author was simply to ignorant to check a few things out before posting this….