Interview with TapTunes’ author: Dave Blundell

At the end of 2009, I was caught listening different. TapTunes had me shuffling albums in new ways and enjoying the cleverness of my index finger whilst bopping out to Ice Cube. Its author, Dave Blundell was kind enough to shed light on his vision of the iDevice, the App Store, and a lot more goodness.

TapTunes v2.3 David Blundell, TapTunes v2.3 – $1.99

All the goodness after the gap:

TMA: Dave, can you tell me a little about your programming background? What was the reason you took it up ?

One of my favorite memories growing up is my brother and I going down the block to play Nintendo with our friends down the block. The four of us would crowd around the TV and pass the NES controller around. I didn’t get the controller as much as the others, being the youngest and smallest, but I was still captivated by those old games, like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! and Super Mario 3. I was in awe of how much it could capture and engage us with just two buttons and a directional pad.

It was those early gaming experiences that planted the programming seed in me, but it wasn’t until high school that I got my first actual coding experience. During my junior and years, I took a class in Pascal and then one in C. These taught me the fundamentals of programming, which I was able to use to create programs on the programmable TI-83 calculator during physics class.

Coding on the TI-83 in high school was the best time I’ve ever had as a computer programmer. I remember hammering out bits of logic on my calculator while the teacher was up at the blackboard. I’d pretend to pay attention but would mostly be focused on the code. It was amazing to be able to program something then go right in on that same device and run what I’d just finished writing.

Since then, I’ve mainly done web development. I worked for four years at a small company in New Jersey. Our main product was a web-based application for pest control companies to manage basically every aspect of their business. You might be surprised at how many different things go into running a pest control company. It was a niche market, but our software was number one it so the company kept growing.

TMA: So how did you get the idea that you wanted to do it on the iDevice?

When the App Store was announced, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back and relive my own glory days of coding. That initial joy of programming had worn off to a large degree as I worked on software that I would never use in my day to day life, fighting deadlines and juggling projects. I saw the App Store as an opportunity to have fun programming and to work on exactly the types of programs that I would want to use.

In the spring of 2009 I taught myself Objective-C, and in May I left my web development job, a change which was unrelated to my iPhone development but did open up a lot of time to focus on building my apps. Then at the beginning of June I set off on a cross-country motorcycle trip which I’d been planning for over a year. Both of my apps at the time, TapTunes and Music Trivia, were based on iPhone OS 3.0, which wasn’t released until a couple weeks after I set off. Even more importantly, the apps weren’t finished, so I ended up finishing them at campsites and motels along the way. I holed myself away in a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina, put the finishing touches on both apps, submitted them to Apple, and set out west.

TMA: How does the iDevice platform compare to other platforms you have worked on?

Working with Objective-C and Cocoa Touch (Apple’s programming language and frameworks) versus other languages I’ve used in the past is much akin to the difference between using Apple’s operating system versus Windows. You can tell immediately that there was a whole lot of forethought put into the language and the tools, and each new framework is created from the bottom up, meaning that there are far fewer issues to deal with and when there are problems they are usually fixed without much headache.

That’s not to say that I haven’t needed to create workarounds from time to time, especially in TapTunes which goes quite in-depth with the media player frameworks, but in general I’ve been very, very happy with the overall experience.

TMA: What is your favourite feature?

It might sound lame, but my favorite feature is definitely the touch screen. I’m still amazed by it on a day to day basis. It’s super-responsive, the interface is simple, and it works well. Even the simplest task like bouncing through a table becomes fun on an iDevice.

TMA: How passionate are you about music?

I’ve been fairly passionate about music since junior high school. Before then I pretty much listened to whatever my brother was listening to at any given time. My tastes have changed quite a bit since then, but my love of music has remained constant.

I sometimes have trouble figuring out what people are saying, especially if it’s someone whose voice I’m not yet attuned to. This is made even more difficult when there are other noises going on, such as kitchen sounds or a television on in the background. In the face of this, I find that listening to music can be very relaxing, since I don’t have to interpret anything.

TMA: What are your favourite bands/genre/music?

Over the last few years, my taste has shifted somewhat from hard rock toward singer/songwriters. Some of my favorites are Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Mark Lanegan, and Tom Waits. I also listen to some instrumental bands like Red Sparowes and Dirty Three, as well as rock and a bit of alt-country.

TMA: Seems like we might have a lot to talk about. Anything changed in your musical tastes?

An interesting experience recently was the Alice In Chains reunion. Alice was my favorite band for years, and when the singer Layne Staley died I felt like I had lost an old friend. Since then my taste in music has changed, not to mention the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of growing up in the meantime. So I had very mixed feelings about their new album. Listening to it, it’s very interesting to see how it affects me now. It’s still great music and remains true to their legacy, but it no longer has the same spot in my heart as it once did. It makes me think of that old line: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

TMA: What will you do to change/help users listen to music with the iDevice?

There’s another saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The iPhone has such a great screen which can deliver great visual experiences. My main focus with TapTunes is to bring a much more visual music browsing experience to users so they can really take advantage of that screen.

The iPod app on the iPhone (or Music app on iPod Touches) is very straightforward and intuitive, but it doesn’t push the envelope as far as the interface goes. You’re basically scrolling through list after list, looking at words. The problem is, after a while certain names pop out at you more than others, since it would take far too much time to stop and think about each and every name in a list.

Alternatively, when you’re looking at pictures of album covers in TapTunes, each one hits you with emotions and memories that you associate with that particular album. Different ones will pop out at you at different times, depending upon your mood. You’re forced to actually consider what’s in your music collection, and the results can be surprising.

TMA: What features would you like to feature, but are limited by the platform?

All in all I’ve been quite lucky in that nearly everything I could think of has been possible using the frameworks provided by Apple. There is one feature which I have so far been unable to implement due to not being able to use the application music player and the iPod music player in the same app. (The application music player plays music within a single application and stops when the app is closed; the iPod music player will continue to play even after the app is closed because it’s using the same player as the Music/iPod app.)

What I’d like to do is to have an option to listen to audio previews of albums when you select an album. What would happen is, you tap on an album cover and a random song slowly fades in at the middle of the track. It plays softly so it’s not overpowering, then after 15 seconds or so it fades back out. This will add another dimension to the music browsing experience — not just visual but audible as well. I’m still hoping to work this out (perhaps for TapTunes 3.0) though it would be much easier if I had access to both the application player and the iPod player within the same app.

TMA: Well, rumour has it that iPhone OS 4.0 is imminent – perhaps these items will be addressed in future OS updates. What do you think about the iDevice as a music playing platform?

I think it’s a great music player. The problem with the original iPods was that it was another device you had to carry around in your pocket. With the iPhone, you’re already carrying around this device so there’s nothing more you need to put in your pocket. The iPod Touch is similar because you’ve got so much more than just a music player, so it’s not just a useless hunk of metal when you’re not listening to music. I haven’t seen any other multi-purpose device that has anywhere near as smooth a music experience as the iPhone and iPod Touch.

TMA: What feature do you wish Apple would implement to make music playing better?

I wish they offered in-ear headphones as a standard option, rather than something you have to buy separately afterwards. The standard earbuds just don’t cut it for me — it’s often hard to hear them over street or subway noise, they don’t isolate the sound to your ears, and they keep on falling out of your ears in any case! I haven’t tried Apple’s in-ear headphones though I expect they’re a vast improvement. I had been using iMetal headphones which worked quite well until the left earbud stopped working altogether.

TMA: Mate, I think you and I really have a lot to chat about. It’s pretty obvious that Apple have included rubbish earphones with the iPod/iPhone; we have an entire section devoted to headphones for listening to music, games, and movies.

TMA: Was your iDevice useful during your road trip?

My iPhone was a huge help on my road trip. I used it every day to help me plan that day’s riding. I had an atlas to do my general planning of which town I’d like to hit by nightfall, and then I’d plug that town into Maps on the iPhone to find out which roads to take and how many miles it would be. (My longest day was 640 miles from Austin to Anthony in Texas where it was over a hundred degrees for much of the ride.)

I also used the Maps application to find good places to eat. Those included a lot of barbecue joints, which is probably why I gained over ten pounds during the trip!

Sadly, the iPhone I started out the trip with is not the same one I ended the trip with. In fact I destroyed not one but two iPhones during my trip! The first one got completely waterlogged (as did I) during a downpour outside of Washington, DC. The phone still turned on, but the top inch of the touch screen no longer worked, rendering Maps useless since that’s where the search bar is. I replaced the phone and made sure to always keep the new one in a ziplock bag. The following week I got caught in another downpour for thirty miles, but the phone was safe.

TMA: Funny, when I bicycle with my iPod touch bluetoothing to my CyFi wireless speaker, I keep it in an attractive ziplock bag too! Anything else bad happen?

That phone made it all the way from DC to Arizona, where it got crushed when I had a minor spill and got caught on the bike. In case you’ve ever wondered, an iPhone can’t withstand nine hundred pounds of weight on top of it! I myself had to get some stitches in my knee after that fall, proving once again that my fate and that of my phones were very much entwined.

Luckily, the third phone appears to have been charmed, and the rest of the trip went without further incident.

TMA: While I hope you recover and keep churning out excellent apps for iDevice music lovers, I want to do a hint-hint, wink-wink sort of thing at the end. TMA users would love to do a code hunt with the prospect of winning a promo code from you. Do you think you could help them out there?

I suggest that your readers use their mice to sniff around the mice on my blog. They just might find what they’re looking for!

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