Smule's Ocarina: This Is How You Build A Great iPhone App

Smule has done it again. The company behind the ingenious lighter app that took the iPhone by storm a few months ago has launched Ocarina, a networked musical instrument that allows you to listen to songs being played around the world in real time. The app costs 99 cents, and you can grab it here.

As an instrument Ocarina has been perfectly executed, and is much more suitable for the iPhone’s screen size than the virtual keyboards and guitars that litter the App Store. To play, you blow into the iPhone’s microphone while fingering notes using the 4 ‘holes’ on the ocarina. Smule says that the microphone can detect subtle variations in air flow, explaining that “unlike other iPhone audio apps, the sound is not pre-compiled but is generated by the notes, gestures and nuance of the individual performer”.

And for the vast majority of the population that has no idea how to play an ocarina, the app has another awesome feature: you can listen in on the songs being played on any iPhone worldwide. After selecting the ‘globe’ view, the app presents you with a 3D world littered with a number of little dots presumably representing every active Ocarina. The app will automatically start playing one of these, highlighted by a series of green blobs rising from Earth, each of which corresponds to a note. If you don’t like what you’re listening to, you can hit the ‘next’ button to start playing a new song (you’ll probably be using this button often, as many of the people playing are awful).

This is how an iPhone app should be done. As we pointed out in September, too few developers are leveraging the platform’s network effect to differentiate themselves, instead choosing to develop standalone apps that can be easily cloned. By being first to market with this app, Smule has safeguarded itself against the competition: even if another ocarina app comes along that is network compatible, Smule’s application will likely have the largest user base and will be very difficult to catch up with. And if Smule is smart, it’ll keep making these virtual instruments, allowing it to share the same network to create a worldwide orchestra that would be nearly impossible to replicate (and it sounds like it will – the company has developed an audio platform called ChucK that will likely be applied to other instruments).

For another app that is trying to tap into the iPhone’s network effect, check out Chess With Friends, which we covered yesterday.