ramblings of joe / posts


i haven’t written about my new app Albums on this site, which is a little bit intentional and a little bit of an oversight. let me explain.

i don’t know who reads this blog. intentionally. i have no analytics, no email subscription list, nothing. if i had to guess, the number of people that read any given article is more than five and less than one hundred. i’m not sure if that’s me being dismissive of my own reach or trying to be somewhat realistic about the deluge of content we wade through every day.1

so back to not writing about my new app here. it’s a bit of an oversight because this is my “official” website. it’s the one that bears my name and the one that has some reasonably important announcements on it. it should probably contain at least some reference to my first indie iOS app in over a decade. as for it being intentional, i don’t consider the app to be “finished” yet. it’s still missing functionality that i desperately wanted to put into the first release, but somehow convinced my perfectionistic ADHD brain to push below the line. i stubbornly didn’t want to announce the app in a long-form post until it was “ready”.

but that’s kinda silly since as we’ve established: i’m not sure if any significant number of people read this blog and even if they do, is an app ever truly finished? i may be waiting a long time.

so without further delay: i shipped version 1.0 (and 1.1) of my first indie app in over 12 years. it’s called Albums, and it’s one of the things i’m most proud of building.

Some screenshots from my new app 'Albums' displaying a portion of my music library.

the origin story

forgive me, i see myself as a bit of a story teller. let me share how this all began.

i love music. i grew up taking piano lessons, then took up the violin, and layered on a bit of trumpet for good measure. but the violin is where i spent the most time and energy growing up. as a kid, my parents convinced me to audition for the Pikes Peak Youth Symphony after taking violin lessons for a short time. my audition was a success and i made it in to the all-strings group named “Amadeus”. that year with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, i was given the role of first chair in the first violin section – the “concert master”.

i really enjoyed that year with the youth symphony and as i listened to and performed music, it became an integral part of me. when i listened to music it was always more than the sum of it’s parts – it was a beautiful, complex, and wonderful construction that was powerful and moving.

fast forward a few years and we entered the MP3 player wars. Walkman, Creative, Zune, and of course the iPod. i had several iPods over the years, and as the storage in them grew, so did my music collection. my iPod was always stuffed to capacity with music. having grown up playing mostly classical music, i was used to musical works being long dramatic stories, with different movements and moods throughout the piece. that led me to really appreciate the craft that some artists put into the composition of their albums. i’ll never forget listening to Linkin Park’s Meteora album for the first time, where each track seamlessly transitioned into the next to tell one complete story.

my love for albums never really waned, and although i’ll definitely listen to a catchy single or the occasional playlist, most of my music listening is done “the old fashioned way”. despite the “iTunes top charts” and the new ability to purchase singles from an album, i still preferred listening to complete albums in tracklist order.

so let’s skip forward again, to Rdio, Spotify, and Apple Music. fundamentally, nothing had changed – you could still go and add an album to your collection and listen to the whole thing through. but subtly, little by little, the priorities of the apps themselves were geared more toward discovery and synthetic groupings. trending songs, playlists by mood, and of course the two words that signal an algorithm: “for you”.

at some point, enough was enough. Apple’s Music app shed any pretense of caring about my music collection, and instead focused on upselling all of the different content the platform had to offer. yes, you could still dig in and find your carefully curated collection, but even that functionality started to decay as it was deprioritized. you could no longer edit metadata, the ability to sort your collection differently was taken away, even the density of albums on a single screen was diminished.2

so after putting up with yet another iOS release in 2019 that caused the Music app to drift further away from how i wanted it to work, i decided to do something about it. over the holiday break in 2019 i dove into the music apis that were provided on iOS and had the core premise of the app working. i finally had an app that opened up to my collection of music, just like my iPod did originally.

i continued to tinker and build out the app, and was using it every day to listen to my collection. i thought it would be fun to release it and started putting in some customization options so people could use the app in a way that made sense to them.

then… march, 2020 happened.

don’t call it a comeback

summer of last year i was leaving my position at Apple and was feeling motivated to work on Albums again. although it had been almost three years since i had started working on the app – and several other iOS music apps had been released in the interim – i still felt like it was a good concept that wasn’t represented in any of the other offerings.

over the years i had continued to use and refine the core concept despite it not being anywhere near finished. but over the last several months i’ve put countless hours into design and development of the app to take it from a “working concept” to version 1.1. like i said at the outset, it’s one of the things i’m most proud of shipping in my career.

you can read more about some of the current features (and upcoming roadmap) on the app’s product page3, but i also want to dive into a few things here and then share a bit of my underlying decision making process for the app.

what gives me the right?

in Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, there’s an iconic exchange at the beginning of the movie where some Batman copycat vigilantes are bailed out by [the real] Batman. They ask him:

What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?!

to which Batman responds:

“I’m not wearing hockey pads.”

i always got a kick out of this exchange, and i think it gives me an opportunity to explain why i believe Albums is different than Apple Music and what my vision for the app is and how i will grow the app over time without allowing it to repeat the issues of Apple’s Music app (et al).

so here’s the difference between Albums and Apple’s Music app or Spotfiy – my guiding principles so to speak.

i care about music

this may seem obvious, and i’m not dismissing other apps as coming from people who don’t care about music, but year after year it seems like the big music distribution platforms care more about their profits than the music. music is art, and it deserves to be enjoyed how the artists intended and the listener desires. that will always be top of mind for me with Albums.

i care about albums, they’re a first-class citizen

i rarely listen to playlists, and often if i’m listening to a single, it’s because i’m mixing it into my listening of the rest of the artist’s works. the big apps lean towards discovery through playlists, curated discovery mechanisms, and top charts (singles). those all have a place, but Albums will be focused on albums as the main grouping of music.

simple, yet powerful

i believe the best apps are easy to use for the core job[s] of the app, but provide additional functionality at arms reach if you need it. i think apps should require minimal set up and close to no training to dive in and do what you want it to do, but as you start to poke around and experiment you’ll find powerful features beneath the surface. as i add functionality to Albums i will strive to strike this balance.

customizable, but opinionated

similarly, i believe the best apps allow customization, but take a stance on core tenets. it’d be foolish of me to say that my way of organizing or reasoning about my music collection is the only “right” way to do it. however, i think it’s very easy to find yourself on the other end of the spectrum with a setting for every possible thing in the app. i plan to maintain and build Albums as an opinionated piece of software, but allow ample customization where possible.

meticulously crafted

some of the best apps i’ve ever used are mostly custom, but they don’t seem that way. the best apps feel like they “belong” on the platform in every way, but also sweat all the details and care about the entire experience which leads to custom implementations of things to really nail it. much of Albums is the same way – it should seem entirely native and unoriginal, but almost every single piece of the interface is carefully thought through and implemented.

i’m planning on diving into some of these things in future blog posts, but i’ll share one here. would you believe me if i told you the volume bar – although it looks similar to volume bars you’ve seen in other apps, including Apple Music – is entirely custom? it took hours of work to get it to look, feel, and act like “any other volume scrubber”. there isn’t some drag and drop element for it, and to really nail all the little interactions4 takes an inordinate amount of work and attention to detail.

your library comes first, music discovery comes second

this is one of the hardest differentiators to convey well. i want Albums to be a full-featured music player on iOS, but i’m not necessarily going to add functionality just because it can be done. put another way: i’m planning on adding the ability to search for new albums from Apple Music, but it shouldn’t take priority over the core focus on your existing music library.

api limitations

Apple doesn’t give full access to their api to third-party developers. Albums will need to work within those constraints and sometimes functionality will be limited due to those restrictions. however, i’m choosing to see this as a strength: Albums can’t exist entirely on it’s own, some functionality will need to be outsourced to the Music app. because this outsourcing is necessary, it allows me to be picky about the functionality that goes into the app. i don’t want to bolt on a feature just because it technically can be done, i want to stay true to the focus of the app.

in closing

i hope this gives a bit more insight into why music is so important to me, why i’m building Albums, and what my guiding principles are for the app going forward.

if any of this resonates with you, i’d love if you’d check out Albums on the App Store. it’s available for $4.995 which i believe is fair for an app of it’s caliber and feature set. i’ve been building apps for Apple platforms in one form or another since 2008 when Apple first announced the App Store, and i’ve been using every bit of that know-how to build the best app i can for the love of music.

thanks for reading! i’m on Mastodon, Instagram, and Twitter6 if you want to follow me or say hi.

  1. which is only getting worse with the rise of AIs LLMs vomiting prose all over the internet, but i digress. ↩︎

  2. since the moment in time i’m describing, particularly this year (2023), some of these changes have been addressed in the Music app, but it’s still fallen quite a bit. ↩︎

  3. the product page really needs some cleanup… it reads like a blog post of it’s own, and i need to do a better job of highlighting what the app does, but that’s a job for another day. ↩︎

  4. not only interacting with the volume scrubber directly, but interacting with the device volume in other ways like the hardware buttons or control center. ↩︎

  5. or equivalent in your local currency as determined by Apple’s mappings. ↩︎

  6. although i’ve been on Twitter less and less over the last few months. ↩︎