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Piano app for iPad proves screen size matters

Take a sneak peek at the Nota app for the Apple iPad, a tool for learning and practicing piano.

Image of the Nota piano training application for the Apple iPad.
Seen here is the Nota piano training app for the iPad, with a scale inset of the same app for the iPhone. The iPad's larger screen offers practical enhancements such as life-size keys, a two-octave keyboard, and the possibility of two-hand use. (Click image for full-size.) Melvin Rivera

Of all the questions surrounding Apple's forthcoming iPad tablet, the one I find the hardest to answer is, "What can it do that my laptop and smartphone don't already deliver?"

The question is tough to answer for two reasons. For one, until we see how developers are able to tailor their apps, we really can't say to what degree the iPad experience is going to differ from the iPhone or iPod Touch. More importantly, but harder to communicate, is how much the iPad's 9.7-inch touch screen fundamentally changes the nature of how we interact with it, compared with a 3.5-inch iPhone, or an unresponsive laptop screen.

We've already glimpsed how one app developer was able to graduate his miniature DJ turntable iPhone app into a realistic, life-size audio mixer for the iPad. In a similar example, app developer Melvin Rivera shares a handful of final screenshots of his piano training app Nota, reconfigured for the iPad.

Arguably, piano and DJ apps aren't likely to be primary uses for the iPad, but both of these early examples illustrate how a change in screen size means much more than larger images. In both examples, I would make the case that the difference between the original iPhone app and its iPad counterpart is a difference between novelty and practicality.

Nota's developer Melvin Rivera had this to say about his experience programming for the iPad:

Designing for the iPad was a much bigger challenge than designing for the iPhone was. You quickly realize what an amazing job Apple did in the UI for the devices. It was important for me to have as much feature parity between the two devices but at the same time I did not want to be limited by that. So the iPad version will have certain advantages over the iPhone version. For one, the much bigger size allows for a 2 octave piano comfortably. It also allows the design to be more like physical objects. The piano keys no longer go screen to screen, they are within a keyboard. This is the paradigm of the iPad design, it took me several iterations of the design to come to this conclusion. You are touching a device with real-life objects and they respond to your gestures. It is brilliant!

Of course, piano and DJ apps are both examples of apps trying to graphically represent and replace actual objects in the real world. It makes sense that larger screens do a better job representing life-size objects. Whether the iPad will do a better job than the iPhone when it comes to representing abstract data (your tweets, Facebook account, Internet radio stations) remains to be seen. Some apps will just be more practical on the small screen--or more specifically, on a small device. Yelp for iPad could be amazing, but it's the kind of app you want in your pocket, not on your coffee table.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see which iPad apps really benefit from the transition, which ones don't, and how we adjust our expectations of what "apps" can deliver.