"I've nothing against synths, contrary to popular belief -- it's the machines who play the machines that worry me."
U2 Mobile Application Review
October 11, 2009
U2 are currently touring the world with their 360 stage. It has a giant claw, two mirrorballs, smoke machines, and a state-of-the-art moving videoscreen. Is any of this necessary? Of course not! Is anybody complaining about it being there? Some are, but not me!
So it is with the U2 mobile album, released in mid-September for the BlackBerry brand of smartphones. The application is designed to be your one-stop shop for everything related to No Line on the Horizon and the U2 360 tour. It comes with a lot of flair and fancy graphics too. Is any of it necessary? No. But if you are a U2 fan and own a BlackBerry, aren't you at least going to try it out?
The main screen offers four different directions to explore in an animated menu reminiscent of the flash applications the band would release as EPKs or CD-ROM extras in the late '90s. You can choose between: "No Line on the Horizon," "News," "360 Tour" and "Gallery." I'll describe each of them in turn.
"No Line on the Horizon" is the true "mobile album" part of the application. From here you are able to buy the album online or select any of the 11 tracks and explore more.
The purchase page takes you to a rather unremarkable Web site on the equally unremarkable BlackBerry browser. They seem to be targeting the BlackBerry-wielding execs who got luxury box tickets to the show, saw the BlackBerry ads, and are now U2 fans for the first time.
Purchasing the album allows you to listen to more than a 30-second snippet elsewhere in the application. However, in an extremely gracious move, they allow you to tell the BlackBerry where your own version of the album is if you purchased the tracks elsewhere. That really impressed me; when was the last time that a program included additional code to save you from making an unnecessary purchase?
If you click on one of the numbers from 1 to 11 you are taken to a jump page for that song. In most cases you are greeted with a choice of music videos, an interview (usually with Brian Eno) and a link to listen to the song with "Origami Photography." For example, click "2" and you are taken to the jump page for "Magnificent." From there you can watch Brian Eno talk about the recording session for 30 seconds, watch a video of the performance from Somerville, watch the music video shot in Fez, or watch the "origami" song performance.
The origami performances play the audio of the song while slowly flashing images of album art onto your screen like a mini screen saver. I haven't perused the deluxe edition of the album, but I'm assuming that the pictures you see are album art combined with a few hundred pictures that ended up on the cutting-room floor. Most of them are not photos of the band but rather mood pictures of flowers, buildings, and other still life. The cute part is the lyrics, which scroll up the screen in time to the music like the world's smallest karaoke machine.
Definitely a novel concept for a digitally downloaded album -- a step above the 11 MP3s, an album-only video, and a PDF of album art that you currently get with online music purchases. However, with the advent of Apple's new "cocktail" album format, expect things like this to become the norm.
The "News" section takes you to what is effectively an RSS reader linked to U2.com's feed. The interface is graphics intensive, but the articles themselves are plain text. Of course BlackBerry could not stop at merely allowing you to download the latest U2 news, they had to show off their push technology by automatically sending new material to your device and alerting you (through the presence of an extra No Line equals (=) sign on the application icon). Ironically, clicking on the "U2 Mobile Album Goes Live" article returns a "This news item is unavailable. Reason: SAXException..." error! If the only time you ever read U2 news is when you have your BlackBerry and the only site you go to for U2 news is U2.com, then this might possibly be the second best news reader you will ever use on your device (more on that statement later).
Clicking on "360 Tour" takes you to a tour schedule page with a list of the shows from the first two legs of the tour. The list is not dynamically updated, so they are still convinced there is a New York show on Sept. 25th. (It was moved to the 23rd.) If you click on a show, you are taken to a visual representation of the stadium with the 360 stage on the field. For those of you who saw the teaser trailer on BlackBerry.com, this immediately has you thinking about tracking where other fans are in the stadium and where the band is on stage.
Unfortunately this feature, if it ever existed, was dropped from the final release. I checked mid-show in Foxboro and there was nothing on the screen except an empty stadium. Perhaps they realized that they were going to have enough trouble providing people a cellphone signal at the concert without upping the ante and providing realtime GPS positioning of several thousand BlackBerry devices. Or perhaps they realized that having people taking photos, tweeting, live streaming and Facebooking the show was distracting enough without having fans staring continually into their BlackBerry trying to find their friends.
Finally, the "Gallery" is a mobile photo album of band photos from the various No Line photo shoots as well as photos from each of the North American concerts. The interface is similar to the BlackBerry Facebook photo album application and currently offers 24 pictures for viewing on your BlackBerry screen. This is the least in-your-face part of the Mobile Album and works fine for what it is.
So where does that leave you? If you are easily impressed by slick interfaces and like to show off your fandom through your BlackBerry, this is a great application. Even if you are a casual U2 fan or casual BlackBerry user, it is still worth a download. But at the end of the day, it is a gimmick. Eventually, you will run out of storage on your BlackBerry and you will make the decision to delete the application and in a few months will forget it ever existed. If you wanted to listen to the album or watch videos on your BlackBerry, it is far easier to purchase them from your favorite music store, transfer them to your BlackBerry and listen to them using the same media player you use for all your other albums. If you are serious about keeping up with U2 news, you would install Viigo and add the RSS feeds for various U2 sites. For tour information, U2tours.com has a mobile version that provides searchable setlists via the BlackBerry browser. And if you really want photos of the band, use the BlackBerry Facebook app to view the albums of your U2 buddies or use Viigo to follow Twitter feeds with real-time photos via mobypicture.com, yfrog, or others. Better yet, crank up the resolution on your desktop PC and feast your eyes on the photos in Flickr.
In short, there is no need for this application, given all that the BlackBerry is already capable of. But if necessity was all that mattered, U2 would be walking out onto a large black rectangular stage with two columns of speakers stacked on either side and playing no-bells, no-whistles rock and roll each night. For a fan who became hooked during the Zooropa tour, that's not my idea of fun. And as long as I am allowed to have fun on my BlackBerry, the mobile application will remain.
[Note: additional application screenshots are available in our Flickr photoset]
© @U2/Lawrence, 2009.