Yearly Archives: 2010

Holiday bundles and no-brainer promotions

Two new bundles were announced this week: “The Indie Mac Gift Pack”:https://indiemacgiftpack.com/ (6 great Mac apps for $60) and the “Fusion Ads Holiday Bundle”:https://fusionads.net/bundle/ (an assortment of web design-related apps, icons, and more for $79). I love apps in both of these bundles and recommend you check them out, buy what you need, or gift them to a friend. There’s a fear among many developers that a bundle can cheapen the healthy Mac software market, but both these bundles avoid that with a higher price and the feel of being put together carefully.

As a comparison, here’s a “Macworld article on holiday bundles from 2009”:http://www.macworld.com/article/145005/2009/12/holiday_bundles.html. That collection seems kind of random despite several good apps in the list.

And sales for the Indie Mac Gift Pack are split evenly to the developers, so we know it’ll be a nice revenue boost for them during the holidays. From the FAQ:

“Hey… you’re ripping these developers off, aren’t you?” … “No… we ARE these developers. Our six small companies decided to band together and do a promotion, to see if it works for us. We’re splitting all the proceeds evenly. There’s no middleman here.”

I’ve never participated in a bundle, but after some of the “MacHeist controversy”:http://homepage.mac.com/simx/technonova/reports/from_the_mouths_of_developers.html I developed a set of rules that I run Riverfold promotions on. These are the easy things that I can always say “yes” to without much thought:

Coupons are great. My coupons rarely expire and I don’t care if sites like “retailmenot.com”:http://www.retailmenot.com/ keep a list of them. Saving a few bucks might be the difference between someone buying my software and not.

Giving out software to bloggers is great. Inspired by “Wil Shipley’s C4 talk”:http://www.viddler.com/explore/rentzsch/videos/4/, I’ve “blogged about this”:http://www.manton.org/2008/04/wii_transfer_serial.html. Apple employees get free licenses too.

Small promotions are great. I freely give out copies to small sites that want to give away licenses of my software to encourage people to post comments. I think readers interpret these (correctly) as software developers doing something generous for a small site, instead of the gut reaction when you see software listed on MacZot or MacUpdate Promo (“are sales so bad they had to sell their software for half price?”).

Charity is great. I loved being a part of “Indie+Relief”:http://www.indierelief.com/, the Pan-Mass Challenge auctions, and other bundles that go directly to a cause. Just like smaller promotions, these are good for users (deals on software), good for developers (helps with marketing), good for charity (donated money), and good for the software market (these aren’t developers who are making a sacrifice because their sales aren’t doing well — it’s charity).

Now that I’ve seen a bundle like the “Indie Mac Gift Pack”:https://indiemacgiftpack.com/, I think I can more clearly judge a unique bundle opportunity when it comes along. Does it minimize the middleman? Does it respect the individual apps as peers? Does it use the total bundle price to underscore the value of software rather than cheapen it? Then it’s probably a good deal for everyone.

360iDev Austin (in tweets)

On “episode 35 of Core Intuition”:http://www.coreint.org/2010/11/episode-35-wrap-it-up-in-cocoa/ I mentioned attending the 360iDev conference, and we brought it up again on the next show while plugging 360MacDev. I had a great time at the conference and hope to attend another one in the future.

The best part was meeting all the iPhone developers who I’ve never crossed paths with, and catching up with others I’d only met briefly before. iPhone developers come from a mix of places, from old Mac developers to web developers to traditional mobile or game developers. While there’s a risk that having so many small regional conferences will fragment the community, this concentrated group of mostly iPhone-only developers made for a great few days of sessions and discussion.

And my main concern leading into the conference — that the hotel location would make it difficult for people to head downtown or see other parts of Austin — turned out to be mostly a non-issue. I had a great time hanging out with everyone in the evening, and hope some of you will be back for SXSW.

I used Tweet Library to “collect about 120 tweets from attendees”:http://www.tweetlibrary.com/manton/360idevaustin at the conference: reaction to sessions, quotes, speaker slide URLs, dinner out, and more. Capturing an event like this is why I built the app. What you had for dinner isn’t interesting by itself, but in context it is powerful because it tells a story.

Faster support response times

In an “interview with Kevin Hoctor on episode 5 of the iDeveloper Live podcast”:http://ideveloper.tv/shows, Scotty referenced my comment from Core Intuition that customers are so used to terrible support that they don’t mind a few days or even a week delay. I thought this was maybe taken out of context a little since we were talking about vacations, so I went back to listen to what I said:

“Most people are thrilled to get a response in a few days, maybe a week they’re still cool with it. They are used to sending support email to companies and not getting a response any time soon or maybe not at all in some cases.”

Of course I didn’t mean I strive for week delays before a customer gets a response, but looking back I think Scotty’s interpretation was right: in a way this was a confession that I’ve fallen down when it comes to support. My response times for Tweet Library questions are still very good (usually same day), but it’s dragging for my other products. Even when I’m quick to respond to an initial email, difficult follow-up questions often won’t see an answer for some time. I’m just not as responsive as I was when I wrote “this blog post about good support in 2007”:http://www.manton.org/2007/02/customer.html.

The worst part are the emails that fall through the cracks. They are on their 2nd or 3rd response to a problem that I don’t understand, or they’re waiting on a solution that isn’t ready, and months go by before I can pick up the thread again. I hate this.

I’m going to use this opportunity to get back to where I should be: less than 24-hour response in all cases, for all products. I’m adding a “stats section to my support page”:http://www.riverfold.com/support/ to keep me in check, and I’ve seeded it with response times for the most recent support questions via email and forums. This will also give customers an idea of what to expect without an explicit promise from me.

$1 apps won’t dominate the Mac App Store

“Marco Arment wrote an interesting piece”:http://www.marco.org/1432156914 on the Mac App Store shortly after it was announced. I was nodding my head in agreement for much of it, until I got to this part:

“And if the Mac App Store is only populated by a subset of today’s Mac software, a few key points (such as ‘Inexpensive’) still won’t be true. This is why I believe that the Mac App Store will be dominated by (and become known for) apps that don’t exist on the Mac today.”

He makes great points, and I think his assumptions about Apple’s rules are correct. But newcomers dominating the store? And $1 apps as the second most popular price point on the Mac? I’m not convinced.

Many iPhone app hits lend themselves to a mobile environment, but the Mac is different because people usually buy computers to get work done. You don’t have your MacBook Pro with you while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store. You don’t have it at a party when your friend tells you about the latest game. You don’t hand your computer to your kids when they’re bored in the car and want to play Angry Birds.

If $1 apps will be so common on the Mac App Store, why aren’t they common on the iPad? In the iPad top 10 right now there are only two 99-cent apps. Prices around $2.99 or $4.99 are much more common, and there are plenty of $10 apps as well in the top paid and especially top grossing lists. The iPad app making the most money right now is a $20 music app called “djay”.

I think $10-$20 will be pretty common on the Mac App Store, but not $1, and not even $2 or $3. Something that’s priced so cheap sends a clear message on the Mac: this app is useless and should have been free.

As I said recently on “Core Intuition”:http://www.coreint.org/, I absolutely wish all the best of luck to iOS developers and designers moving to the Mac. I had a great time hanging out with a mostly iOS group at 360iDev last month; these guys are ambitious and smart and bring innovation to the platform because they don’t have the baggage that the rest of us have. 2011 will be a fantastic year for new Mac software and for indie developers!

But take a good look at some of your favorite apps for iPhone and iPad and you’ll see that for the most part they lack the depth to compete with established Mac software. The workhorses on your Mac — text editors, image editors, file transfer apps, version control clients, web site tools — won’t be knocked off by new competition easily.

Maybe 10.7 Lion will be a revolution, but when the Mac App Store first launches on 10.6 it’s going to contain familiar software at familiar prices.

Laughing at the guidelines

Apple’s announcement yesterday of a Mac App Store is big news. As soon as the event was over, journalists reached out to developers to get feedback on what it means for existing Mac shops. Reading the variety of responses is fascinating to me, and I contributed some quotes for articles in “Macworld”:http://www.macworld.com/article/155061/2010/10/developers_mac_app_store.html and “Cult of Mac”:http://www.cultofmac.com/mac-app-store-more-developer-reaction/65036. There’s also a “write-up on Ars”:http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2010/10/mac-app-store-boon-or-bust-for-developers.ars.

Here’s “Wolf’s take on the guidelines”:http://rentzsch.tumblr.com/post/1369652253/mac-app-store:

“My fellow Mac developers are laughing at the Mac App Store guidelines. They’re reporting that apps they’ve been shipping for years — a number of them Apple Design Award-winning — would be rejected from the Mac App Store. These are proven apps, beloved by their users. The current guidelines are clearly out-of-touch.”

Every developer I’ve talked to uses at least some private APIs on the Mac, often to work around bugs or limitations in current APIs. It’s disappointing that the Mac App Store is shipping before 10.7, because 10.7 would be a good opportunity to find out why developers still need private APIs and bake support directly into the next version of Mac OS X to solve common issues.

Can you imagine such rock-solid apps as BBEdit or Transmit being rejected from the Mac App Store? It’s going to be a lonely launch day full of hasty iOS ports if Apple doesn’t show some common sense when approving Mac apps.

Free 1-star reviews

Before I released “Tweet Library”:http://www.riverfold.com/software/tweetlibrary/, I talked to everyone who would listen about the price. Several people suggested I go with a free app, but use in-app purchase to upgrade to the full version. Two apps that handle this well include “Twitterrific”:http://twitterrific.com/ and “SimpleNote”:http://simplenoteapp.com/. Countless games also take this approach.

It’s the closest thing the App Store has to demos, but it comes at a cost: anyone can leave a 1-star “too expensive” review of your app without even upgrading to the full version. At that point they are not even rating the app they downloaded (a free, limited version that probably works just fine); they are simply commenting on a portion of the app they didn’t want to buy.

There are two ways to give me feedback about Tweet Library:

  • Email support, post to Twitter, or write on your blog about the software. This is free.

  • Leave a review in the App Store. This is $9.99.

I’m very comfortable with this model. The quality of feedback I get in email is extremely high, whether the customer has bought the app or not, and the App Store reviews aren’t cluttered with pricing rants.

Tweet Library 1.0

If you purchased, tweeted, blogged about, rated, or mentioned Tweet Library thank you. I’ve been very happy to see how well it is being received. I built this app because I wanted to do more with Twitter, but I didn’t really know until it was released if anyone else would care.

The truth is, I released it a tiny bit too early — there are a few annoying bugs that I’ll need to fix soon for 1.0.1 — but it was a long development cycle, and faced with getting burned out on a project the only thing I know how to do is ship it. Then I can use the reaction from real customers to tell me if I’m on the right track and where to go next.

I’ve already blogged about the pricing and viability of third-party Twitter apps, though I hadn’t officially announced the app yet:

“When Twitter for iPad shipped it jumped to the number 1 spot in free apps, but maybe you don’t have to compete directly with that. Maybe if you hold your ground somewhere in the top paid list, that’s enough to find an audience.”

Tweet Library has only been out for 3 full days, and I don’t want to jinx it, but so far this theory is holding. The app went to #2 for top grossing iPad apps in social networking in the first day. I didn’t expect that, but at $10 I can see how it might happen. Then it also climbed to #2 in top paid iPad apps in the same category, and stayed there for a couple days before dropping to #3 as I write this. The only other Twitter apps in any of the top 10 lists for iPad are Twitter’s official app and TweetDeck, both free.

Let me repeat that because it kind of blows my mind a little: Tweet Library has been the best-selling iPad Twitter app since it was released.

How did I successfully ship an app in a crowded market at literally 2x the price of any other app? Two things:

Refuse to compete on price. I felt so strongly about this that I was willing to launch and fail. If the App Store couldn’t support $10 Twitter apps, then I would bow out. I saw in a comment on TUAW that someone would wait until the price lowered, but I hope to avoid the pricing gimmicks common to the App Store. There’s no intro price for Tweet Library, and the price is not going to change. I believe consistency is the best long-term plan for app pricing.

Market the app as something new first and yet another Twitter app second. I believe the key to selling Tweet Library is to focus the marketing around what makes it special: archiving tweets, curating tweets, filtering tweets. Yes, you can also post to Twitter and see mentions or reply to DMs, but that is just the price to get in the door. Tweet Library doesn’t do those common tasks perfectly yet, but customers seem willing to cut me some slack because of all the other unique features that the app offers.

So, up next I’m going to fix bugs, and I’m going to add features, and I’m going to listen to customers. I’m sure it will soon drop out of the top 10 and other Twitter apps will take its place, but I feel like the launch was strong enough to prove that I’ve got something. I intend to carve out a little niche in the Twitter market and execute on it.

EE tweets

I submitted my new iPad app to Apple earlier this week. It hasn’t been reviewed yet, but Ryan Irelan has been using the beta to curate a “collection of ExpressionEngine conference tweets over on the EE Insider blog”:http://eeinsider.com/blog/eeci-tweet-collection/. The app may still only be in the hands of my friends and beta testers, but it’s great to see how it could be used in the real world.

So that’s one feature of the app: grouping tweets together around topics, events, conferences, categories, whatever, and then publishing them with one click so they can be shared with friends and indexed by Google. There’s more of course. I’ll be getting the marketing web site up soon, and a screencast too, hopefully before the app is approved! Although I’m quick to complain about App Store review delays, in this case I’m counting on a week delay so that I can get my act together.

Birdfeed, etc.

He snuck it in under a commentary on Alex Payne’s excellent “last post about Twitter”:http://al3x.net/2010/09/15/last-thing-about-twitter.html, but we now have a “Birdfeed postmortem of sorts from Buzz Andersen”:http://log.scifihifi.com/post/1144913920/in-a-way-the-twitter-platform-has-come-full. I’m particularly interested in where Buzz thinks the Twitter app market is going:

“Does this mean that there’s no longer room for third party Twitter clients? My suspicion is that people will continue to make them, but it seems to me that they’re already on the road to becoming increasingly uniform and commoditized as the Twitter experience is more sharply defined by Twitter itself (as my Birdfeed collaborator Neven Mrgan has suggested to me, Twitter clients are going the way of email clients).”

It seems nearly everyone thinks competing with Twitter’s official app is a bad idea. “Here’s Tapbots revealing Tweetbot”:http://tapbots.com/blog/business/say-hello-to-tweetbot shortly after the Tweetie acquisition:

“But this news changes things for us. We probably won’t be able to charge for the app anymore. Who’s going to pay for a Twitter client when ‘Tweetie’ is free?”

I think the problem isn’t trying to build any Twitter app. The problem is building a mainstream Twitter client. The official iPhone and iPad apps, plus the redesigned web site, are so good that it’s futile to go head to head with them. You can’t undercut on price, and they are so well coded you’d need a talented full-time team to out-engineer them.

As I said in “my last Twitter post”:http://www.manton.org/2010/09/next_generation.html, the trick is to look past the API. What would I want Twitter to add to the platform if I had my way? Design an app around that and you might have something interesting.

The theme in Buzz’s post that resonated the strongest with me is the emotional drain that building an app like this can have. The competition is intense. There’s a feeling that if you don’t have every little feature when you ship, you’ll be laughed out of the App Store. That is certainly on my mind, especially as “I intend to push the price”:http://www.manton.org/2010/06/10_ipad_apps.html in this market, and even with beta feedback I’m still not sure how my app is going to be received in the real world.

Bookshelf Touch

Bookshelf screenshot Although I had worked a little on iOS apps before, updating an existing app for the iPad and tinkering with unfinished apps, the first 1.0 for iOS that I played a significant role in just shipped last week: a “mobile version of Bookshelf”:http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vitalsource-bookshelf/id389359495?mt=8 for VitalSource. The iPhone version has been in development off and on for a while, but I took over the project fairly late in development, with a coding frenzy through the summer as we switched file formats and scrambled to finish in time for fall students.

Today the app broke into the App Store’s top 25 for free Education apps.

It’s designed for existing VitalSource customers, supporting both our file formats (for XML-based reflowable content or PDF-like fixed layout), with synced highlights, figure search, and offline access. At its core the app is 3 parts: a large C++ codebase, brand new Objective-C UI code, and a bunch of clever WebKit and JavaScript work. In many ways it’s a more difficult project than my other iPad app (still in development), but some great coders contributed to different parts of the architecture, before and after I joined the project.

Nearly 10 years ago, when I was hired at VitalSource to build the Mac version of our e-book reader, we delivered textbooks on DVD-ROMs and our technology was years ahead of everyone else. Today, and especially post-iPad, the market is a lot different, with some beautiful competition like “Inkling”:http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/inkling/id379351586?mt=8. Bookshelf for iPhone wasn’t first to the App Store, but it inherits an existing user base, strong platform, and large book inventory. I like VitalSource’s chances.

Linchpin

I like “Seth Godin”:http://sethgodin.typepad.com/. I haven’t read all his books, but I really enjoyed “The Dip”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591841666?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591841666 and “Tribes”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591842336?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591842336. They were quick reads (I got the first on audio, the other in print). He seemed to crack the problem of getting a business book down to its core idea and not using any more pages than needed.

So it surprised me when I picked up his latest, “Linchpin”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591843162?ie=UTF8&tag=mantonorg&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=1591843162, and months later I’m still not even halfway through. There’s nothing wrong with the content; I like what I’ve read so far. But it doesn’t flow the same way his other writing does, and at twice as long it doesn’t have the same structure.

Finally I realized I was doing it wrong. The best way to approach Linchpin is non-sequentially. Now I just jump to any random page, read a few profiles for the people and companies he uses as examples, and then 5 minutes later put it down again. I get just as much out of the book, but without the guilt of staring at the remainder of unfinished pages.

Honeymoon world tour

“Via Daring Fireball”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2010/09/12/lanyrd, I’m loving “this blog and idea”:http://sparkabout.net/ from newlyweds Simon Willison and Natalie Downe, who are traveling the world on a working honeymoon:

“We’ve been in Morocco now for just over a month. We launched Lanyrd from a rented apartment in Casablanca, and we’re writing this update from a Riad in Marrakech. So far, travelling and working on a startup have complemented each other surprisingly well.”

In 1999, Traci and I took a similar but shorter 2-month vacation to Europe where we both worked remotely. This was before wi-fi, so much of the destination planning centered around pay-by-the-hour internet cafes or reliable hotel phone lines for dial-up. Lots of backpacking, cheap rooms, and trains and boats between 6 countries. We were constantly broke and our accommodations varied between the crummy (freezing showers at a hostel) to the beautiful (freezing showers with a Mediterranean view), but those were easily some of the best weeks of my life. At the end of the trip we got engaged and came back to America to get married and have kids and never leave our neighborhood again.

Someday we’ll go back.

I hope iAd fails

I feel bad admitting it, because some of my friends are betting on iAd revenue to feed their family, but I’m just not on board with Apple running an advertising network. I don’t want to see ads in my apps, and I don’t want Apple to ever lose even a little of what it means to be a product-driven company.

We talk about this on Core Intuition. Nearly every chance I get I like to point out that all these free Google apps come at a cost. Take this tweet from last year:

“Google Voice is so awesome but I just think it’s dangerous to give Google this much power. Slippery slope, folks. You are not a customer.”

And this comment on MetaFilter:

“If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

Some apps should absolutely be ad-suported (such as a search engine or social network), and many can be freemium (free versions supported by higher-priced subscriptions), but when given a choice I’d rather pay a fair price for a good service. When your customers are not your users, the product will suffer.

I know the world is full of ads already. We’re used to it — numb to it, maybe. But think about what the App Store has done: millions of people are paying real money for apps that complement ad-supported web sites. These same people would never pay a subscription fee to use the web site, but they’ll pay a few bucks for the same features in an iPhone app and it seems perfectly normal.

Do we really want to give that marketplace up? Because once it’s gone, and iAds are the norm, it will be an uphill battle to get anyone to pay for anything.

Next generation Twitter apps

I’ve been thinking about and playing with the official Twitter app for iPad since its release last week. The best praise I can give Loren Brichter and his team for the UI “stacking” breakthrough is: I wish I had thought of it.

But it’s clear after an informal survey of friends, and listening to folks on Twitter, that the UI might be too clever for its own good. Many people can’t quite figure out if they love it or hate it. And on top of the UI risk, Twitter for iPad doesn’t bring any new features to the table.

Third-party Twitter clients won’t be wiped out by this. So now what?

The first Twitter clients (led by Twitterrific for Mac) provided a quick way to check on your friends without visiting the web site. The second batch of Twitter clients (mostly on mobile) provided a full replacement for the site.

I believe we’re about to see a third generation of clients that will go way beyond what the web site can do. There was worry when Twitter bought Tweetie that it would destroy the third-party Twitter market, and sure, some developers will fail or be discouraged from trying to compete against a free official product. But really what it does is raise the bar — that to succeed Twitter clients should be more than just a one-to-one mapping between UI and the Twitter API.

One feature is filtering. “TweetAgora for iPhone”:http://tweetagora.com/ has muting and an interesting live aggregation view, like a client-side extension of Twitter lists. “Hibari for Mac”:http://www.hibariapp.com/ recently shipped with an attractive UI and keyword filtering, muting, and integrated search results.

And there’s other stuff I want to see, like archiving tweets and better search and curation beyond simple favorites. I’ve been working on some of these too, in a brand new iPad app for Twitter. I can’t wait to share the details as it gets closer to release.

Not unlike “Marco’s post on the subject”:http://www.marco.org/208454730, my hope is that free apps and paid apps compete in separate worlds of the App Store. When Twitter for iPad shipped it jumped to the number 1 spot in free apps, but maybe you don’t have to compete directly with that. Maybe if you hold your ground somewhere in the top paid list, that’s enough to find an audience.

Interruption and collaboration

Jason Fried, “from a recent interview”:http://37signals.com/svn/posts/2494-the-big-think-interview-take-two: “Interruption and collaboration are different things.” If you haven’t listened to a Jason Fried talk recently, this one covers a lot of good stuff.

I also like “episode 19 of their podcast”:http://37signals.com/podcast/#episode19, which is edited from a live recording of a planning session for Rework. My first impression of Rework was that it was too finely edited — that to get to the essence they threw away too much material. I wanted to hear more case studies from their business, approaches that worked or didn’t, and lessons learned.

But I’ve flipped through the book again, a few months later, and it holds up. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the lack of filler text gives it a certain timelessness. Each chapter is one core argument, and whether that topic resonates with the reader or not depends entirely on what you and I bring to it from our own job experiences.

Deprecation mentality

Today, Twitter starts “shutting down basic authentication”:http://countdowntooauth.com for the Twitter API. One of my favorite Twitter clients, Birdfeed, will be allowed fewer and fewer requests until finally at the end of the month it stops working. Likewise for Birdhouse and Twitterrific 2. And the same for my “Wii Codes”:http://wiitransfer.com/codes/ site, until I have a chance to update it.

“Dave Winer wrote a fairly negative essay”:http://www.scripting.com/stories/2010/04/26/theToxicCoralReef.html a few months ago on this so-called OAuthcalypse:

“When Twitter breaks all the apps in the OAuthcalypse, they will break all of mine, and I have no intention of fixing them. I don’t expect anyone to care. But what you should think about is how many of the Twitter apps that you do care about will break and how many of them will say the hell with it? And how many of them will be around for the next time Twitter breaks everything, because that’s certainly coming unless Twitter develops some kind of philosophy about itself as a developer platform.”

I didn’t want to agree with him at first — I’m a big fan of nearly everything Twitter does — but it’s a fair question to ask whether backwards compatibility is getting the attention it deserves. Software moves fast, but this kind of thing hurts users, not just developers.

In the desktop world, OS APIs are unlikely to change so severely, and if they do you always have the option to run an older version of the OS or app indefinitely. For web services, though, you can’t keep an older copy of the internet around. Web apps are forced upgrades.

I’m not sure there’s a solution to any of this. It’s just part of tech progress, like moving data from old floppy disks to CDs to hard drives to the cloud. But it’s a bummer when apps get left behind as APIs are obsoleted. Over-aggressive deprecation was common in the Rails world, and “I was not a fan”:http://www.manton.org/2009/01/rails_4_years_later.html.

So, here’s to the future, Twitter. Keep new API changes versioned and maintain the old stuff. If this OAuth switch is a one-time cost, developers can focus on what makes their apps unique instead of always playing catch-up.

Congratulations, you’re a manager

The sort of odd “best of both worlds” balance in my different projects at “VitalSource”:http://www.vitalsource.com/ and as a solo shop is that I love working with a team, and I also love working alone. I mean really alone, doing the planning and design and coding and marketing. I’ve resisted farming out any piece of my apps at “Riverfold”:http://www.riverfold.com/ (except the application icon) so that I can have complete control. It’s brutally hard sometimes, but it’s mine.

If you’re working by yourself and add another person to the project, a funny thing happens: you become a manager. Before, you could spend 100% of your time on the work. Now you can allocate 50-75%, because you’re getting the new programmer up to speed, answering questions, and setting priorities. If you’re lucky (and I usually am), the person you added is contributing so much that it easily makes up for your loss in productivity, and then some.

The trade-off is worth it. Exchange the previous low communication overhead for extra coding man-hours.

You can build something great with a team, something that would be impossible alone, if you surround yourself with people who are better at your job than you are. I love that first moment when a team doubles in size from 1 to 2, or 2 to 4.

But after the initial frenzy of coding and emails and new features, I usually get burned out again. The project doesn’t strictly need me anymore, and I’m ready to get back to starting an app from scratch, when the scope is so small that the whole thing still fits in my head.

Mike Lee

I like this paragraph from a “long post by Mike Lee”:http://le.mu.rs/motherfucker/Entries/2010/7/1_Fuck_modesty.html

“On any project, whether it’s a band performance or a team shipping, there’s a time to curse, and a time to praise. Someone who gets those in the right order is an inspiring leader. Someone who gets them backwards is just an asshole.”

As I mentioned on a recent “Core Intuition”:http://www.coreint.org/2010/06/episode-31-skipping-the-morning-session/ episode, I have a really hard time remembering who I meet unless I read their blog, or follow them on Twitter, or have heard about their reputation. None of these were true when I first met Mike Lee, walking to pizza one night at C4[1]. I didn’t even know at the time that he worked at Delicious Monster. But it didn’t matter because he essentially opened with: “I was hit by a car last week.”

Bam! World’s toughest programmer indeed, and now I’ll never forget his face or the conversation. We can’t all be as relentlessly passionate and memorable as Mike, but there is a lesson here in personal brand: finding what sets us apart from every other programmer and letting that shape our voice and the projects we work on.

iTunes password caching

“Mike Rohde racked up $190 in iTunes in-app purchases”:http://www.rohdesign.com/weblog/archives/003193.html without knowing it, blaming an app called “Fishies”:http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/fishies-by-playmesh/id360868737?mt=8 by PlayMesh for tricking his son into purchasing virtual items without a password prompt. He was obviously pretty upset — I would be too! — but calling it a “scam” probably goes too far. So what really happened?

It is fairly well known that after the App Store prompts for your iTunes password, you can download more apps for a certain length of time (at least a few minutes) before it requires a password again. What seemed less clear is that this applies to in-app purchases as well.

To be sure, I ran a test to confirm the behavior:

  • Download a new free app from the App Store (I downloaded the current number 1 iPhone app, Farm Story Summer).

  • Enter your password to confirm the download.

  • As soon as it finishes, go to another completely different app (in my case it was Iconfactory’s Ramp Champ, which I had downloaded months ago).

  • Purchase an in-app virtual item.

  • It prompts for whether you want to buy the item (the standard Apple prompt), but without requiring a password.

What must have happened to Mike is that he bought something, entered his password, and then handed the iPad over to his son. His son played the fish game and clicked a bunch of random stuff (likely got the Buy prompt), but because the whole concept of virtual currency is kind of confusing, and because it didn’t ask for a password, the app happily let him make all the purchases.

I doubt the developer of this app did anything wrong. A reasonable argument could be made that iTunes should either not cache passwords at all, or keep a separate cache for app downloads vs. in-app purchases, or maybe always prompt for a password on in-app purchases. My kids and other kids I know have also used this backdoor trick to sneak a couple app downloads, but usually it’s a few bucks, not $190. Consumable virtual items (that you can keep buying over and over) make this problem much worse.

On “episode 60 of This Week In Startups”:http://thisweekin.com/thisweekin-startups/this-week-in-startups-60-with-neil-young/, Jason Calacanis interviewed ngmoco founder Neil Young about the mobile game business, focusing on the hit iPhone/iPad game “We Rule”:http://werule.ngmoco.com/. I was stunned to learn from the show that some individuals spend not only hundreds of dollars but up to $10,000 on in-app purchases in We Rule. Neil Young was happy to take their money, but something feels wrong here, like a gambling addiction gotten way out of hand. Or maybe just kids running up their dad’s credit card bill.

iPhone 4

Alright, it’s been 2 weeks. How does the iPhone 4 hold up?

For me, there was less urgency to this launch then for previous iPhone releases. I wanted the 3GS on day one (video recording!) and of course I waited all afternoon for the original iPhone (shiny!). Likewise I couldn’t wait for the iPad. This time I viewed iMovie and FaceTime as the killer apps. Sign me up!

But I wasn’t willing to wait all day. I tried the same approach that had worked great for the iPad: show up late in the day after the madness has settled down. No luck this time. I waited about half an hour, then came back before closing and waited a couple more hours to get a voucher for the next day. Total wait time about 3.5 hours over 2 days and 3 visits.

To get it on day 1, most people waited 6 hours. I’m sure “John Gruber’s story on Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/gruber/4731689070/in/contacts/ was common too.

This was Apple’s most poorly-managed launch I’ve been to. The 3GS line was pretty fast. For iPad it was extremely quick — in and out in half an hour. I mostly blame the extra step of requiring activation in-store, but there were enough problems that I think this whole thing was mismanaged somewhere.

Some of the inconsistent messages I heard depending on which Apple Store employee I talked to:

  • AT&T activation is not the bottleneck / yes it is.

  • We are selling 30 phones every 10 minutes / no idea how long the wait is.

  • We’ll shut down the line at 7pm and give out vouchers / staying open until 2am.

  • Vouchers will allow you to skip everyone else in line the next day / you’re guaranteed a phone but have to wait in line.

I also “collected a few tweets about the launch”:http://tweetlib.com/manton/iphone4.

Anyway, the phone. It’s the best phone I’ve ever seen. No question.

Now that some time has passed, I think I can comment on the reception issue. It’s real. Outside my house, I don’t notice it. But my street is a notoriously bad dead zone, and while I don’t get any more dropped calls than I used to, I can no longer hold the phone in the palm of my left hand when using mobile Safari. It’s pretty frustrating because I’ve been holding the phone this way for 3 years. It’s awkward to break the habit.

Having said that, I’ll close with the same thing I told strangers who came up asking about the phone. It’s easy to overlook the reception issue because of how great the rest of the phone is, and all existing iPhone users will love the iPhone 4. Eventually I’ll just cave in and buy a bumper.