Monthly Archives: September 2010

Birdfeed, etc.

He snuck it in under a commentary on Alex Payne’s excellent “last post about Twitter”:, but we now have a “Birdfeed postmortem of sorts from Buzz Andersen”: 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”: 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”:, 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”: 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”: 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”: 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.


I like “Seth Godin”: I haven’t read all his books, but I really enjoyed “The Dip”: and “Tribes”: 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”:, 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”:, I’m loving “this blog and idea”: 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”: has muting and an interesting live aggregation view, like a client-side extension of Twitter lists. “Hibari for Mac”: 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”:, 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.