Monthly Archives: March 2010

Fast customer support

Three years ago “I wrote the following”: about customer support:

“Most people who buy Mac software from independent developers know that it’s only 1-5 people behind the company. We can’t compete with the Microsofts and Adobes of the world on application size, but we can compete on quality customer service. _Being small is a competitive advantage_.”

Seems reasonable, but the fact is that many small companies are struggling to keep up with the support load. “Jesse Grosjean recently downgraded”: his support expectations for customers. From the official site:

“I’ll answer basic questions and license key/order issues as fast as I can. I also appreciate larger questions and feature suggestions, but I’m finding that I no longer have time to answer them all as I used to (mostly). I promise to read and consider everything, but you may not get an individual response.”

I’m a huge fan of Jesse’s TaskPaper and his minimalist approach to Mac development. He is very honest with customers and encourages participation starting with early beta versions.

But it can be damaging to set support expectations too low. Here’s what a support page says about support in “Pastebot”:, another one of my favorite iPhone apps:

“We try our best to answer every support question. But please make sure your question hasn’t already been answered in our FAQ. If you email us with an issue that has already been explained in the FAQs, we may skip the email.”

This seems slightly backwards to me. The questions in the FAQ are the easiest to answer! I respond to those immediately. It’s the hard questions for which I don’t have a good answer yet that usually take the longest time or are more likely to fall through the cracks.

Is the weight of support for iPhone developers just too much? TaskPaper and Pastebot are both very popular. I guess we can all hope to be successful enough that we find out.

Meanwhile, I had a question for “Beanstalk”: yesterday and received a response in just 19 minutes and an additional follow-up response in under 10 minutes. I like to show off impressive companies, so I tweeted how fast their response was. “Their answer”: to my tweet? “We’re usually faster.”

Yep, that’s the right attitude. Set your standards high.

Mac OS X Server tantrums

“At VitalSource”: we now have a dozen Xserves running Ruby on Rails and a couple others running MySQL. While it’s mostly stable now, over the years there have been several mystery show-stopper problems that no one seems to have on other platforms.

Which is why I found this “quote from Rentzsch”: so interesting:

“The trick is to radically minimize all services performed by Mac OS X Server itself, and instead run services in VMware-hosted Debian images. At that point, Mac OS X Server becomes little more than a simple container for VMware, something it seems able to handle with a minimum of tantrums.”

It seems kind of wasteful, but Mac OS X Server really is overkill most of the time.

Related: over the weekend I checked into “Heroku”: I’m impressed with what they have built. If it works as advertised, I think I’ll supplement my Dreamhost stuff with Heroku any time I need a Ruby backend.


I’m of two minds about “Trade-Off”: by Kevin Maney. I picked up the book mostly on the strength of its tagline: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t. The Ever-Present Tension Between Quality and Convenience. Pretty good, right?

The premise is great — that you have to choose when building a business whether to have an expensive, high fidelity product or a less expensive, more accessible product. Trying to do both usually leads to failure. It’s like when I see an application marketed as “easy to use, yet powerful!” That’s often a red flag that it is neither.

My issue with the book is that, like most business books, it simply drags on too long. What should have taken a couple days to read turned into months of slogging through a few pages at a time. There are some great stories in the 200 pages, but the idea behind the book, which is captured on the cover of the book itself, gets repeated over and over. It’s almost like Maney copied and pasted some of the key points and scattered them throughout the book as filler.

37signals said that in the final draft of “Rework”: they cut the page count nearly in half, and I think some deeper edits in Trade-Off would have helped too. Take the first 20 pages to explain the idea, and then another 80 pages of case study chapters with anecdotes, stories, and interviews. Done.

Complaints about the size and structure of the book aside, though, I got a lot out of Trade-Off. While Maney often strains to fit the book’s core on top of successful or failed businesses that are too complicated to be applicable (I didn’t appreciate the Newton-bashing), he makes some great points that helped me put my own app “Clipstart”: in perspective, and will likely change how I market and build new features for it.

24-hour review times

I noticed a couple tweets last month about fast, less than 24-hour review times for iPhone app submissions. After I tweeted it, a whole bunch of other people came forward with similar stories. Apps going from submission to ready-for-sale in 12 to 24 hours.

The App Store is still fundamentally broken in many ways, possibly beyond repair depending on who you talk to, but there’s no question that fast review times are great for developers. Even if the progress stops with this, it’s a significant improvement to the App Store process.

Is it just for established devs? Just for minor bug fixes? It’s not the latter, since some of these were brand new apps. The question is whether this was a change for a certain class of developers and apps or whether it represents an overall speed-up to the review process, and maybe even a hint at prepping for the iPad launch.

Review times are a big deal and they’ve gone mainstream. Opera Mini has a very public “count up”: widget as part of their extensive pre-approval hype. You can tell from the demos that Opera put a huge amount of work into polishing Mini before submitting it, to remove as many potential objections as possible, and to get users excited before it ships. A high-profile rejection now would erase any goodwill that Apple has built up recently.

I know some developers are nervous with openly discussing or blogging about their relationship with Apple, but I think more people should follow Opera’s lead. By being vocal on the App Store’s strengths and shortcomings, we force Apple to be more transparent. Bad press has a proven history of leading to overturned rejections. The narrative of the last few months, to me, is that the App Store is getting better, and I don’t think it would be happening without the critics.

Clipstart is not iPhoto

I get a lot of great feedback about “Clipstart”: There’s value in almost every feature request, even the ones I don’t plan to directly implement. Some people also suggest that I should copy more from iPhoto. While I understand this — they want a familiar interface — it has always been my goal to be different than iPhoto. Why?

Two main reasons:

  • iPhoto never quite worked for me, and only by being different can you hope to be better. I took a few things that iPhoto did poorly (like tagging, video playback, and upload) and built the entire interface around them.

  • If I just created a clone of iPhoto but for videos, Apple could expand the video support in iPhoto one day and I would be left with nothing. If my app grows in a completely different direction, however, then even if they add video support to iPhoto my app will still appeal to people who aren’t satisfied with iPhoto’s approach.

I know I’m on to something because when I show the app to a certain type of person (who has thousands of short videos, or no quick way to share them) their eyes light up. It’s now just a matter of pumping out new versions to refine the interface and fill in the missing pieces. I have major features planned for the next few dot release (1.4, 1.5, and 1.6) to try to give customers as much value as I can, and execute on the potential for the application.

Both Aperture 3 and Lightroom 3 now have video support, but I’m not too worried. There’s plenty of room between iLife and $199/$299 for Clipstart to carve out a customer base.

iPad ships next week

With the iPad set to ship in just a week and a half, I’ve been quietly reshuffling some of my projects around it. I’ve written critically of the iPhone and App Store a couple times, such as how the iPhone is a gold rush distraction that “doesn’t need me”: I also stand by “earlier opinions”: of how unfixable the App Store is, especially now when it’s obvious that any effort trying to convince Apple to open the store is completely wasted. They never will.

But I really like what I’ve seen of the iPad platform so far and I think it represents a big shift for everyday computing in a way that a cell phone can’t. So I renewed my membership in the iPhone developer program.

I’m working on 2 apps for the iPad. The first is just a minor iPad refresh of an existing iPhone app at VitalSource called “Bookshelf Noteview”: (iTunes link). It’s for reading notes and highlights synced from our e-book platform.

I’m not ready to announce the next app yet, but it’s a personal project which I had originally written for the Mac over a year ago. I shelved it at the time because I wasn’t sure there was demand, the backend web services weren’t mature, and I wasn’t ready to take it to completion. For the iPad though, it might be perfect.

And that’s ultimately where I see the most interesting potential for the iPad. New middle-ground apps that we haven’t even thought of yet, not ports from another platform. Apps that would feel small or distracting or wrong on the Mac, yet equally oversized for a relatively underpowered iPhone. Maybe the never-tested-on-a-real-device launch day apps will be buggy and the overall quality low, but I can’t wait to try them anyway.

Was Macworld worth it?

As I “wrote in January”:, I decided to go to Macworld to show off Clipstart and Wii Transfer, and to experience the conference again and hang out with friends. I ended up doing less of the latter, because I lost my voice and was feeling terrible for a couple days, but nevertheless the trip was great and I’m very glad I went. Worth it.

Here’s my summary of the show, what it took for me to be there and what I got out of it for “Riverfold”: This is supposed to be in the spirit of “Rogue Amoeba’s excellent series on Macworld”:, but more from a super-tiny company perspective, and just where my experience differs.

I do want to quickly mention costs, since that’s the primary consideration when planning these things. I took advantage of the Indie Developer Spotlight shared kiosk to keep investment low. In fact, I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. I kept the whole trip to about $2700, with a rough breakdown like:

$1250 – space on the show floor

$900 – hotel for 4 nights

$250 – flights to and from San Francisco

$100 – printed “2000 flyers”:

$200 – other misc costs, cabs, and food

I could have saved some money in there on the hotel, but in general I think I did pretty well. For a lot indies it’s probably not that much different than a WWDC trip.

flyers_ollie.png I worked 8 hours each day on my feet at Moscone North, in my little booth space in the very corner of the expo. I was lucky for two things: Guy English was awesome and covered for me a couple times so I could take a real break; and the restrooms and water fountain were so close I could slip away when traffic was slow and be back without missing much.

The less expensive booth option was supposed to be for a table shared between 3 developers, with presumably a dozen or more small companies filling the area. But unlike the iPhone pavilion in the center of the tradeshow, which was packed with exhibitors, hardly any Mac developers took advantage of this offer. It was just me and one other company.

This was disappointing at first, since a less dense area doesn’t convey the same excitement and means less foot traffic. But there were other aspects of the deal that turned out better than expected, such as included wired internet even though none was originally promised. Compared to a traditional booth, it was a bargain.

Before leaving Austin for San Francisco I jotted down a few notes on how I could measure success, since I didn’t want to pin whether it was worth it just to direct sales.

See friends and meet new people. Check, but there were a lot of people that I ran into very briefly and didn’t get to really talk to. See aforementioned lost voice.

Get ideas from customers. Check, got plenty of great ideas. I loved talking to random Mac people, not limited to just the ones who bother to send email.

Figure out how to sell the product. There’s nothing like explaining your application over and over again all day to refine your pitch. I feel like I have a much better handle on this, but there’s still work to do, and web sites to update.

Actually sell some copies. I used a coupon code to track sales. During the conference my sales were flat, but in the weeks since I’ve had the best sales days of Clipstart ever.

Get exposure in the press. Check, was interviewed by Ryan Ritchey for “The Digital Lifestyle”:, Merlin Mann for “MacBreak Video”:, and talked with other members of the press on the show floor. I should have done more but lacked the energy.

Win best of show award. Nope, but wasn’t expecting it. I think it’s a shame that only one Mac application won, but on the flip side it’s great that it was “Inklet”: Really cool app.

Everyone’s expectations coming into the event were low — the previous exhibitors who backed out, the attendees who wrote Macworld off, and the press who questioned the show’s relevance. But clearly Macworld 2010 was a success. The second day of the expo I was late to the show floor, arriving just a few minutes before they opened the hall. There was a huge mass of people waiting to get in.

There will be a Macworld 2011. I’m really excited to see how it works to move the whole expo and conference to Moscone West. I’m not sure if I’ll be there yet, since as demonstrated this year I can’t plan nearly that far in advance. Throwing all of this together 2 weeks before the show only worked because of everyone who made things a little easier during the week.

Thanks to Jason Snell, Merlin Mann, Adam Lisagor, and everyone else who stopped by and waited patiently through my demos; also Guy English, Paul Kafasis, David Barnard, John Fox, John Chaffee, the RogueSheep guys, my booth buddies from “Hello Chair”:, and the other indie developers I’m forgetting; and especially Albert McMurry, Dan Moren, and John Gruber for telling people about Clipstart. It succeeds only because of word of mouth.

In closing… Maybe it’s because James Cameron is still in the news, but I’ve always loved this line from the character Rose in Titanic: “It doesn’t make any sense. That’s why I trust it.”

That’s mostly how I felt about exhibiting at Macworld. Even though it was “cheap” by tradeshow standards, for me it was real money and a risk. I booked my flight the day I realized that the only reason not to go was because I could fail.

Check in here

I started this blog exactly 8 years ago today, right before SXSW, so I thought I’d post about something related to the event. This year Gowalla and Foursquare are going to be huge. I was a little late to the location-based game party, initially being turned off by Foursquare when it asked for my phone number just to register, but over the last 6 months I’ve been thoroughly enjoying using Gowalla.

“Jeff Croft has a detailed breakdown”: of the differences between Gowalla and Foursquare:

“Gowalla is capable of having spots which are not addressable, and which are very precise points on the Earth’s surface. This, again, points to its geocaching nature. You can create a spot for that really wicked tree in your favorite park, or your mailbox, or the trash dumpster where your favorite bum spends most of his days.”

This is one of Gowalla’s best features. I also prefer its design, and the playful personality they’ve baked into the app. While I agree with Jeff that there doesn’t need to be one winner, I’m not interested in checking in with more than one application every time I visit a spot, so I use Gowalla exclusively. And because I have friends at Gowalla, I want them to succeed.

My message to Foursquare users who are coming into town for SXSW: Gowalla is an Austin-based company and they are “doing fun stuff for SXSW”: Why not give Gowalla a try for the weekend?

iPad commercial

When “the iPad commercial”: popped up during the Oscars, I thought it captured the power and elegance of the device extremely well. But as I commented on Twitter, after repeat viewings you can see that it’s probably faked. The iPad must have been filmed on a stand or table and then composited into the shot later.

Contrast this to “Cabel Sasser’s”: video of the Nintendo DS Lite, which was a faithful presentation of how the game system feels to use and yet still “sold people on the device”:

Apple stretches the truth with all the iPod and iPhone ads and it never bothered me before, but this one seems wrong. How it feels to hold an iPad will be the difference between a good product and a great one. Can you hold it still with one hand? How easy is it to rotate it? What is the angle like when propping it on your legs?

This is a pretty minor complaint — I’ll be pre-ordering my iPad this Friday regardless and couldn’t be more excited — but I wish Apple didn’t feel the need to lie about such an important part of the product.

iPhone patents

“Wil Shipley on Apple’s decision”: to be aggressive on their iPhone patents:

“But when you sue someone for doing something you do yourself, you become one of the bad guys. Can you name a company _you_ admire that spends its time enforcing patents, instead of innovating? Remember the pirate flag you flew over Apple’s headquarters when you were building the Mac?”

And “my tweet on this”: from yesterday:

“This iPhone preemptive patent war is going to backfire. You’re losing the battle for our hearts and minds, Apple.”

Whether Apple wins this patent lawsuit or not doesn’t even matter; the old Apple many of us fell in love with is dead and maybe never coming back. I still want to think of Apple as the company that fights the good fight, innovating and putting user experience first. But you have the App Store exclusivity and rejections, and now you have the patents.

It’s a shame they’ve gone so far off course. Regardless of market share and billions in revenue, I’ll always hold Apple to a higher standard than every other mega corp, and hope not just for better products but also for leadership and doing what’s right.