Be Original, Like Everybody Else

You come to be because you want to have something everybody else has, but to “exist” you need to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Said like this, it seems oxymoronic.

There used to be a few reasons why someone would write an application:

  • It did something no other application could do
  • It took an existing concept/application and added some functionality that was lacking
  • It tied a specific interface to a specific service that couldn’t be accessed any other way

Quite frankly, any development that meant more than a few man-hours couldn’t sail if at least one of these criteria wasn’t met. And that was mainly due to one thing: exposure. Finding software for your computer was hard. Of course, services like versiontracker or macupdate was there to help, but a piece of software had to be made, buzzed about and sold by its editor. It had to be “worth it”.

The popularity of the App Store has changed that, for good or for ill. No “respectable” company out there would want to miss on the huge market and public that is composed of iPhone and iPad (and to a lesser extent Mac) users. You just have to have a least a presence there. And the competition of the store is fierce.

So, the companies do what they have to do: at least exist on the app store. With that objective in mind, it’s more a matter of building an image than an app. Therefore, the two axes of communication weight way more than any kind of usefulness. You have to be there (do like everybody else), and you have to be seen there (make yourself known). Essentially, an app can be useful, but an app can exist solely as part of a communication strategy.

For public relation purposes, that more or less precludes any kind of singularity. You want to have at least like all your competitors. Then you have to do better or different in a way that’s not too unnerving, or expensive. And yes, being outrageously shocking is a different way of doing the same thing. Anyone can run naked in the street to grab attention. Changing the way people deal with their daily life is a whole different pie.

I was chatting with a colleague earlier, and he was lamenting that R&D is dead. But R&D serves a different purpose: it’s about long term investment. You pour money and time and effort into building something new without any kind of guarantee that you’ll get a return on your investment. That takes a leap of faith (harder to achieve when you have a responsibility towards shareholders and/or employees) and means (harder to have when you are a freelancer). Therefore it’s really not what most of the paying gigs we get talked into is about.

But I disagree that innovation is dead. Yes, it may seem like that for us freelancers sometimes after the tenth “news pushing” project. But even with projects labelled “do the same as app X, but with, you know, a more ‘our company’ feel”, there are ways to have some leeway and some fun. It could be through the way you make the user interact with your app, the details you want to get back from it to the server, etc… And sometimes, it’s the developer that offers suggestions as to how to make his day less miserable.

Face it, developers: we are responsible for that state of affairs too. Freelancers maybe a bit less than software farms, but the policy of churning out made and re-made apps on the cheap versus being hugely expensive doesn’t promote innovation either. Yes, we have to eat and pay our rent and whatever. But given the ridiculous quotes/conditions some people with innovative ideas get when they talk about them, it’s no wonder these projects are boxed and forgotten.

Personally, I try to “give” at least 15% of my time to projects that seem whacky. Maybe they won’t find their mark, maybe I’ll loose money over them, maybe we won’t even go past the planning phase. And sometimes, I get ripped off. But most of the time, at the very least, I have fun, and I learn something. And the partner/client/prospect/person in front of me can explore fully their idea.

Yes, your idea will be lost among thousands of apps that are there only to exist. Yes, the chances are great that it won’t make you a millionaire any time soon. Yes, finding a willing developer is hard. Yes, it costs a lot of time and money and effort to get anything done. But you know what? If it’s not out there, the chances of it proving to be a good idea or indeed make you a ton of money are precisely zilch.

  

Dolos ; Techne

[Dolos]: (anc. greek) Trick, trickery, guile, art of thinking out of the box

[Techne]: (anc. greek) Applied knowledge, craft, as opposed to episteme, pure knowledge of crafts/systems

Our job in technology (hint hint) is to make stuff. But as systems get more complex and our tools… evolve, we get closer to being dolos masters than technicians.

BBEdit just turned 20. It’s changed with the times, adapting to new possibilities and giving me new options and functionality, shedding irrelevant parts and struts to keep lean and efficient. From the day I started earning a living writing stuff (code, courses, and other misc items) to this day, it remained with me, and I fire it up quicker than any other application. If I had any statistic software running, I bet it’d say I spend more time in it than even Finder. Getting used to its way of doing things means becoming proficient in the techne of using it, but mostly, I use it for dolos matters.

On the other side of the ring, Xcode, in its 4th iteration, works more and more and more against me. Using it becomes a dolos process of achieving techne. Most of the scripts and techniques I build over time to optimize my time efficiently gets broken with even the next minor revision of the only way to build mac and iOS application software. Yes, I’ve tried alternative IDEs too, but can’t get them to work as I’d like them to.

To give credit where it’s due, then, thank you so much BBEdit, and happy birthday! I plodded through my professional life knowing that in one way or another you would be able to help me do what I want to do, despite the odds. If I had anything negative to say about you, it would be that you spoiled me for other pieces of software. I kind of expect every single one of the professional tools I use to be as proficient as you are, and I have to say it’s not very charitable.

I am fully aware that a bad craftsman will blame their tools. It’s even a saying around these parts. The thing is, for what I do we don’t have a choice anymore. It’s Xcode or nothing (and the latest version, at that) for packaging applications to be deployed, the latest version requiring the latest version of the OS, and I can’t say I’m impressed by either.

I had to switch to RAID drives for 10.7 to be any kind of fluid, and even then I feel like it’s getting worse. I’m looking for SSD drive big enough to hold everything I need and that ain’t easy, or cheap. Xcode takes a full minute to start up, with 4 2Ghz processors and 8 gigs of RAM. Switching between applications sometimes take up to ten seconds while everything swaps in and out of RAM. And of course, packaging a normally sized application gives me time to make a cup of coffee.

At the same time, I guess I shouldn’t be complaining. Even big companies and the people who would outbid me with customers end up needing my dolos-type of knowledge… Which means that as long as all these tools will be in that frustrating state, I’m going to be well occupied, and incidentally well fed.

And I hope the same applies to you, BBEdit! I’m willing to bet I’ll still be working with you in ten years!

  

The Middleman

Listening to the whole Readability vs Instapaper vs AdBlockers vs The Rest Of The World, from what I can gather, the whole thing is about the role of a middleman. In that particular instance, the people angry at Readability insist on the fact that they ask you to pay for a service that most of the actors are unhappy with or aren’t rightfully informed about. “It’s a scam”, I’ve heard a bunch of times: they insert themselves in-between two actors that have been playing along fine for a while now, propose to make it even better, which is a good grounds for collecting money, by the way, but then mislead people about what they pay for. And that’s where the rubber meets the road…

As a freelancer, there are two models you can follow: you can be in direct interaction with the end-customer, or you can deal through someone (person or company), who will manage the relationship and take a cut.

Managing a client/customer is a skill that is learned. There’s the whole psychological management (mostly revolving around priorities and problems that arise during the development), the administrative stuff (authorizations, papers, negotiations for third party includes), and of course the payment process.

I found out that the quality of my relationship with the middleman has a tremendous impact on my serenity on a project. Basically, both the customer and myself are paying this person to do a job. So, as in every business relationship, the job done and the price paid have to feel adequate.

Here’s a few examples of things I don’t like to see in middleman:

  • finder-only: “hey man, I’m just giving you some work! Don’t look at me like I’m going to reorganize that document… Oh and by the way, I’m getting paid 30% of the project total. You know, as a finder’s fee.”
  • overbearing: “hey, why are you using CoreData instead of a plain text file? The data’s not that huge… That seems like more work than necessary, right?”. Look, if you want to do the development, go ahead. If you want me to handle it, let me do my job.
  • forgetful (usually with payment, obviously): “Sorry, what? Oh yeah that’s right I completely forgot about it! Wait wait hmmmm did we say 6k or 7k? 6k, right? Sure I’ll send an email as soon as I check if the customer paid or not”. This is just the worst. Either it’s stupid, or unprofessional, or a scam.

Now, that being said, over the years, I found some great middle persons to work with. They understand their job as “being in the middle” with every pros and cons any job entails.

Yes some of their chores are problematic, frustrating and aggravating. And if I can (and the relationship is not conflictual), I’ll go the extra mile to help them, because I trust them to do the same for me.

When some friends who want to go freelance ask me about needing middlemen or not, I tend to stay vague. It just all depends… Talking one-on-one with a big company is just too damn time consuming. There are meetings, committees, impossible delays, etc etc etc. If I have only one project to manage at the time, and I don’t feel like giving whatever percentage of the money to a middleman, I’ll do it. But it gets tiresome and frustrating pretty soon. As soon as you juggle with several projects, having someone (or a bunch of someones) to deal with the daily life of consumer relations becomes more and more of a comfort.

So basically, if you are a lot better at talking to machines than to humans, and lack the time to hone the skill of business management, don’t bother. Find a decent, honest, and nice, middle man, treat him/her well and decide on a fair cut, and go for it. Focus on your strength, until you find the time to learn how to do it properly.

Obviously the same applies to designers/graphists/developers/etc… No one is good at everything. And it’s fair to pay for a skill you don’t have, and use to make money.

PPSN: the same applies to software used to make money, obviously. Pay the damn license.

  

Who Are You?

It looks as if the question of identity is the main one since the beginning of the year.

I got my papers stolen. If you never had to prove who you are without any piece of ID, you just can’t imagine how hard life can be. Proving formally who you are is one of the most underrated and difficult things to do. But managing your online identity (or identities) can be equally challenging.

The current norm on personal identification is having what’s called “a third party confirmation of who you are”: basically, you are issued by someone who can be trusted (the government, your company, whatever) something that they feel adequate to prove who you are, in order to grant you some privileges. Usually, the bare minimum requirements for a decent ID is a picture (recent and recognizable), a name, and some peripheral confirmation items (a number that can be checked in a computer system being the current favorite).

If you don’t have that, well…

Quick (and true) story: right after I got my papers (and credit card) stolen, I went to the bank to withdraw some cash, to, you know, eat and stuff. I had with me the police report stating that my papers were stolen, a couple of bills sent to my full name and physical address, the contract for the opening of the account, and various receipts of transactions I had done in the past with the bank. To no avail. No picture on an ID, no cash. Except, it’s stupid. It’s a lot harder to come up with all the “peripheral” items I had brought with me than with a fake ID. The ultimate failover, after I casually threatened to sue, was to compare signatures. SIGNATURES! Needless to say, I am appalled.

I have no idea how to make the ID system better, but I’ve watched enough spy movies to know that a picture ID and a signature is far from enough to be certain of someone’s identity.

In computers, identity is both easier and trickier.

To log in on an ultra secure computer, there are a variety of high tech biometric ways to make sure you are who you claim to be. Retinal scans, fingerprints, voice patterns, DNA, password, keycard, trick questions, or a combination of these. If you want to have a physical identification process that’s secure, I guess you can do it.

Remote login, now, is a different story altogether. You can send in through the network all of the above, but it means that you have to trust the path the information takes in between, and the path the remote computer takes to retrieve the information it will be comparing the supplied data with. Basically, you have to add another layer of trust: the network.

But I’m talking military grade authentication here. Most of the websites out there rely on a simple login/password scheme. The underlying assumption is that you won’t share those with anyone, and therefore the worst that can happen is that you forgot the code. Oh and that the server won’t be hacked into. Alright, fine, I guess that even with things that store some very personal and sensitive information, it’s enough in 95% of the cases. So let’s put this problem aside for a bit.

I have started playing around with iMessages. What’s cool about it is that the messages sent or received on my mac/iphone/ipad are all in sync. For all intent and purposes, the person on the other side of the screen doesn’t know (and doesn’t care) which of my devices I’m using to communicate. And on my side, I can type a lot faster on my computer, so that saves me some time (and autocorrect frustration), when I’m home, and I can still reply to messages when I’m moving around.

But, what iMessages does is that it aggregates 2 (or more) IDs/addresses and makes it YOU. So my correspondent might receive messages indiscriminately from my phone number or my email address. And I can send messages to any ID I want too (if I know both). What it does is blur the “technical” bits and makes it look like I’m talking to a person.

Of course, I understand the why: whether you send a text message, an email, or a chat message, to someone, in the end you send it to a person. And they may respond through their own choice of communication. And it shouldn’t make a difference. Except, to me, it does.

I won’t say the same things in a tweet or in a blog post (case in point). And I won’t say the same things (or in the same way) in a text message, or an email, or on Facebook (no, I don’t have an account), or in person. Because I think that beyond the problem of identifying a person as a unique individual, the medium through which we express something does tend to add a bias too.

A little example to specify what I’m talking about here: I have some friends in the business. When we’re knocking down some drinks and talk, we can be free of being “like at home”, and talk about projects and problems freely. If I send them an email about some project or problem, it’s in written form, and I have to anticipate all the questions that can arise, as well as keeping in mind that they might show/forward the mail to a third party.

The worst part is that you may generate a different perception of who you are even without lying. Some clients I’ve had a long email conversation with about a project are surprised when they see me in person. I don’t feel like I’ve not been myself at any point of the conversation, but they had a different image in their head anyway. Or people who know me personally will read a tweet or a blog post and be surprised by what I write. And so on and so forth.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m a child of usenet and IRC, and I know quite a bit about anonymity, posturing, and fake IDs. But I’m primarily focusing on identifying someone here. If I get a text message from an unknown number that makes references to personal stuff, it might be someone I know, or someone who’s heard it second-hand, or a stalker. The same goes for an email: if I know the person, or the person who referred that other person to me, my response will be different, especially if it’s for help, or a quote on a project.

All in all, I’ve been pondering about this identification thing for a while now, and I still don’t know how to make it better, or even how our brains process all the peripheral information we get to be able to say “I know who this person is”. But this is the root of the trust tree, and most of my actions stem from this single fact. It kind of scares me when I think about it. All of this hinges on… nothing much really.

PPSN (post publication side note):
The whole UDID thing with the iPhone is a prime developer’s example of what this identity thing is: how does one make sure a user is uniquely tagged?
The easiest way, till now, was to basically say “you = your phone”. Apple has decided that it was not an acceptable way of doing things. I kind of agree. Then again, Apple, my appleid isn’t me either.

  

More Isn’t Better

The high tech world we live in generates some really high tech expectations.

Whether it’s needed or not, we see countless “features” and “upgrades” being thrown at us, causing for the most part more confusion than anything else. If there is a lesson the humongous sales of iPads hasn’t taught our beloved decision makers, it’s that sometimes simpler is better than more.

Most of the time, a subtle nudge works better than a huge wink, and thankfully, some designers took the hint.

But it seems that flashy now means modern in some people’s minds. Case in point: a very good friend of mine was put in charge of creating from scratch a website for his company. The company deals in service for professionals (read “something most of you, and myself, will never need”). Their business is all mouth-to-ear anyway, so the website isn’t really needed, it’s mostly so that people could look them up if needed.

He worked with some friends of his, very good at designing websites in their own right, and came up with something Apple-y. Clear and concise, no-nonsense, but clearly not really funny either.

This idea got rejected immediately. “Where are all the animations?” and “can we add a little more bang to it, to show that, you know, we’re modern and all?” seemed to be the major reason for rejection.

Now, picture this: you are tasked by your company to find a suitable service provider. You ask a few colleagues and/or friends from the business, you look companies up, and you come up with two possible candidates.

You go on one’s website, it’s clean but contains little except for a list of current customers, and contact information, maybe with a little side of demo/pr.

On the other’s website, you see animations everywhere, it takes a good couple of minutes for everything to settle down, and maybe take you to the place you were looking for: contact and price information.

In all honestly, which is most likely to annoy?

This is something that, as a developer who knows I suck at design, I have to face on a regular basis. For a project, I would get only screens, and not a word about navigation. A beta I would offer would get criticized at length because “the cool flipover double axel animation thingie is not in, yet”. I would have detailed sketches as to wooshing sound effects and glow-in-the-dark animations, but when I ask “ok, but once you are on that screen, you’re stuck, and have no way to go back, right?”, I would get looked at as if I had rabies.

Every once in a while, I have the chance of working with designers who actually think all of this through carefully. And man, does it feel great to have someone who can sometimes say “you know what, I honestly didn’t think that case would present itself, but now that I see it, I’ll think about how to deal with it”, and do so. And as a user, I even agree with the final decision. Talk about sweet. That was the case on that huge Java project I was working on, and given the scope of the project (think small OS), it was a very welcome change in the type of people I sometimes have to deal with.

In my mind, usability should come first, graphics second. This is why for a long time, Linux, while vastly superior in many ways on the technical level to its competitors, could not gain a foothold in the desktop business: unusable by my granny. That’s why some really really cool projects (from a geek perspective) such as automated households don’t really appeal to most people: they know how to use a dial and a button, and fidgeting with an LCD display and a keyboard seems over-complex. Even if in the end, they won’t have to touch the thing ever again.

If you are thinking of a new and wonderful project, think about 3 major factors before handing the making to somebody:
– the user needs to find what he/she is looking for in less than 20s, or at least understand how to get there in that time frame. (depth)
– do at least a rough storyboard of the navigation. Where do you start? Where can you go from there? Should you be able to go back, or forward only? Repeat. (width)
– “animations” is cool. But only if it highlights a feature you want to bring forward, draws the attention towards it, never away from it.

Now, I’m only a developer. I have no track record in design or graphics. But after a decade of writing code, I start to get a sense of what the user wants. And if a developer can, you can too.

  

Sectar Wars II : Revenge Of The Lingo

Every so often, you get a tremor of a starting troll whenever you express either congratulations or displeasure at a specific SDK, language, or platform.

Back in the days where people developing for Apple’s platforms were very very few (yea, I know, it was all a misunderstanding), I would get scorned at for not having the wondrous MFC classes and Visual Basic and the other “better” and “easier” ways of having an application made.  You simply couldn’t do anything remotely as good as the Windows equivalent, because, face it, Mac OS was a “closed system”, with a very poor toolbox, and so few potential users. But hey, I was working in print and video, and MacOS had the best users in both fields at the time. And the wonders of QuickTime… sigh

Then it would be a ProjectBuilder versus Codewarrior (I still miss that IDE every now and then…). Choosing the latter was stupid: it was expensive, with minimal support for NIBs, was sooooooo Carbon,… But it also had a great debugger, a vastly superior compiler, and could deal with humongous files just fine on my puny iBook clamshell…

Once everyone started jumping on the iOS bandwagon, it was stupid to continue developing for Mac.

Every few months, it’s ridiculous to develop in Java.

There seems to be something missing for the arguments of every single one of these trolls: experience.

Choosing a set of tools for a task is a delicate thing. Get the wrong language, IDE, library, for a project and you will end up working 20 times as more for the same result. Granted, you can always find a ton of good examples why this particular choice of yours at that moment in time is not ideal. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good in general.

“QuickTime is dead”, but it’s still everywhere in the Mac OS. “Java is slow” is the most recurrent one. Well for my last project I reimplemented the “Spaces” feature in Java. Completely. Cross platformly. And at a decent speed. I’d say that’s proof enough that, when someone puts some care and craft in his/her work, any tool will do.

It all boils down to experience: with your skillset, can you make something good with the tools at your disposal? If the answer is yes, does it matter which tools you use? Let the trolls rant. The fact that they can’t do something good with this or that platform/tool doesn’t mean no one can.