iPhones, Apple Computers, Watches and Trade-Offs

Everything feels like a massive trade-off right now. powerOne really needs some tender loving care but we are deep into Equals now, moving toward a launch with a partner and don’t have time. This doesn’t even include the awesome keyboard and extension ideas I have, none of which I have time to write. So we did what we could and fixed the bugs and kept powerOne running, biding my time until I have more time. The hours in the day no longer feel like 24. Somewhere along the lines I’ve had an hour or two removed from my day. I get up and then go to bed. Or at least it feels that way.

The iPhones 6 ship today and I’m stuck there, too. I love the 4″ sized device and am very uncertain about bigger ones. 4.7″ seems huge, 5.5″ seems ridiculous. For the first time in years I have to wait to see them before buying. The 5.5″ might allow me to not carry an iPad around, one less device to buy, but then I’m a minimalist by nature and would prefer smaller not bigger. Of course less devices is minimalist, too.

Could I go with a 5.5″ phone and a watch? Maybe, but I have no idea what the watches will be like. So maybe I stick with my beloved 4″ phone and bide my time.

My desktop system is long in the tooth, too, barely able to run developer tools that I make my living with. Is it time to upgrade? Yes, but we seem to be between cycles. I love the Macbook Airs but really need a desktop system for my desktop. (Long story having to do with 1.5TB of iTunes media.) The Airs don’t have retina screens, though, and I don’t want to buy non-retina if retina is right around the corner. I could buy a Macbook Pro but I prefer the weight of the Airs. And again, it isn’t a desktop system. I prefer desktop because I have 1.5TB of iTunes media that needs a constant connection, and that says desktop not laptop. But the Mac minis are two years old and the Mac Pros, well, I don’t have $5k lying around to buy an over-powered computer. I already have an awesome 30″ monitor. I don’t need a second one on an iMac (nor the desk room for it). Again, I bide my time.

I’m stuck and rambling about it here. This age of technology abundance means too many choices, and that makes it harder to choose. Once upon a time I had one choice: one choice of laptop (Macbook Pro), one choice of desktop (Mac mini since I had a monitor), one choice of smartphone (iPhone), at least that was the case if I bought Apple.

Now? Too many choices. And every choice feels like a massive and expensive trade-off.

Death To Calculators: A Personal Journey Trying To Disrupt Math Education

Every year when school starts some influential newspaper writes an article about how hardware calculators persist and why they are favorable in the classroom even though they cost as much as a general-purpose smartphone on contract. This year it’s the Washington Post. They never come talk to me, though, which they should. To this day I’ve run a software company who has the only software product accepted for use on a national standardized exam. Here’s my story.

I remember the call like it was yesterday. I was in my car, driving to a Board members house in Corvallis, Oregon, when the phone number with area code 212 popped up. I pulled off the side of the road and hit the green Accept button and said, “Hello?” as if I didn’t know who it was. Unfortunately I also knew what the answer was going to be.

The year was 2004 and I had just spent the past three years wooing The College Board, jumping through hoops to get a Palm device with our graphing calculator software, powerOne, accepted on the Advanced Placement Calculus exam.

Before I could convince The College Board, though, I had to convince Palm. Palm really started to spin up their education efforts in 2000 or so, hiring an incredible team to go after the market. This Palm team understood that it needed industry-focused software to sell its devices and assembled some of the best mobile developers at the time. Palm helped pay for us to be in front of the market and demonstrate the power of mobile computing in the classroom, put together studies and influential educators, and made a market possible. With our help, we’d close the deal, selling devices and software to 64 million students and educators in the US alone. The opportunity was there for the taking.

Palm, though, wanted little to do with us at first. They had partnered heavily with another company for math software and didn’t realize that their solution wasn’t enough for high school math. It took a while and the help of an advocate on the team, but eventually Palm came around. Shortly after that we lucked into building our own strategic team around the opportunity, including a marketing person with years of experience in education and two influential math educators who advised TI, HP and Casio when they gained acceptance on the AP exam.

Our small team started putting the pieces in place. We made contacts at The College Board, we met with people on the committee that eventually would need to give their thumbs up to any deal, we met with hundreds of teachers, school district administrators, even state officials, who could give their mark of approval. We were building a massive pipeline of hundreds of schools and even two states that were willing to buy powerOne and Palm devices as soon as we gained AP approval.

Why AP, and why AP Calculus? What’s amazing about AP Calculus is it is given to only a few hundred thousand students a year yet it dictates math technology adoption for 64 million. Historically AP Calculus is the linchpin exam for technology in the math classroom. When TI got hardware calculators in, they started with AP Calculus and many of the most influential high school math teachers teach at that level.

So why wouldn’t schools use TI calculators in AP Calculus and software calculators on modern technology for everything else? Because schools can’t discriminate. They can’t decide who is tracked for AP and who isn’t. They aren’t allowed to make these kinds of decisions. And teaching kids to use TI calculators when they are preparing for an exam is futile. Have you used one of these things? Every time I pick one up I need a manual.

Schools choose to use the same technology for all their students, unfortunately making math less accessible to millions in the process. Our research showed the teachers spent as much as half of the class time training kids on which buttons to hit on the calculator to get the results they needed. When I’d show powerOne to educators, mouths would drop. Keystrokes were minimal because of the touch screen and you could do things — like drag the tangent around a curve — that you could never do on a TI. I remember one teacher literally crying and another proclaiming that her kids would finally understand derivatives after years of using hardware calculators.

Before that, though, we needed The College Board.

The rules for AP technology are specifically designed to eliminate touch devices, pen input and anything with a keyboard. The College Board didn’t specifically say these are the devices you can use. Instead, they said these are the technologies your devices cannot have. Pens and keyboards ruled out the Palm. We needed an exception.

Our advisors explained the process to me: first, we need to convince the head of AP programs that this is worth considering. Our goal was to show him data on how hardware calculators were the past, how they were holding back students, and how Palm devices were already gaining acceptance elsewhere in our schools. Put pressure on the Board to modernize.

If we got past that step, then we’d go in front of the committee. The committee was concerned about implementation details, so not only did we have to prove that powerOne could do what the tests needed but also that we could secure the devices, keep kids from cheating, and make it possible for the test proctor (who was likely a football coach or similar who needed a little extra pay each month) from screwing this up.

If the committee gave their approval then we’d likely see a limited roll out to a few hundred districts the first year before mass acceptance after that. From there, we could start negotiating with AP Statistics, SAT and other national and state testing programs. We were certain, however, we wouldn’t make it that far as one of the big boys would gobble us up. We figured we had 18 months of independence from acceptance to buy out.

So we got a meeting with the head of AP and a small group and pled our case. We got no response for months. And then we got lucky again. The previous head left and a new head came in. Once he was settled we connected again, went to New York again, and pled our case again. This head had vision. He was young and wanted to put his mark on the program and after a few months (like hours in education time), signed off. We were headed to the committee, where our lobbying efforts had already begun.

This is where the timing gets fuzzy for me. Somewhere in the period — the spring of 2004 — Palm fired their education team and we went in front of the AP committee. I can’t remember the order so let’s start with Palm. This was post-merger where Palm bought out Handspring and brought back its founding team. That team decided it wasn’t big enough to focus on handheld computers and smartphones at the same time so fired almost everyone involved with handhelds, including the education team. It was a monumentally stupid move. At a time when Apple was about to sell hundreds of millions of iPods, Palm gave up.

The committee, on the other hand, was much more friendly. They heard our story, saw a product demonstration (they all had the software on Palms before that), and saw a prototype of our answer to security (which was actually more secure than hardware calculators). Little birdies told us we did very well and that we’d soon get approval.

So here I am in my Honda Civic driving to a Board members house when my phone rings from the 212 area code. I knew the call was coming from The College Board soon, which was in New York City, but didn’t know when. The head of AP called to tell me that we did gain acceptance from the committee but because of Palm’s decision, the Board was not going to roll out trials.

We did spend some more time with the Board and made some important contacts. We spent the next couple of years working on a new education product, this one web-based. In retrospect it wasn’t very good. We did, however, get a contract to provide a web-based graphing calculator that is still in use on a few national and state-based exams, but the decision by Palm followed by the decision by The College Board pretty much ended my hopes of upsetting math education for the better.

In the end, math education is what it is because The College Board acts as a de facto regulatory body. Without The College Board, nothing will change. And while articles gush about the lasting abilities of TI calculators and list a plethora of reasons why it has and will remain that way, I can tell you that there is one and only one reason anyone still uses those monstrosities: because The College Board says you will.

Adam, ALS and The Ice Bucket Challenge

I have to admit when I heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge I was skeptical. I abhor stupid publicity stunts and was struck by the number of people who know absolutely nothing about the disease, have never even heard of it, who are dumping buckets of ice water on each other’s heads.

But the “stunt” has grown on me. First, it has raised a ton of money for ALS research, which was horribly underfunded in the past. I believe the ALS Institute is close to passing $50 million in donations during this period when “Ice Bucket” became a trending term on Facebook.

Second, people have at least now heard of the disease. If you follow baseball and/or sports you probably know about it as Lou Gehrig’s Disease¹, which probably hasn’t helped the fundraising effort over the years as it confuses people about what they are donating.

Third, the Ice Bucket Challenge has added a little jocularity to what is otherwise an ugly and depressing disease.

I have a college friend who was diagnosed with the disease in his mid-30s. He joined the military after college and was diagnosed while serving. Apparently the incidence in the military is higher than in the general population. While no one knows for certain the last I read the primary belief was exposure to heavy metals.

Adam was a funny kid. He was extremely shy, had a heck of a time being friends with anyone because of it. We’d get together when he’d come home from the military and sometimes the conversation would be like pulling teeth. He was so quiet! It’s like having a long conversation with a stuffed animal. But he was an extremely loyal and thoughtful person and I always enjoyed seeing him.

On one of those trips home, when he must have been 34 or 35, we went to lunch and he told me he had been diagnosed. We talked about the disease for a while and he was certain he still had many years. The doctors gave him 7.

What impressed me most was his attitude. I would have been mad at the world, mad at God, mad at everyone for a life cut short. Adam wasn’t mad, he wasn’t upset. He has stood up to this nasty disease with such incredible bravery.

Before it got bad Adam did all the things he wanted to do. He traveled, saw a playoff game at Fenway Park (big Sox fan), spent plenty of time in Vegas. He stayed independent as long as he could, too, moving back home about a year ago. He even got over some of his shyness. He’d text me pictures of himself talking to girls — girls! — which is something I’m not certain he ever did before that.

I saw him this past weekend when we out at the coast. His ALS has advanced visually in that time but not as quickly as I’d feared. A year ago he was still walking around a little with the help of a walker, had control over his hands to some extent. Now hand control seems to be almost gone and he moved around in a desk chair. A scooter is coming soon. I believe he was diagnosed eight years ago now.

So I’ve come to terms with the Ice Bucket Challenge. A silly stunt? Sure. But maybe a silly stunt is exactly what this disease needs. Besides, I can hear Adam laughing at every person jumping out of his/her skin as that freezing water pours over head. I forgot to ask but knowing him for 21 years, I’ll bet he loves the Ice Bucket Challenge.

¹ Lou Gehrig may be the most famous person to contract the disease, although Steven Hawkings could give him a run for his money.

Apple Doesn’t Have To Do Jack Shit

Look, I sympathize. I am one of you. I too rushed to ship an app to the App Store in 2008. I too have ridden the ups and downs of the Store. I too have a vaguely successful app if “vaguely successful” means it would provide an unbelievably good side income.

Unlike most of you, however, I’ve been at this a long time. I launched our current product in 1997 as a Palm OS application, have supported multiple platforms over the years, and at one time ran one of the largest mobile software companies. (That’s not bragging. The companies were actually that small back then.) I made the trial-and-purchase-for-a-fixed-price-plus-periodic-upgrades model work and work well for many many years.

But those days are dead, and, some tough love is needed here: THIS IS NOT APPLE’S PROBLEM.

Let’s say that together now: the dearth of many viable iOS indie dev businesses is not Apple’s problem.

It’s ours.

Whether we like it or not, the game has changed. Trials are out. They’ve been out for six years now and we have no idea if they are ever coming back. Upgrades are out, too. Again, we have no idea if they will ever come back. Ask yourself, do you really want to sit here and wait another 10 months to find out if we will get trials and upgrades, and then wait another three months after that to see it available? Hell, no. I need to make a living now.

It’s time for us to adapt.

It’s time for us to take a hard look in the mirror and decide whether we want to be in business or not.

It’s time to look in the mirror and say, in our best Jack Handy voices, that it’s us, not them.

The sooner we can come to the conclusion that it’s our problem, not Apple’s, the sooner we can move on to something more useful, like re-thinking our approaches and making a living.

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying,” said Andy to Red in Shawshank Redemption.

It’s time for us to get busy living.

I was particularly curious what Marco Arment would do with Overcast, his new podcast app. This category may be a hotbed for design but it sure as hell is not a hotbed for making money. Marco, for as many haters as he seems to attract, is no dummy. I am certain he knew this going in. What rabbit would he pull out of his hat, especially with some of the biggest brains in iOS development to discuss it with? No surprise, he tried something new for the category: freemium. Good for Marco.

This should be a lesson for all of us. What’s the old saw? Doing the same thing over and over with the same results is the definition of crazy.

Well, we are the crazy ones. We keep shipping paid up-front apps into the App Store and charging the same prices for them. How is that Apple’s fault?

It’s time for us to change and try something new. Would an app supported by ads work? How about free with in app purchase? Charge for individual features so power users can pay us more? Subscriptions? Or how about just raising prices? Multiple apps so you can cross promote? Move to multiple platforms? Build something useful on the website that people will pay for, too?

Can we take what makes these products unbelievable and get our biggest fans to pay us a little more, even pay us a little bit over time, so we can have a reason to keep devoting energy to these products we love?

Does this mean we may have to piss off a few of our existing customers to do it? Maybe. But losing an arm is better than dying. If we can’t make ends meet then we will all be exiting the iOS development game. We’ll be dead.

But it’s not like everyone has failed. The indie life isn’t dead yet. After all, if a few can make it work than a few more can make it work, too.

Personally, I’m not going quietly. We are working on a new mobile and web service, one that takes everything we learned about iOS and Android, about apps and our customers, about the way the app stores work, lessons from my many years developing our software, and I’m trying to fix two things: an even better product than the one my customers already love and a better business model that makes it feasible for me and a small team to support it full-time.

It took me a long time to get to this point. Frankly, too long. I would have gotten here a lot sooner if I would have stopped blaming Apple for my problems, stopped waiting for Apple to fix the App Store issues, and accepted the fact that there is incredible opportunity in front of me, one maybe unprecedented in the history of software development.

In order to capitalize I am the one who needs to change, not Apple.

Why Trial Apps Won’t Save Mobile Indie Developers

4 Ps

With all the discussion this week about iOS indie developers and how hard it is to make a living, I was asked whether trial versions would help developers out. My answer is that I am skeptical that it will help¹.

First, refer to the graphic above. This is the classic marketing mix as taught in every college for the past sixty years. In short the marketing mix has four pieces: the product itself, the price you charge, the place where it is sold, and what promotion is used to help people find it. It is often referred to as the 4-Ps.

In the old days of selling software, we leveraged all four of these components. We developed a great product at multiple price points with varying features, promoted it through partners, trade shows, publications, direct sales and various advertising campaigns, and sold it in as many outlets as we could. At one point or another powerOne calculator was sold via our web site, value-added resellers, retail stores, catalogs, online resellers and via other partners. We were particularly good at “place”.

Now, though, you have one choice for place and one choice only: the App Store². This puts insane pressure on the other components of the marketing mix. Because there is only one place to purchase iOS apps, everyone looks there. This means that outside promotion — short of a few well-read publications during the launch — fails most apps. Long-term the App Store is the only place to promote, and there isn’t much room for promotion there. A few pictures, a title, an icon and a description, soon a video, is all we get. It is very hard to differentiate any application with only that. And since differentiation is very hard, prices drop. In the end it is one of the few ways a typical app can differentiate: price.

Why don’t I think trials will impact revenues substantially³? Because nothing about this equation changes. There is still only one place to buy apps, and that one place puts pressure on all the other marketing mix components.

It does offer more promotion opportunity, though, my questioner pointed out. Won’t it mean that high quality apps will rise to the top and lesser apps that aren’t as good will disappear, making it possible that the high quality apps get found more and more in the future?

Maybe, but I’m skeptical. The problem is that the volume of apps in any one category is overwhelming and when supply outstrips demand as it has in the App Store, a minor promotional opportunity like trials won’t make that much of a difference. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of products in some categories, like calculators, note-taking apps, and task lists.

Even in niche markets like podcast clients there are ten or more solid choices. When one solid choice is $.99 and another solid choice is $9.99, the $9.99 app has to be 10x better than the $.99 app to even get consideration, and that’s hard to do among tens or hundreds of alternatives. A little 30-day trial isn’t going to be enough to make the difference for the “expensive” app. Thus the race to the bottom is back on, and indie devs still can’t pay themselves a reasonable rate to make it a full-time job.

¹ Although I hope I’m wrong.

² Android is slightly better but not much. There you have Google Play, Samsung Apps and Kindle Appstore, plus a bunch of smaller players that don’t amount to much.

³ And by substantially I mean enough to make a bunch of indie developers revenue successful when they weren’t before.