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.

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.

What If Apple Is Actually Better Without Steve Jobs?

Last one, I promise, on Apple and its worldwide developer conference. This one, though, from Ben Thompson was too good to pass up:

What is critical to understand about Steve Jobs’ Apple was how much it was rooted in fear. Not fear of Jobs, but rather, the abject terror of the company ever finding itself in a similar situation to the one Jobs stepped into in 1997. A company bankrupt technically, and on the verge of being bankrupt financially, deserted by the partner it had made into a powerhouse (Adobe), and forced to accept a loan from its oldest and most bitter rival Microsoft. Jobs, and all of those closest to him, swore never again.

And so, Apple hoarded cash like a depression-era grandma; every new Apple product was locked down to the fullest extent possible, with limitations removed grudgingly at best. This absolutely extended to developers: not only were apps originally banned from the iPhone, and later on subject to seemingly arbitrary limitations and restrictions, but even today it’s unclear if non-game apps can be the foundation of sustainable businesses because of Apple’s restrictions.

There has been a lot of press discussion the last few years about how Apple will fail without Steve Jobs, its undeniable leader. But what if Apple can be a better company because Steve Jobs is gone?

I believe that there is a time in every company’s history when it is time for founders to step aside. Companies change drastically as they grow large and often times the man or woman who started it from scratch and ran it when all hell was breaking loose, when no one knew whether it could make payroll, when its future was uncertain, often times that man or woman is not the right man or woman to run it once its a 30,000 person behemoth.

Steve Jobs was clearly a brilliant man but the company that is Apple today is no where near the company it was when Jobs returned in 1997.¹ In 1997 Apple had $7 billion in revenue for the entire year. In 2013 Apple’s revenues were $171 billion. In fact, Apple’s fourth quarter profit — PROFIT, not revenues, and only the fourth quarter — was more than Apple made in all of 1997 ($7.5 billion Q4 2013 profit versus $7.1 billion 1997 entire year revenue).

Apple, as Ben points out so well, was near failure in 1997. It had been abandoned by almost every big software company. If it wasn’t for one government anti-trust lawsuit it might have been everyone. Jobs had to figure out how to keep Apple alive, and then had to figure out how to grow it. As someone who just went through a life-and-death situation with his own company, albeit no where near the size and scale of Apple, I can tell you how focusing it can be. It was definitely an all-hand’s-on-deck, batten-down-the-hatches experience. It made me fearful for every penny and mistrustful of every “partner.” It instilled loyalties in me that I never thought I’d have for non-family and made me hateful of people I felt abandoned me or didn’t believe in me. I understand completely that “abject terror” of ever finding myself in that situation again.

For Apple, though, that was 17 years ago now. Since then Apple has given us iPods, iTunes Store, Apple Stores, Macbooks, iMacs, iPhone and iPads. It has gone from an after-thought to a leader in the stock market, a thought leader on design, a king of technology, and the envy of retailers everywhere. Millions stand by waiting for what Apple will do next and hundreds of thousands of developers and artists rely on Apple for their living. In every way imaginable Apple is not even close to the same company it was back then.

And that’s exactly what I mean: maybe it was time for a change? Maybe it was time for the fear and loathing that served the company so well in the late 90s to move on? Maybe the ideals and perspectives of Steve Jobs are no longer the right ideals and perspectives for Apple?

We are seeing that now. The management team has changed substantially in Tim Cook’s few years on the job. People who attended WWDC are saying they saw a different side of the people who work for Apple, more open, more cooperative. The features and capabilities announced certainly are a sea change from the Apple of old.

There’s no denying that Steve Jobs was an incredible leader. He ran a team of five and a team of 50,000. That’s a rare skill duplicated by few. He was an amazing thinker, a fascinating strategist, a top-notch designer and technologist. And that was exactly what Apple needed for many years.

But maybe, whether sick or not, his time to lead Apple was coming to an end. And maybe he knew this. Maybe that’s why he established “Apple U” and hired top-notch professors to run the program. Maybe Steve Jobs knew, one way or another, that his time as CEO was coming to an end and that it was important for him to instill in Apple a legacy and mythology that could be carried forward without him.


What if Steve Jobs’ last brilliant move as the founder, recoverer and guardian of Apple was to leave Tim Cook to run it?

¹ It isn’t even the same company literally. Apple was Apple Computers, Inc. in 1997; now it is Apple, Inc.

A Baby Is Born

On Wednesday morning I loaded a new version of Equals, entered in a very simple equation (a=b+c) and defined each of its variables, entered a value for ‘b’, a value for ‘c’ and, when autocalc took hold a second later, saw a result for ‘a’. As my development partner, Rick, said in his email alerting me to his progress, “It’s alive (just barely).”

On Thursday it was a little stronger. It could calculate ‘b’ and ‘c’, and I could add a second equation, which if set up correctly, would also calculate. This morning it is smart enough to even add missing variables and perform calculations for alternative forms of the note.

The process of watching this program come to life the last few days is as close as I’ve been to the days and months following the birth of my daughters 8 and 6 years ago. The three months after a baby is born is called the fourth trimester. The baby is too small and weak to do much of anything for itself except cry, eat, poop and sleep, but it is getting stronger. After those additional three months of gestation, the changes start coming fast and steady.

On Wednesday morning the baby was born. Over the next weeks we will work through Equals’ fourth trimester. It will get stronger and more capable, able to support more than just a few of us at the same time, able to perform more complex calculations, ready for new features and capabilities.

Before we know it it will be asking for the car keys and heading off to college.

A Personal Transformation

The last few years have been the hardest of my professional life. The entire world I grew up in — one of software development and sales — had transformed into something completely different. I realized that to stay relevant I needed to rethink everything I knew.

It’s hard to explain to someone who didn’t live through this change how hard it really has been. In my personal life, the only comparison I can make is the upheaval of having my first child. I went from ignorantly self-centered one day to having a dependent the next, one that required nurturing and training and food and time. It changed everything.

The software world I grew up in was pretty straight-forward. I wrote an app, I sold an app. I made changes to the app and sold those changes. We gave people time to try it. It was my relationship with the customer. I took direct orders and orders through resellers, all of whom shared that customer’s information with me. Retail sales, while slightly different, still meant the customer was my customer as much as it was the retail store’s customer. I gave the customer a little card in the box and asked them to register. If they filled it in they got discounts and upgrades. And no one told me what my product could and could not do. That was between me and my customer.

This world existed long before I started selling software myself, of course. When I bought AppleWorks in middle school, we went to a store and bought the discs (floppy!). In college I ordered software through company’s websites and online outlet malls. When I started Infinity Softworks in 1997 there was little question about the business model. I charged a price and sold our software to customers. That’s how all software was sold. Outside of AOL there was still little conversation about subscriptions and ads in apps.

While the Internet world was causing upheaval, the Mobile world remained in ignorant bliss. For the most part we still couldn’t connect to anyone anyway so business models mimicked the previously disconnected desktop market. In the Internet world entirely new business models were being explored. Advertising, two-way markets, three-way markets, networks effects, subscriptions, freemium, servers, bandwidth, space … it was an orgy of possibilities. But in mobile? Give away trials, sell a product, sell an upgrade. Yes, we did freemium, too, but I’m not certain anyone thought of it in those terms. It just meant the trial was indefinite.

My personal transformation began a few years before the iPhone and App Store. In 2006 we had spent two years developing a new education product — my first specifically developed for the web — and upon release found no buyers. I’d never had that happen before. Every major product I had ever created was met with love and at least a little cash. But not FastFigures. It was met with crickets.

When FastFigures fell apart I knew the company was in trouble. We had nothing else. Our dominant platforms — Palm and Windows Mobile — were stagnant at best and our sales had fallen 80% in the previous two years. So I started talking to a friend about an acquisition. His growing web-based education company needed product management help and was considering moving from grades 2-4 education into higher levels. I had technology and experience that could help.

During the acquisition discussions we had many conversations about web apps and education on the Internet and how that world was different from mobile. I also started exploring lean startup concepts. My transformation had begun.

The deal eventually went south and my lessons eventually went to the back-burner when the App Store launched and the gold rush ensued. It was so easy! Just build an app, put it in the App Store, and let massive volumes take over. Never mind that prices had dropped below the cost to market them. Never mind that connected devices meant different products. Never mind that English-speaking nations were no longer the dominant markets. Never mind that no customer information was being shared with us and we had no insight into how we were discovered.

We did okay for a while. Our sales grew and then the iPad happened and they grew more. We started experimenting with all the new-fangled ways to sell a product: freemium, in app purchase, multiple apps, multiple platforms, white labeling (developing our software in someone else’s name).

I knew we were in trouble, though, when everything we tried meant no increase in sales, just stagnation. We needed to do something else. We needed to get back to basics. Build a company, I told myself. So I started to reconnect with what that means and had meant on the web. I revisited my lessons. I researched the companies and businesses that were making it work and what they were doing right. I read about the failures and where they went wrong. I re-read Moore and Christensen and Blank and tried to digest old learnings with new eyes. We began re-thinking everything we knew, including the very product that had been apart of my soul for almost two decades. What does this mean in the modern era? What job are our customers trying to solve? Is it still relevant?

I won’t sit here and tell you it has been an easy journey. I have made many wrong turns that needed to be retraced. I ran into more than my share of walls that I have had to walk around, tunnel under or climb over. And I’ve done all this while trying to stay in business, doing anything we needed to fight another day, taking deals that helped pay the bills and other deals that helped teach us the technology.

I’m certain I hurt myself. I talked about Equals too early to certain people who I thought could help. I sent emails to customers far too long before we were actually ready. But I tried to learn from every one of these situations, striking up conversations with customers and engaging others who could help over and over again to expand and improve my thinking.

It’s been three years since I started this process in earnest, this transformation. And while I haven’t spent every waking moment on it — and not certain it could have been faster if I had — I feel that the corner has been turned. I have this theory that businesses move slow until they move fast. The whole point is to be ready to move fast when the business is ready.

I’m finally ready for the business to move fast. My transformation is complete.