Build Businesses, Not Apps

I’ve spent the past five years attempting to understand the changes to the software industry brought on by the iPhone and the app store. Most importantly, I’ve been asking the fundamental question of how we, as software developers, transition into this new era.

Last Monday at Mobile Portland I was able to give this presentation. It’s an expanded version of the one I gave at CocoaSlopes last fall, which was not available on video. I am introduced around the 7:15 mark, if you’d like to skip ahead.

Please enjoy and, if you’d like to follow along with a copy of the slides, please download them here.

All images were found via Google search images. Attributions are on a slide at the end of the deck. In addition, sources for all data and quotes are available on individual slides via the links in the lower, right corner.

A Massive Undertaking

I’ve wanted to update powerOne for six months now, ever since the iOS 7 announcement. Actually I wanted to update powerOne long before that. The problem is I couldn’t justify it. The product’s sales have dwindled horribly over the years and even a weeks worth of work was more than a months pay. I didn’t have the money or time to devote to it.

But still… it’s powerOne! It’s the product I’ve labored over for more than a decade, that has been with me through marriage and children, love and loss. Not working on powerOne, letting it languish and die, felt like I was a god handing out cancer to long ago friends.

I’ve been trapped in this hell for months, trapped between I can’t pay the bills with this product and I don’t want it to die. I spent too much time thinking about how to revive it and modernize it. What if powerOne was free with ads? What if we could make it easier to create templates? What if there was only one version? What if we could turn it into a web service? What if… what if… what if.

But the reality is the product was designed for a different software era. It was designed for an era when we called it software and spent $100 for it. It was designed for an era when most software was sold in the US. It was designed for an era when there was two major mobile computing platforms, Palm and Windows Mobile, not one where we think about Android and iOS and Mac and Windows and web (and maybe Windows Phone).

Most of my time has been spent on contract work this past year or so, mostly out of necessity. Got to pay the bills, after all. And any extra time we’ve had Rick and I have worked on Equals, which in my mind is a better powerOne, designed for the modern app era with many of powerOne’s shortcomings in mind.

So here we are, reaching the end of 2013, almost six months after iOS 7 was announced and three months after it launched. powerOne sales continue to languish and I have a gap in my schedule as I await Rick’s work on Equals. Finally, a chance to work on powerOne. We already had the designs. I just had to convince myself not to do a major overhaul. Modernize without disrupting, as much as possible.

And that’s where I have been the past week, trying to modernize powerOne. I thought, given other experiences with iOS 7, that it shouldn’t take more than two or three days of heavy lifting. Ha! Updating the calculators (iPhone and iPad are separate) alone took three days! I worked straight through the weekend and I’m still going as of this writing.

It’s not going to make it in time for Apple’s break (Dec 21-27) but we should be ready soon thereafter. I’m at least excited to see the old girl with a beautiful new facelift and some fine-tuning under the hood. She looks thoroughly modern. And who knows? Maybe that’s all she needs to help pay the bills again.



Artery Calcification

There were two very large pieces of news in the tech world last week: Google cancelled Reader, its RSS feed reading service, and Mailbox, an innovative mobile email client, sold to Dropbox.

These are both interesting news items to me for primarily the same reason. Let me explain through the Google Reader example. There’s a lot of angst in the tech community about this decision. Those of us who use Reader use it avidly and its disappearance leaves a huge hole. The problem, though, is that Google has stopped any innovation in RSS feed readers years ago.

Big companies, in my opinion, are like plaque in an artery. They enter a market, clog it, and then stop letting anything get through. The shear size of these big companies clogs all innovation and we, as consumers of these products, are left wanting more. Google with Reader isn’t the only example. Microsoft has done this for years with Outlook and Office. Intuit has done this for years with Quickbooks. PeopleSoft did this for years with CRM software. In each case, these solutions calcify until some major change happens to blow things up. Generally this change occurs around a shift in technology. In the past 15 years that has been a rise in the web and a rise in touch, mobile systems like smartphones and tablets. In Google Reader’s case it is Google blowing it up. When these changes occur we see amazing innovation with new winners. Eventually, of course, those winners calcify, too. We get Twitter, Facebook, and, for instance.

And that leads me to Mailbox. In the old days a company like this could never compete with Microsoft’s Outlook. They could have built an email client that sucked in Outlook data, even streamlined and improved it, but to compete? Wasn’t going to happen. But because of the web and mobile over the past 15 years, Mailbox has a chance. In just a few short weeks 1.3 million people joined its waiting list and the company received multiple acquisition offers, with Dropbox dropping as much as $100 million to own it.

The combination of web as plumbing and mobile as front end is doing that to a lot of software areas now. We’ve mostly seen this in social and pure consumer apps, Instagram for example, but that’s temporary. It will happen to productivity apps, too. The key is looking at the old problems and old solutions in a brand new light, re-orienting around the customer and the problem he is trying to solve but utilizing usage paradigms perfected in the technology generations before. Mailbox didn’t look at email and see it as solely a communication tool or CRM tool as Google and Microsoft had done before. Mailbox looked at email as a way to organize the things you need to do instead, realizing that a lot of people use their inbox as a task list.

This pattern is very straight forward and has occurred every time the technology changes. First we get solutions which are the same as the old platform but now available on the new platform. Think the email client on every mobile device today. Then you see innovation around those ideas, Mailbox as an example but there are others, too. Then one of these solutions becomes dominant and, over time, solidifies its control of the market, overserving it, and slowing innovation. Finally, technology changes and the cycle starts all over again.

When markets change and technology change, that’s when real innovation occurs. Google canceling Reader is a huge pain in the short term. But in the long-term this creative destruction is the only way things get better.

That Holy Shit Moment

Sometimes things don’t sink in. I’m sure I’ve heard people talk about this topic before, maybe hundreds of times, but it was something about the way John Gruber said it that it sunk in.

That holy shit moment: that moment when someone gets what you are doing and realizes how amazing it is. Seeing a Mac for the first time, in 1984, was like that. (Holy shit! I can do everything visually instead of remembering arcane commands.) The iPad was like that for me. (Holy shit! The perfect combination of size and weight to carry stuff with me all the time.) So was the PalmPilot. (Holy shit! People are going to carry these around in their pockets.) I had that reaction with the Internet (Holy shit! I can actually follow my beloved Cleveland Indians from across the country), GMail (Holy shit! All the company mail without configuration), and Dropbox (Holy shit! All my files with me wherever I am).

In Infinity Softworks’ history, I’ve seen this reaction three times to our products. The first was with our financial products back in the late ’90s. Holy shit!, was the customer reaction. I can carry one device, a PalmPilot, and still have my calculator. The second was powerOne Graph when we’d show it to teachers and administrators. Holy shit!, my kids won’t spend so much time learning keystrokes. And third is what we are working on now. I see the look in people’s eyes when I show it off. Sometimes those words even stream from their mouths.

I never put it together before. We have developed multiple products over many years, some we shipped and some we didn’t. I’ve always assumed that figuring out which to ship and which to hold was a black art, a gut feel. But now I know better. What I’ve always looked for is that holy shit moment. Seeing that from enough people makes one realize the product could be something big.

The Key To Entrepreneurship

Seth Godin writes:

I don’t think the shortage of artists has much to do with the innate ability to create or initiate. I think it has to do with believing that it’s possible and acceptable for you to do it.

I believe very strongly that the future of the United States is tied to our levels of entrepreneurship. We can’t be a successful country with everyone working for the man. I’ve also come to believe that Seth’s comment above is the most limiting reason we don’t have more of it.

I might have told this story before, but my cousin got married and graduated from chiropractic school about the same time. He worked out a comprehensive plan to build his own practice. His wife, though, thought the safer route was to work for someone else for a little while, learn the trade and business, and then go out on their own. My cousin didn’t even think twice about that option.

When we spoke about it, I told her that she needed to understand something: in our family we didn’t know any better. Our grandfather ran his own business. Our uncle ran his own business. My father and his father both ran their own businesses. Even my cousin’s older brother ran his own business. And of course I did, too. From birth, it was ingrained in each of us that running your own business is part of life.

So yes, most of us aren’t in a financial position where we can just quit our jobs and go out on our own. But that’s not the first step anyway. Being convinced that you can quit your job and go out on your own comes first.

I’ve had a few comments so thought I would expand. My mom’s parents had three kids. Same for my dad’s parents. Of those eight families (including my grandparents) only one never worked for themselves.