We’re In This Together

August 17th, 2007

I got a little idealistic during my talk on application acquisition at last weekend’s C4 Conference. See, last year’s event had been so memorable to me, I thought it was worth trying to focus the audience’s attention on what my aspirations were for the talk, which were roughly “to make people think about acquisition and possibly change their own life in the process.”

I probably succeeded in at least some microscopic way for some person in the audience. But no matter, because if I didn’t succeed, I’m sure some other speaker did. Or some attendee in the audience chatting with some other attendee, discovering that they live in the same town, or that each of them is both a little league coach and a Mac developer. Real life is neat that way: it’s inspiring!

Aaron Vegh caught “Mac Community Fever” at C4 this year, writing in his blog about the dramatic change in attitude he received by attending the event:

I think there will always be this divide in my life: pre-C4 and post-. Because this weekend I learned that while a cluster of web developers in a room might always eye each other as competition, in the Mac universe we’re all in this together.

It’s not entirely true. There is some ferocious competition going on among our ranks, and some hostile relationships between certain parties where feathers have been ruffled in the past. But substantially, what Aaron describes is true. Developing for the Mac is a warm-fuzzy experience. The platform is big enough to be really exciting and offer opportunities, yet small enough that given a few years of attending events like these, you might end up kind of knowing everybody!

It’s pretty awe-inspiring to sit in the same room while the makers of competing products such as BBEdit and TextMate, or Transmit and Fetch discuss product design issues, laugh at each other’s jokes, and yes, withhold some of their more strategic plans! But almost everybody in the room, competitor or not, is respecting each other’s work, and having a great time.

Last quarter Apple announced sales of more than 1.7 million new Macs. Market share for our platform seems to be growing steadily as increasing numbers of Linux and Windows users decide to dip their toes into these tranquil Mac waters. It’s a great time to work on a platform where the majority of developers genuinely care for their colleagues, their products, and their customers. We’re in this together.

Rich Siegel, CEO of Bare Bones Software, has cautionary advice in the wake of all this growth. His views deserve our attention, because he represents one of the longest-standing indie software businesses still making software for the Mac. Following C4, Rich picked up on an issue raised in the mostly-disastrous panel discussion, an issue of the so-called “perpetual silly season.”

The question raised by DrunkenBatman was whether the increasing use of gimmick-marketing for Mac products had established a sort of pattern for cheaply made, deceptively marketed software as the wave of the Mac future. He suggests that such gimmicks have always been a component of the Mac market, but that the press used to serve as a more central resource for protecting consumers. Without offering any particularly solution, Rich asks us to consider for ourselves which way we want things to go:

Do we want the industry to continue in its best traditions, combined with the innovation made possible by improvements to the platform and the world at large? Or do we want to stand back and let the Mac software landscape become a mirror of the Windows software landscape: populated by used-car lots, and decorated with tumbleweeds?

It’s an appeal to Mac developers everywhere, that we maintain our high standards and commitment to quality, even as fly-by-night operations may pop up from time to time in an attempt to cheapen the industry. This is great advice, but why not keep it to himself? Wouldn’t it be smart to let his less idealistic competitors flail about and sell their cheap, gimmicky wares? Why go to the trouble of writing a thoughtful essay encouraging his competitors to make better products?

For one thing, I suspect Rich really likes sitting in a room full of inspired developers. The conferences would be a lot less fun if they were filled with shysters and snake-oil-salesmen. But his ambition to elevate his competitors also makes business sense. Consider the most popular, trendiest retail district in your town. There are many shops whose target markets overlap, and to some extent each shop is competing with the others to attract customers through their doors. But the district wouldn’t exist at all without the collective commitment to quality.

With rare exception, it’s the environment that brings the customers, not the individual retailers themselves. This is why Banana Republic would rather be situated next to Abercrombie & Fitch than next to Ross. The higher-quality A&F is certainly more of a direct competitor, but almost every customer it helps attract to the neighborhood is also a potential BR customer. They just have to put something of quality in the window display.

The Mac is a really attractive, trendy retail district. If the shops don’t remain classy, then the customers won’t keep coming. So it makes sense to support our competitors. We’re in this together.

14 Responses to “We’re In This Together”

  1. Christopher Humphries Says:

    One thing I love about the Mac community is that it really is a community :)
    Well done post!

  2. pauldwaite Says:

    Word. There will always be competition. As such, it’s better to compete with the best, because they’ll push you to become much better than anyone else would. Consumers benefit from that.

  3. Colin Gislason Says:

    And I would say that this is a big lure to developers (like me) to become Mac developers. What I see from the fringes of this community is enough to make me dream of setting up shop.

  4. Joe Cheng [MSFT] Says:

    Wait, something doesn’t compute. You think that you guys helping and encouraging each other is going to prevent the Mac market from being infested with the craptastic drech that is so common on Windows?* That’s like saying, “Let’s all focus on helping each other write really great e-mails, lest we become targets of spam.”

    The only thing that keeps shoddy, spyware-infested junk off of Macs is the still-small Mac market share. After all, it takes a certain level of commitment to actively ignore 90%+ of the market. Not really rational when you’re trying to make a quick buck.

    *For the record, there’s no shortage of fantastic, high-quality software on Windows–in many cases the best on Windows is better than the best on Mac, especially outside of the design/media categories. But I certainly agree that the median, mean, and minimum on software quality are much worse on Windows.

  5. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Joe: We might be kidding ourselves, but I believe and a lot of other developers on the Mac believe that it’s more than a numbers game. The fact that quality is a presumption for software on the platform gives everybody a higher bar to strive for from the start. It’s not just because we have less market penetration, it’s because developers who try to develop crap on the Mac get smacked down by users, the press, and other developers.

    Going the other direction, there have been platforms with *less* of a market than the Mac, where quality is not generally as high. I was a great fan of the Amiga, and it had some quality software, but it was nothing like the Mac.

    I can see your point, and especially appreciate that as a Windows developer you have pride in the great stuff from your platform (your software included), but I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss the pride we take in quality on the Mac as simply attributable to our diminutive market size.

  6. Blain Says:

    The market share issue has always been a sticky wicket. It’s disingenuous to claim it has no effect, but to say it’s the only factor is also a cop-out. To sidestep, consider, like the Amiga, Linux GUIs, or even Classic Mac, circa System 7. Things are subjective, especially since none of them really have the malware of tumbleweeds, but it is arguable that Mac OS X has the most attention to detail and polish of these.

    And, honestly, nobody seriously thinks that the near future will have marketshare at Mac OS X 90%, Windows 6%. So even if market share is a major factor, it’s not a variable to consider, as it’ll hold relatively constant.

    I think the community is the larger reason, and it’s cultural, even down to the words. I recently came across an article talking about mISVs. It took me a while to figure out it was “Micro Independent Software Vendors.” On the mac side, the term’s “Indie developers.” There’s an important distinction here.

    I admit I’m reading too much into it, especially since Indie was originally in jest, referring to indie musicians, but nevertheless. Indie musicians also have a passion (yes, to ignore 90% of the market share of listeners) but it’s for good music, regardless of who’s playing it. And while they are competing for attendance and music sales, playing together and listening to others has a network effect.

    The root of vendor is “To vend, to sell”. For relative greatness, it’s a competitive advantage if the others are horrible. Developers aim to create, to add. And like the musicians, it’s a cooperative advantage if others are great.

  7. John Casasanta Says:

    It’d be helpful to me and I’m sure others who are reading this to use concrete examples of who you mean when you say “gimmick-marketing”, “fly-by-night operations”, “cheap, gimmicky wares”, and “shysters and snake-oil-salesmen”.

    Since the Mac is well known for it’s quality apps, it’s easy to think of the stellar developers like Panic, The Omni Group, etc., so it’d be good to qualify your references.

    Likewise, it’d be good if Rich also did so in his post.

    In reference to your Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch mentions, FWIW, I do a lot of my clothes shopping at Hot Topic. ;)

  8. rampancy Says:

    I really want to say that I enjoy your articles, including this one.

    While I want to largely agree with your article, I still can’t help but feel that the incredible degree of passion behind developing for the Mac that fuels a strong sense of community also has the capacity to breed something a lot darker.

    I just think about the controversy involving Haxies and Unsanity, for example, Graham Parks talking trash about NetNewsWire, Rich Siegel dismissing other, highly well-regarded competitors as “overnight text editors” that “don’t reflect well on the genre or the platform”, or even the animosity directed at (and spouted from) critics of the “Delicious Generation” like Paul Kafasis and Gus Muller.

    Still, hearing about the BBEdit and TextMate folks having a good time together in the same room is a nice thing to see.

  9. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    John: wow – I used a lot of adjectives, didn’t I? Sort of the beauty of my take here is that I am just treating “all those things” as rather abstract threats, as opposed to choosing any particular targets. Mainly this is because I don’t have a bunch of examples at hand.

    But to give some perspective on the C4 discussion that prompted Siegel’s response, it was an exploration of the application Pzizz, and how it used what DrunkenBatman identified as junk science to promote the application.

    Now before any Pzizz fans jump on me for reporting the facts, let me say that I was among the people in the room saying “fine, attack that tactic, but people are just using it to take a nap!”

    What was more interesting to me for the purposes of this article were the strong community feelings that Vegh felt at C4, and the community-building rationale that could compel Siegel to pass out sound advice to his competitors. So the question of exploring exactly who the threatening snake-oil salesman are isn’t really up my alley.

  10. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Oh – and I tend to shop at the thrift stores, but my taste in computers has very little in common with my taste in clothes, so I thought a better analogy was in order :)

  11. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Rampancy: perhaps to some extent I’m playing up the community here in an effort to highlight what it’s like at its best. You’re right to point out that it’s not all flowers all the time.

    But it could be self-perpetuating, I think, to remind each other every once in a while that we are better as a community than as a combat-zone.

  12. Jim Stewart Says:

    Are people just afraid to name Disco as the fly-by-night hypeware?

  13. AJ Says:

    As Joe mentions, I think it takes a certain kind of person to develop for the Mac platform. I believe that those people are more idealistic, they shun the herd and go their own way or go the way of a smaller bunch.

    That smaller bunch usually thinks in a different way and that different way is what creates the kind of community we have.

    For me, I decided to write Mac software, not because I liked the Mac per se, it is because I felt that the World needed competition on the computing platform and that the best way I could help is too write some kind of software missing on the platform – to help it along.

    Idealistic – you bet, but I find that a lot of Indie Mac developer have some kind of idealism driving them.

  14. Marc Edwards Says:

    I think it’s all a matter of attitude and if enough of the important players share Daniel’s attitude, then it will make a difference.

    I personally agree, and see all indy developers as peers before seeing them as competition, even though I haven’t really met anyone (one of the unfortunate things about living thousands of kilometers away from the rest of the world!).

    A larger market share doesn’t mean our market would be the same as Windows: I think there’s too much history and too many good apps out there… you can’t expect a ShoddyWare™ app to succeed in most categories, where there’s usually a decent free app and a really amazing paid-for app.

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