Category Archives: Philosophical

Accessible Resistance

Accessibility in software refers to the noble ambition of ensuring that software is usable by as diverse a user base as possible. To that end, software is made more accessible by adapting to a variety of physical or cognitive impairments that may affect any individual user.

In the United States and other countries, there is an ugly trend towards supporting politicians who don’t believe that people from diverse backgrounds, or with specific impairments, should be accommodated by society as a whole.

Many developers are looking for concrete ways to fight these politicians who don’t value diversity and inclusion. One small thing we can all do to push back, to resist, is to ensure our own apps are as accessible as possible.

During my many years as an indie Mac developer, I have often prioritized accessibility in my apps. I have heard from many MarsEdit users, particularly those with vision difficulties, who tell me its accessibility makes it a better alternative to many other blogging solutions.

I am gratified to hear about the ways I have gotten accessibility right, but I am still not satisfied that I have done enough. There are nuances of MarsEdit’s accessibility that can yet be improved, while some of my other apps, such as Black Ink, are still hardly accessible at all.

If you are a Mac or iOS developer who is committed to improving the accessibility of your app, a great place to start is with the WWDC 2016 What’s New In Accessibility session. Apple is always enhancing the variety of accessible features that are built in to iOS, macOS, tvOS, and yes!, even watchOS.

Spend a half hour watching this video, and start getting up to speed with how you will enhance the accessibility of your app. No matter where you live in the world, you can be a strident voice for inclusion by declaring, through your actions in Xcode, that your software is designed to be used by everyone.

Make Wooden Toys

Like many developers struggling to make a living in the increasingly price-sensitive, App Store-influenced market, I was somewhat discouraged by Rene Ritchie’s excellent “What no indie developer wants to hear about the App Store.”

Rene argues that the app economy is moving towards cheap, mass produced, bargain-priced software that is simply not suitable for sustaining small-time indie software businesses. He adopts a beautiful metaphor, borrowed from his own childhood: the classic wooden toy.

When I was a child, all my favorite toys were wooden, painstakingly carved by artisans who ran the store near my home. I cherished them. Today those kinds of toys are all but gone, and that business model is no longer viable in the mass market.

Ugh. He’s right. Everything is cheap plastic, nowadays. Or is it?

If I pull up a mental inventory of my own kids’ playroom, there are indeed a ton of cheap, plastic toys. But there are also a good number of, wait for it, quality wooden toys.

Wooden toys are still being made! Shout it from rooftops, my indie brothers and sisters! If your inspirations and ambitions were flayed by Rene’s dose of reality, perhaps this will serve as an inspiring salve: do a Google image search for “wooden toys“. Those aren’t antiques…

I remember when my kids were younger, marveling at the powerhouse of wooden infant toys, Melissa & Doug. If you have a baby and are part of a socioeconomic culture that can sustain it, you have seen these toys. They are everywhere. And they are far from cheap.

So? Make wooden toys. Metaphorically speaking, I mean. (Unless, like Gus Mueller, woodworking has been your backup plan all along.) Make software that is inspired by wooden toys. Although the market is dominated by cheap plastic, there is real money for thoughtful, careful developers in the market that favors charming, slightly overpriced throwbacks to another era. Make wooden toys.


I have been an ardent Apple fan since 1993, when I got my first Mac: a PowerBook Duo 210. From then, to the day I joined Apple in 1996, to the day I left in 2002, to present day, one thing has always been true about Apple: they are not a typical tech company. Pushing against the status quo has in many respects been a defining characteristic of the company, through down times and up times. Apple does what it thinks is right for itself, for its customers, and to some significant extent, for the world at large.

Tim Cook shared yesterday in A Message to Our Customers one example of Apple’s atypical attitude rearing its beautiful head. In response to the FBI’s demand that Apple supply custom software that would allow the agency to unlock an iPhone held as evidence, Apple tendered its refusal:

Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.

The news has split public sentiment in predictable ways. There will always be a contingent that believes law enforcement should be aided in any feasible manner, regardless of long-term implications for individual privacy or civil liberties. And there will also be people so cynical about government and the police, that even Apple’s cooperation thus far, handing over information that it does possess, is viewed as a betrayal of customer rights. And of course, there is a massive group of folks in the middle, who aren’t sure where the line should be drawn.

Apple has a clear sense of where the line should be drawn, and they have stated it: they will not weaken the security of their products for the benefit of the FBI or (presumably) any other agency. Although the current request from the FBI only applies to an older iPhone model, whose security is easier to circumvent than later ones, the point Apple emphasizes is that complying with the order would be a terrible precedent for putting the needs of government ahead of the personal security of end-uers.

To my mind, this is a fine place for Apple to draw a line.

Other tech companies with huge investments in the consumer market should be lining up behind Apple in defiance of the FBI. To do otherwise, whether by explicitly defending the FBI’s demands, or by implicitly approving in silence, would be a betrayal of their own customers. It would be wrong both from an ethical perspective with respect to their duty to protect customer data, and from a PR perspective with respect to the public’s perception of their managing that duty.

If a couple other large companies, say Facebook and Google, come to Apple’s side, it will send a powerful message to the FBI and the rest of government. If a dozen large companies do, it will create a firewall that will be difficult for government to dismantle without very publicly reiterating and reaffirming its disdain for personal privacy.

I think it’s best for all parties if the “firewall” scenario comes to pass. The stage is set for a civil rights showdown, and while we need to speak out as individuals, we can also benefit enormously from the powerful voices of these tech giants.

But if other companies don’t step up, I’m not sure all is lost. Apple, as the largest American tech company, which also has the largest cash reserves, is well-suited on many fronts to fight this battle. Alone, if necessary.

People have criticized Apple for amassing a giant pile of money while never giving completely convincing explanations for what it plans to do with it. When your modus operandi is not only to push the leading edge of personal technology, but also to defend your customers’ personal data, and to possibly help establish the legal precedent that will defend the customers of all tech companies for decades to come, you never know when having $200B to “spare” might come in handy.

As a stockholder I don’t relish the idea of Apple burning through all that money just to defend their right to protect customer data. Although it’s arguable that it would be money well spent, it’s not an obvious, ideal use of shareholder equity in a public company. Luckily, I don’t think the cash will be spent. The $200B serves mainly to fortify Apple’s resolve in defying the FBI. Apple’s courage in the face of threats to its pro-consumer security policies is bolstered by the strength of those massive cash reserves.

Some may see this confrontation between Apple and the FBI as an industry vs. government dispute, but it’s far more than that. As personal technology and the internet permeate almost every aspect of wider society, the “tech industry” is indistinguishable from society as a whole. The right to defend our personal information, and the rights of companies to act on our behalf in that pursuit, are completely and inexorably tied to our rights as members of society. Eventually, we must win the right to protect our data from government. Apple, Google, Facebook, and other tech giants can step up to help us secure these rights today, or we’ll have a longer, harder fight ahead of us in years to come.

Mobile Is A Fad

Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal published a story this week with the sensational headline “Why Apple Should Kill Off the Mac.” In it, Mims argues that Apple doesn’t have the resources to focus on the Mac, which is clearly less important to the company than its growing lineup of mobile devices.

Long-time, Mac-savvy journalist Glenn Fleishman couldn’t resist rebutting the argument for Macworld. His take boils down to the Mac remaining too vital a part of Apple’s spiritual core, and it being important to Apple to control the devices used for the very development work that makes the other devices so valuable.

John Gruber unleashed his coveted “Jackass of the Week” award for Sims, dismissing the argument as nonsensical, and proclaiming “the end of the Mac is not in sight.”

The assumption that mobile devices will rise to the occasion of obsoleting desktop computers has run rampant for years. I responded to the sentiment nearly five years ago in a Macworld article: “Why I’m Sticking with the Mac.” The Mac is a general-purpose computer, which makes it a little boring in some respects, but its role as the hub for many customers’ computing needs remains valuable. “Apple’s strength on the desktop permits it to take risks with other products,” I wrote in 2010, and I believe that remains true today.

One sensational headline deserves another, so let’s get to mine: “Mobile is a Fad.” Why have people been so convinced, for years, that mobile is the future, while desktop computers are on the way out? What if mobile devices only fill the variety of temporary needs that arise from how we live today?

Product genres proliferate because they meet a need. In the 1970s when oil supplies were scarce, tiny economy cars began to dominate the market. It probably seemed reasonable at the time to assume that gas-guzzling trucks and off-road vehicles were on the way out, yet as soon as the world became flush with cheap oil again, car sizes ballooned and fuel economy plummeted. For many the demand for utility and power, even in the absence of justifiable need, outshines the specialized economy of smaller cars.

Why are people so excited about mobile? Because they go places. What if people stopped going places? Mobile devices are a godsend for people who are expected to wake up every morning, commute to work, run a variety of errands, and possibly stop for a drink with friends on the way home, expecting the battery life on their pocket and wrist-bound devices to stay at least above 20%.

In the future, your errands will all be handled by a low-paid army of Postmates and Taskrabbits. Your friends, geographically distributed around the world, will be selected from among the group of loyal comrades that chooses to live in your virtual reality: Facebook or Google. And you won’t ever be found rushing out the door at dawn, unless you’ve just woken from a nightmare flashback to the days before everybody worked from home. And now that we’re all at home most of the time, we might as well use powerful, multi-purpose computers with full-sized tactile keyboards. We deserve it.

Hopefully that’s all far-fetched, but I indulge in the dystopian fantasy to draw focus on my contention that neither the proliferation of mobile devices nor the extinction of desktop computers is a foregone conclusion. Each of the computing devices Apple in particular sells today, from the tank-like Mac Pro to the butterfly-light Apple Watch, has its own unique set of advantages and compromises. Most likely, the vast majority of us will find uses for several or all of these classes of products, as we engage in the aspects of our lives that favor either mobility or stability.

Years from now, I suppose it’s possible desktop computers will become obsolete, supplanted by mobile devices. But given the unpredictability of progress, I suspect we’ll look back at both classes of computing devices and chuckle about how silly it all seemed, before the advent of ______. On a long enough time scale, everything is a fad.

The Functional High Ground

Marco Arment laments his perception that Apple’s software quality is in such a rapid decline that the company has “completely lost the functional high ground.” I like this turn of phrase, even if I don’t agree with the extremity of the sentiment. Marco expands:

“It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.

I myself am particularly paranoid when it comes to Apple’s future. I spent the earliest years of my professional career working for the company, and to this day I consider the education I received at Apple to have been equal parts technical and philosophical. I learned not only how to build quality software, but why it should be done: to not only serve customers, but to delight and surprise them.

For years, my concerns about Apple’s future have been largely to do with my worry that those philosophical values are decreasingly shared by Apple’s engineering staff and management. And yet, over the years, I have been surprised and delighted by the steady stream of new, quality products that Apple releases.

The current state of Apple’s software does not particularly concern me. Are there embarrassing blemishes? Yes. Does the annual schedule for major OS updates seem rushed? Of course. Are there Apple employees in positions of power who do not share Marco’s and my enthusiasm for software that “just works?” I regret to surmise that, indeed, there are.

But I’ve indulged these doubts about Apple since shortly after I was hired … in 1996. The mysterious, seemingly magical nostalgic components of Apple’s past success have always seemed threatened by the rapid waves of change that undo and reconfigure the company’s priorities. After the NeXT acquisition in late 1996, many of my colleagues and I feared the influx of new engineers would spell the end of the Mac as we knew it. In fact it did, but the new priorities of Mac OS X meshed well with the old priorities of Mac OS 9, yielding what I believe is an undisputably better, more Apple-like operating system than Apple was likely to have come up with on its own. There were many fits and starts along the way, including questions about arcane matters such as filename extensions and case sensitivity. These were but a few of many questions that would seem to make or break the legacy of the Mac. Choices were made, hearts were broken, and the Mac lives on.

Since I left Apple in 2002, I have been no stranger to criticizing the company for its flaws. The mistakes they ship in hardware and software are sometimes so glaringly obvious, it’s impossible to imagine how any engineer, manager, or executive could suffer the embarrassments. And yet, sometimes these defects linger for years before being properly addressed.

The problem has also been a focus of popular geek culture at many, many times in history. Way back in 2005, Dan Wood of Karelia was so frustrated by persistent flakiness in Apple’s software that he encouraged developers to report an Apple bug on Fridays. It worked: myself, Brent Simmons, Wolf Rentzsch, Sven-S. Porst, and countless others were moved to file bugs not just that Friday, but for many weeks to follow.

Over the years I have never been at a loss for identifying problems big and small with Apple’s products, or with the way it conducts its business. I’m sure I had plenty of complaints starting in 2002, but I didn’t start blogging in earnest until 2005. Here are some highlights to remind you that things have never been fine with Apple:

  • 2005 – Keychain Inaccessibility. I lamented the poor behavior of Apple’s Keychain Access app, even after improvements that came in Mac OS X 10.4.3. Nearly ten years later, to the delight of the folks who make 1Password, this embarrassment remains largely uncorrected.
  • 2006 – We Need a Hero. I shined a light on the difficulty of implementing AppleScript support in applications. Things have steadily improved, but are still very frustrating and error-prone. At least now we have two automation languages to pull our hair out over.
  • 2006 – All Work and No Play… Apple’s first Intel portable computer was a sight for sore eyes, but a cause of sore ears. The maddening “CPU whine” persisted through several iterations of the hardware design until the machines finally became more or less (to my ears) quiet.
  • 2007 – Leopard Isn’t the Problem. Speaking of annual software release schedules, here’s my nearly 8-year old reaction to Apple’s failure to meet the planned release schedules for both Mac and iOS in parallel. Is Apple suddenly more fixated on marketing than on engineering? Not by my assessment that their statement way back then was “bluntly crafted, sleazy marketing bullshit.”
  • 2008 – NSURLConnection Crashing Epidemic. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if Apple shipped a bug so pervasive that it could crash any app that uses Cocoa’s standard URL loading mechanism? That’s what they did in Mac OS X 10.4.11, and it took them months to fix it. When they finally did, I ended up receiving a security update credit!
  • 2009 – Is Apple Evil? Speaking of embarrassments, how pathetic is it that nearly 7 years after the iOS App Store debuted, capricious rejections are still a mainstay of iOS tech journalism? In 2009, I reacted: “Alongside the stubbornly perfected refinement of its products, marketing, and public image, the company has always worn blemishes such as these.” Some things truly never change.
  • 2010 – Surviving Success. From the midst of “antennagate,” in which Steve Jobs accidentally coined the famous anti-advice “you’re holding it wrong.” I fretted that Apple was losing its marketing cool, and that Jobs should chill out:

    He spins the truth in that barely plausible manner that used to be celebrated as the “reality distortion field,” but now comes off as purposefully dishonest and manipulative.

    We don’t have Jobs to blame any longer for Apple’s less tasteful distortions of reality.

  • 2011 – Huh. I couldn’t find any particularly cogent complaints in my archives. Maybe I was too busy reacting with panic to Apple’s new Mac Application Sandbox. I did complain in an interview with The Mac Observer about “having to come to terms with the vast amount of stuff that Apple’s doing,” but that “it’s been a persistent, joyous complaint … that Apple is doing too much.”
  • 2012 – Fix the Sandbox. Having fully digested the impact of the Sandbox on shipping apps, I drew attention to the many problems I saw in Apple’s approach to (allegedly) enhancing user security:

    Given the current limitations of sandboxing, a significant number of developers will not adopt the technology, so its usefulness to users and to the security of the platform will be diminished.

  • 2013 – Respect the Crowd. Oh, right, Maps. Remember when Apple used to have reliable driving directions, place data, and even public transit directions?

    It’s all about the data. It doesn’t matter how beautiful Apple’s maps are, or how quickly they load, if they consistently assign wrong names and locations to the businesses and landmarks that customers search for on a daily basis.

    Apple has made significant improvements to their mapping data, and there are rumors, based largely in their acquisition of transit-oriented companies, that they may restore transit directions at some point. But to this day, Google Maps remains my go-to app for transit directions, while Google’s other directions app, Waze, gets my business for driving directions.

  • 2014 – Breach of Trust. We’re getting so close to modern times by now that Apple’s tactless imposition of a U2 album on everybody’s iPhone, whether they wanted it or not, could be considered part of Marco’s current diagnosis of what ails Apple. The nut of my take on the incident:

    It doesn’t matter much that Apple inserts an unwanted music album into your purchased list. But even a little move in a direction that threatens the primacy of users is a relatively big move for companies like Twitter or Apple, whose track records have inspired us to trust that we retain more authority over the personalization of these products than perhaps we do.

And now it’s 2015, and in the immortal words of Kurt Cobain: “Hey! Wait! I’ve got a new complaint.” Don’t we all. A company like Apple, moving at a breakneck speed, will undoubtedly continue to give us plenty to obsess about, both positively and negatively. I’ve been following the company closely since my hiring in 1996. Since that time, the company has consistently produced nothing short of the best hardware and software in the world, consistently marred by nothing short of the most infuriating, most embarrassing, most “worrisome for the company’s future” defects.

Apple is clearly doomed. I think Apple is going to be okay.

How Many Blogs Do You Have?

One of the things that has kept me from blogging more over the years has been the problem of worrying that, or at least wondering if, the specific thing that is on my mind right now is particularly useful or interesting for my readers.

I find it sort of charming when people write “whole person” blogs that may contain material spanning from their personal emotions, to the culture they appreciate, to the work that they do, and the politics they believe in. But I also find it kind of irritating when I don’t happen to value or share in common one or more of those many disparate interests. Slogging through myriad posts about renaissance faires or meat rendering techniques, just to get the rare morsel about, say, optimizing Objective-C code, is not my idea of enjoying the written word as a reader of blogs.

And so I am very sensitive to try to keep things pertinent to the blog at hand. This has led to my having had for a long time now at least two, and often far more active blogs at a time. I started with just a single LiveJournal blog more than a decade ago, but when I started building Red Sweater it made sense to add a company blog as well. I pushed the limits of what is appropriate for a company blog, frequently using it as soapbox for my own personal beliefs, usually about tech issues, but occasionally straying into discussions about the environment, or endorsing a political candidate. I even eulogized my dad when he passed away four years ago.

I enjoyed a significant audience on the Red Sweater Blog, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that it was a personal blog more than a professional one. Sure, I announced all my product news, but also wrote about, well, almost anything I felt like. That didn’t seem right.

There was also a ton of stuff I didn’t write about at all. Stuff that wasn’t related to my business and furthermore wasn’t related to technology. For this, I kept an old “personal blog” at Blogspot, which was basically the evolution of my original LiveJournal blog. Here, for example, I wrote a long post on buying a car, sharing the tips I’d picked up in my own process of doing so.

But that personal blog wasn’t really suitable, or I didn’t think so anyway, for technical rants or programming advice. If I wanted to make broad observations about a tech company, or wanted to share advice about code signing, these didn’t really belong on either Red Sweater or my personal site.

So I’ve basically added blogs until I no longer hem and haw about whether or not to post something. There’s still a challenge sometimes in deciding which of my blogs to post to, but never a limitation of there not being a suitable outlet if I want it.

The only problem is that now whenever I post a new blog entry and share it on Twitter, somebody will have inevitably seen the blog for the first time and ask “how many blogs do you, anyway”

Let’s see if I can enumerate them all, as well as my rough idea of the audience they serve and the correlated limitations on content.

  • Red Sweater Blog. My official company blog serves to inform existing users about updates to my software in a casual way that includes more verbose explanation about the changes than a mere bullet list of changes. The blog also, at its best, will share tips and tricks about using not only my software but software that is highly pertinent to Mac and iOS users as a whole.
  • Bitsplitting. This is my technical soapbox. If something feels technical in nature but is not clearly tied to my work at Red Sweater in such a way that it’s meaningful to Red Sweater customers, then it goes here. I find this particularly liberating because it gives me a chance to share opinions about tech companies and people that might be less appropriate coming from an official company blog.
  • Indie Stack. Some of my best posts on the Red Sweater Blog were long excursions into the process of debugging or programming for the Mac and iOS. Granted, some normal people found these posts interesting, but for the most part they fly right over the heads of those who are tuning in to learn about either my products or my philosophies about technology. Indie Stack is the nerd haven where anything goes so long as it’s suitable to other developers or people who happen to be interested in developer technologies.
  • Punk It Up. Often neglected for long periods of time, this is where my non-technical writing belongs. Observations about social situations, jokes, advice about buying cars, etc. If it’s suitable for a general audience, it goes here. Wait, that’s not right, because this is also my blog for crude, relatively unedited quips on whatever subject. In short, these are my liberal arts writings, but they have also sometimes been uncensored. Perhaps that’s an opportunity for further bifurcation.

And unless I’m missing something, that’s how many blogs I have. Oh, but I forgot the podcasts and audio:

  • Core Intuition. My weekly podcast with Manton Reece. We talk about anything related to being a Mac and iOS “indie” developer. Geared towards both developers and people who enjoy a peek inside the minds of two guys actively pursuing our indie ambitions.
  • Bitsplitting Podcast. Spun off from the Bitsplitting blog, the idea with the podcast was to fill a void I perceived in other tech podcasts: a failure to dive deeper into the backstory of individuals being interviewed. The format for this show is a long-form interview that doesn’t hesitate to get philosophical about the life ambition of a guest, and how their stories have fulfilled that ambition thus far.
  • TwitPOP. Born from my idea one day that (nearly) literal renditions of poetic tweets in musical form would be a good way to start doing something musical again, and to explore my fascination with the elegance of Twitter’s 140-character expressions.

You might wonder how a crazy person like myself manages to keep this many blogs going. I’m far from perfect, so of course there is some amount of neglect. I just posted to Punk It Up for the first time in four years, but it was nice to have it there when I finally got around to it.

But the other thing is this is only possible because MarsEdit makes editing a large number of distinct blogs somewhat sane. All of my blog posts and podcast episodes start in a familiar, Mac-based editor interface where all my favorite keyboard shortcuts, scripts, saved images, macros, etc., all live. Whether I’m writing to my company’s users or to the few people who take joy in my musical tweets, the interface for doing so is the same.

To be fair, there is certainly a cost to splitting everything up like this. Whatever notoriety I may gain with one blog is unlikely to transfer directly to the others. So if I wanted as many people as possible to see a specific post, it would have to go to the most visited blog, whether it was suitable content or not.

The compromise I’ve taken to address this problem is to treat Twitter as the over-arching, meta-topicked super-blog that acts as the umbrella to all the others. Regardless of the blog I post to, I’m likely to link to it from my @danielpunkass Twitter account. Sure, folks who follow me on Twitter may get tired of seeing links to various subjects that don’t interest them, but that is far less tedious to dig through than whole articles placed where they clearly don’t belong.

Now you know about all my blogs, and why they exist in such numbers. Just don’t ask how many Twitter accounts I have …


I’ve had a pretty successful life. I quit high school when I was 15 only to graduate from college when I was 20. I went straight from college to full-time employment at Apple, where I worked for around 7 years before leaving as a “Senior Software Engineer.” Not wanting to waste any more of my valuable, young life, I leapt from Apple to San Francisco State University, where I earned a second BA degree in Music. In the mean time, I started consulting and established what would evolve away from client work and into the software product company, Red Sweater Software, which sustains me and my family to this day.

In short, I’m a hotshot. When I put it all down in one paragraph like that, even I’m impressed by myself!

But if asked about my “biggest weakness” I would probably say it’s self-deprecation, because I tend to focus more on my own shortcomings than on my talents. I have always known that I am capable, but suffer a great deal of that hard-to-pinpoint impostor syndrome that afflicts so many people. Sometimes I wonder if giving a name to this “syndrome” is only a shorthand reminder that each and every one of us considers him or herself unworthy of credit for what we’ve achieved.

And yet some things I have felt unabashedly smug about over the years. For example, I have always valued my ability to “make things work” under tight constraints. That is to say, I will put almost anything off until the last minute, even if there is no rational reason for doing so. You could say I’m a procrastinator but I think it’s more complicated than that. Even tasks I look forward to and anticipate enjoying might be put off in the name of making them, I don’t know, more dramatic upon their completion? Under psychoanalysis this might reveal an affinity for the adrenaline rush that comes with “following through just in time.” Why write that school paper ahead of time when you can binge on reading and writing the night before it’s due? Why dig into tax-filing research in January when the (US) government gives you until April 15, or if you’re like me, until October 15 to finally file?

There’s something about the thrill of delaying action up until the edge of failure, only to follow through and complete a task in the nick of time, that makes me feel somehow more accomplished. More like a hotshot.

The unfortunate price for this “heroism” is needless anxiety in groping for essay ideas at 3AM, or racing to the post office at 11:50PM the night tax-filing postmarks are due. Or worse, if the hotshot-compulsion extends to one’s personal life, arriving a chronic 5-10 minutes late for appointments because you respect punctuality enough to aim for on-time, but because you value the thrill of last-minute travel sorcery just a tad more.

Lately I’ve become, on an intellectual level at least, increasingly convinced that real hotshots don’t complete tasks, solve problems, or meet acquaintances at the last minute. I’ve come to envy the folks who file taxes in February, and then proceed to enjoy spring and summer without the increasing weight of that obligation weighing on their shoulders. I respect the college student who studies, drafts, then rewrites an essay a week in advance, so they can truly enjoy their down time outside of class. And I see the Buddha-like wisdom of the person who compulsively leaves for every appointment ten minutes early instead of aiming for the precise moment of departure that will more-or-less ensure their timely arrival.

This post was completed at 5:59PM, because I gave myself 20 minutes to write it when I started at 5:40PM.

Breach Of Trust

There’s a spectrum, as with all things, to the reactions people have had to Apple’s promotional gifting of U2’s new album, “Songs of Innocence.” On one end you’ll hear ridiculous, conspiracy-minded talk about how Apple has violated customer privacy by, you know, giving them a free album. On the other end you’ll hear ridiculous derision of anybody who, even upon careful reflection, finds fault with the way Apple and U2 carried out this PR stunt.

I tend to agree with Marco Arment’s take, both about it being a mistake to overlook the nuances of this situation, and that the nut of the problem, the part especially worthy of scrutiny by Apple’s fans, is the extent to which this move, and the threat of more moves like it, erodes our trust that the company has our best interests at heart.

Hold up a minute, I hear you choking on your disbelief that I could actually believe a giant corporation has my best interests at heart. I get it: to them, in the big scheme of things, I’m nothing. We’re all “nothing.” But their actions over the course of many years tell a different story. Whether they ultimately care about our interests or not, it has been a primary business practice to respect not only customer privacy, but customer primacy. It’s important to Apple that we trust them to safeguard our personal data, but it’s also important that we trust them to let us choose the desktop picture, the system beep sound, and the computer’s name. The notion that Macs, iPhones, and iPads are personalized devices runs deep in Apple’s history and remains a powerful marketing message.

So, many of the people who complained about the U2 album suddenly appearing in their “Purchased” list weren’t outraged by a petty act of gifting an album that they may or may not like. They were instead annoyed, and perhaps a little scared by the implication that Apple doesn’t respect the boundaries that separate “customer stuff” from “Apple stuff.”

I can’t help but draw a parallel between the ongoing debate about the merits of Facebook’s algorithmic timelines vs. Twitter’s (up to now) more-or-less self-curated timelines. Over the course of years, Twitter has trained customers to believe that we have control over our timelines, while Facebook has not. Does it matter in the big scheme of things if Twitter injects an ad here or there, or treats a friend’s favorited tweet as a retweet? Not really. In the same sense that it doesn’t matter much that Apple inserts an unwanted music album into your purchased list. But even a little move in a direction that threatens the primacy of users is a relatively big move for companies like Twitter or Apple, whose track records have inspired us to trust that we retain more authority over the personalization of these products than perhaps we do.

What Have You Been Working On?

In one week a huge number of Apple nerds will convene in San Francisco for the Worldwide Developer Conference and related festivities. As I did last year, I’ll be traveling for the event but whooping it up outside the walls of the official conference.

Around WWDC time, whether I’m attending or not, I always find myself taking stock of recent achievements. As my own worst critic, this usually isn’t very pleasant. Some of this introspection is rooted in the historic, vain hope that some of my work might one day be recognized by Apple in the form of an Apple Design Award. It’s not uncommon for developers to ramp up work schedules in January or so, in the hopes of putting the finishing touches on, and shipping, a major release in time to be considered for the prestigious honor. By the time WWDC comes along, you are either happy with what you have to show, or, well, you’re normal.

The truth is I have never expected to win an Apple Design Award, but I have often used it as as a kind of productivity hack: “Let’s see what I can get done by WWDC.” Until a few years ago, Apple required developers to nominate themselves for the award, so engaging in the process was a way of bringing into focus what kinds of achievements one might like to make by a specific deadline. These days, Apple simply selects from the vast selection of App Store titles (though I’m sure that private lobbying can’t hurt), so there isn’t as much of a concrete sense that one’s work is in the effort of qualifying for an award.

But even without an overt application process or a vague sense of possibly winning an award, I still find myself taking stock of recent achievements. Why? Because in San Francisco next week, five to ten thousand Mac and iOS nerds will be plucked from their usual, typically introverted lifestyles and given the opportunity to socialize with one another. And I will be among, and one of those nerds. When people who don’t know each other at all make uncomfortable small talk, the question of choice is often “What do you do?” For us nerds who know even a tiny bit about one another, it’s the more precise “What have you been working on?”

And that’s the kicker. What have I been working on? The answer is never any of the things that an outsider might admire and celebrate: a best-of-class blog editing app, a popular podcast or two, a job board, raising two beautiful children, or trying to be a good husband. Those are all things I have worked on, and continue to work on. And I’m proud of them. But in the context of this question, posed at a professional conference where I’m taking stock of what I’ve done and what I plan to do, none of these qualifies as what I feel I’ve been working on.

Because what I’m really working on is never ready to share. What I’m really working on may never ship. What I’m really working on is what gets me out of bed every morning, willing to bang my head in vain for hours in the hopes of chipping away at this monumental task that seems impossible and amazing, but maybe more the former than the latter. And when and if this thing does finally see the light of day, I will celebrate for a moment before quickly relegating it to the list of boring things I’ve already done, and set my sights on something else.

So when someone asks me again next week what I’ve been working on, I’ll be hard-pressed to think of anything interesting. I’ll hem and haw and reflect upon the year’s dubious achievements before muttering, “Oh, just the same old stuff. What have you been working on?”

Letterpress Rules

My friend Brent Simmons shared his personal rules for the popular competitive word-forming game, Letterpress.

In a nutshell Brent’s rules are to always pass the first turn after a victory, and to avoid playing suffix or prefix variations of an opponent’s last word.

I strongly agree with passing the first turn after victory. The first play offers a strong advantage in the game and if you rematch in victory and play the first word then you give yourself an unsportsmanlike advantage.

The second rule however is too fiddly for my taste. I feel that there would be too little overlap in agreement on rules for this to be reasonably expected to be adhered to. It was actually my initial objection to the game when I first played it over a year ago. I agreed with Brent’s sentiment but thought the game itself should somehow enforce it. Since then I have learned to be at peace with the fact that if I play “BEMUSED,” I had better be prepared for my opponent to play “MUSED” if it suits her.

I have found however that there can be an impedance mismatch when an opponent has dramatically different “rules” of his own. For example I once played an excruciatingly long game with somebody. I was having a good time, and struggling to win. After 30 or 40 turns of what I saw as “end game,” he sent me a message on Twitter along the lines “Do you think I should end this thing?” What?! Of course you should end this thing. It’s a competitive game! But it turned out that one of his objectives was to string games along whenever possible.

Not surprisingly, because I’m kind of a stickler for rules, I have a few to add to Brent’s. I don’t expect my opponents to necessarily adhere to them, but I find them to be the most sportsmanlike way of playing the game:

  • First, to repeat Brent’s advice: Always pass the first turn when rematching after a victory.
  • No word reference or other “cheats.” I don’t view trying every damned word combination to see if it flies to be cheating, but using an automated tool is not cool. The germ of forming the words you play should come from within your own head.
  • Bogus words are fine, as long as Letterpress accepts them. I’ve played bad enough words that I’ve apologized to my opponent, but the game is the game. It is assumed that all players will play “bogus” words when advantageous, so roll with it.
  • Always win with the smallest advantage possible. A perfect game of Letterpress for me is a 13-12 victory. Because there are no advantages to a huge victory, apart from gloating or possibly making an opponent feel inferior, the goal of the game for me is to win, but to win graciously. Sometimes I go to a little extra work to find a low-enough scoring word that still puts me over the top. (When I’m lucky enough to win, that is!)

Choices And Consequences

Apple’s iOS and Mac App Stores employ a crude system of ratings and reviews that nonetheless has an impact on how marketable an app is, and accordingly, how much money it brings in.

Since very early in the history of these stores, developers looking to raise the average “star rating” on their apps, and to garner gushing words of praise in their reviews, have dealt with a conundrum: users do not typically review apps unless angered or … encouraged.

So developers have encouraged users to review their apps, using techniques that span a spectrum from what most users would consider harmless, to tactics that even the most naive users recognize as badgering, condescending, and manipulative.

At the harmless end of the spectrum, you find gentle reminders on Twitter, links in the about boxes of apps, and earnest pleas in the signature footer of email correspondence. These are not a huge deal to most people, and are usually phrased in a way that extracts empathy and a sense of obligation from passionate users: “We know it takes time and effort to review an app, but if you value our work please consider leaving a positive review. It means a lot. Thank you!”

At the other end, you find blatant harassment and tricky language meant to confuse users into capitulating. Modal alert panels might interrupt a user’s workflow at inopportune times, demanding that they either leave a review now or be reminded later to do so. The natural reaction of any user in this situation would be to try to determine which series of hoops must be jumped through to get the app to leave one friggin’ alone!

Recently John Gruber addressed the problem of apps on the badgering end of the spectrum, and merely hinted at a grass-roots campaign that might make a dent in the problem:

I’ve long considered a public campaign against this particular practice, wherein I’d encourage Daring Fireball readers, whenever they encounter these “Please rate this app” prompts, to go ahead and take the time to do it — but to rate the app with just one star and to leave a review along the lines of, “One star for annoying me with a prompt to review the app.”

Of course, by alluding to such a campaign in the plain view of hundreds of thousands of readers, Gruber may in fact have launched it. I witnessed many hoots of agreement among folks on Twitter, but also this more considerate reaction from Cabel Sasser of Panic:

That said, ‘give apps that do this 1 star’ suggestion bummed me out — stoops to the level of ‘1 star until you add X feature!’

Damn you, Cabel, and your empathetic rationality. There’s something to his call for civility and for taking the high road. On the other hand, damn it, too many developers have chosen the low road and users are entitled to react accordingly!

Probably the most uncomfortable aspect for me of this debate is that the temptation to … encourage users to write reviews and to rate software is completely rational. It makes perfect sense for us as developers to do everything we can to maximize the positive marketing of our apps.

But every choice in business comes with consequences, positive and negative. You implement a new feature that wows half your audience and increases sales among them by 10%, only to discover you’ve pissed off the other half and cut sales by 50% in their camp. It’s not fair or necessarily even rational. It’s just the mechanics of choices, reactions, and consequences.

Many developers cling tightly to the belief that because positive reviews can lead to increased sales, it’s unambiguously right to encourage more of them. And if producing a small number of reviews is a good thing, then producing a huge number of reviews must be a great thing. Mo’ reviews, mo’ money. What’s the problem?

The problem is that except to the least soulful among us, maximizing sales is not the only goal of writing software or developing a business. We need sales to keep ourselves and our families comfortable, but we need other things too. To many of us, these priorities are at least, if not more important than the specific need to make a living somehow:

  • The satisfaction that our customers are being treated well.
  • The ongoing support of customers for months and years to come.
  • The sense of pride in owning and stewarding a well-crafted product.

It’s smart to take it as given that something should be done to encourage users to leave positive ratings and reviews. That’s good business sense. But also take it as given that the farther you tread in the direction of badgering and disrespecting users, the more you chip away at the meaningful non-monetary benefits listed above.

If somebody like John Gruber incites your customers to rebel against the choices you’ve made in designing and marketing your product, take a step back before condemning him as the problem. Whether they knew it or not, your customers were already pissed at you before reading Gruber’s opinions. He’s only providing them with a context for expressing that rage. Take it as a wake up call and as an opportunity to re-evaluate your behavior before too many additional customers are moved to act.

Heavy-handed efforts to drum up reviews that produce a cash influx today might lead to unwanted consequences down the road. You might end up unsatisfied and ashamed that your otherwise brilliant app stoops to nagging and infuriating its users on a regular basis. And to top it all off, somebody like Gruber might light the match that sets them off revolting against you. It won’t be his fault, because the choices were yours all along. The consequences? Those are yours as well.