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The Missing Manuals

Innovator Insight: A Chat with Robb Beal

by Derrick Story

In this second "Innovator Insight" interview, I talk with Robb Beal, President of UserCreations and creator of Spring, and the second-place winner of the inaugural Mac OS X Innovators Contest. The goal here is to discover and share the process that a successful Mac developer uses to take a glint of an idea full term to its full potential. I'll use these same questions in all of the "Innovator Insight" interviews so you can easily compare the different approaches and attitudes of successful programmers.

Derrick Story: When did the lightning bolt of inspiration first strike about your award-winning idea? Was it in the shower, on a walk, during conversation ...? Tell us how.

Robb Beal: The Spring user experience started germinating "ever so slightly" in my mind around mid-'96. I was a grad student and spent lots of time experimenting with OpenDoc. That experience helped me free my mind from the notion that the personal computer user experience had to be app-centric.

Derrick: Then what did you do? Work up a prototype, get some help, let it ferment? How much time passed between when you had the initial inspiration and the first working prototype?

Robb Beal.
Robb Beal with his Mac OS X Innovators award, presented to him at O'Reilly's ETech Conference in April 2003.

Robb: The idea grew over the course of five years! I constantly found myself asking why the personal computer user experience wasn't more conceptual and less machine-like.

In December 2001, I teamed up with Mark Onyschuk, a world-class software designer. We used the drawing framework underlying his GlyphiX diagramming app (unfortunately, no longer available in retail) to build a Spring prototype, ironically called iLife at the time.

Derrick: Do you have a mentor? Or maybe someone who helped you overcome the technical hurdles involved with bringing your idea to life? Tell us about that person and his/her role.

Robb: There hasn't been one particular person. If it weren't for people like Dave Winer (UserLand), Cabel and Steve (Panic), Chuck Shotton (WebStar), and Mike Tingey (Digital Harbor), I wouldn't be designing software for Macintosh. For anyone who cares about the future of Macintosh, it's extremely important to understand what motivates independent developers/designers to develop for Macintosh. What motivates me (and seems to be universal) is the desire to be part of the independent Mac developer culture that, along with users, is the essence of Macintosh. (There's no discernible Apple developer culture. It's not something a big company can manufacture.)

Dave Winer's Scripting.com community played an important role in connecting me with other designers/developers.

Dan Wood (Watson) and Brent Simmons (NetNewsWire) played important roles as well. I teamed up with Dan as Watson product manager in January 2002. That enormous market success gave me the confidence to launch Spring. Brent has been generous in so many ways. UserCreations' best month of sales came during the month when we ran the "Breakaway Bundle" with Ranchero.

Derrick: How many people did you tell about your idea during the development phase? Was this something you kept under your hat, or did the Mac community at large know you were working on this?

Robb: We kept it fairly quiet. We did a couple of demos for a big company. That experience was unsatisfying, to say the least. Today, the last thing you want to do with a hot new idea is parade it in front of a big company. By and large, big companies aren't buying or investing in new app ideas, they're just copying them when it's clear they're hot. It's pathetic, for example, that Microsoft's Mac business unit isn't making investments in independent Mac developers when the benefits of doing so are so compelling.

Derrick: What was harder, developing the application to the point that it was ready for public consumption, or the "sales, marketing, distribution" side of the equation? Why?

Robb: Today, it's unequivocally the sales and marketing. User attention is scarce. Apple's entry into end-user app markets, especially with so-called free apps (where they play cost-hiding games), has made getting user attention all the more difficult and costly.

If you're in it for the long haul, the importance of developing community around your app can't be overestimated. If your app doesn't have a prominent Community menu, fix that immediately. Look into options for integrating chat functionality into your app. Is your web-based help user-annotatable? Have you thoughtfully asked your existing customers to help you sell your app?

We keep looking for innovations in platform management from Apple, but they never seem to come. For example, we were incredulous when we saw that, in May, er, June 2003 Apple was doing a 90s-style developer conference where developers are asked to pay a lot of money to be preached to, and quite possibly told that additional app markets are no longer safe!

Derrick: On your next big project, what will you do differently, and what will you do the same?

Robb: Differently -- The major lesson from Spring is that it takes time for people to become really comfortable with an entirely new user experience. Luckily, we're in it for the long haul and learning the virtue of patience everyday!

Same -- I'd swing for the fence. I'd do the UI in Cocoa. I'd use AppleScript tactically. I'd build bridges to other apps.

Derrick: What one piece of advice that you've learned during the process would you pass on to other Mac developers?

Robb: Work with other developers. (For new developers, when you introduce your product to the world, introduce yourself to other developers.)

Don't wait breathlessly for Apple to tell you what ideas are safe or important! At some point in life, you need to quit playing audience to the wealth of big companies and to the celebrity of others. Nobody I know ever got rich doing this! People prosper, by and large, by doing truly new apps with obvious productivity benefits and really sticking together.

Finally, insist on integrity from corporate leaders, remembering that they ultimately answer to a Board of Directors.

Also check out the Brent Simmons interview for more developer insights.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.

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