Indie Upgrade Cycles

There are some very insightful comments on the last post, as expected from Daring Fireball readers. Thankfully, nobody took anything personally, because it was about whether super-cheap bundles are an efficient way of gaining customers, rather than any reflection on MacZOT (or any other bundle / discount) buyers or a particular site.

One theme running through the comments that did make me wonder ran along the lines of “the lack of updates caused me to look elsewhere”. There is the irony there that the extra support work not only delayed the 1.3 release, but put a squeeze on everything else I did.

The striking thing about this complaint though, is that it’s something I’ve also heard quite a lot in support emails regarding a number of Together’s competitors. I admit that I don’t keep tabs on them, because I don’t see the point, but as far as I can tell most of these apps get updated every 3 – 6 months, with bug fix / tweaks released every month or so, just like KIT.

For example, Soukyan writes:

What bothered me was that development seemed to slow to a halt for quite some time. I realize that you were preparing the 2.0 release, but this is the problem with small developers. My license entitles me to 1.x upgrades for free, but the paradigm in software has become, release, upgrades to release.5 at the most, and then do a new release and charge for the upgrade. Whatever the reasoning behind it, I don’t mind, but I do mind when the developer seems to drop off the face of the earth. The tells me that I cannot rely on the software to be maintained for the long term.

It’s when indie developers are quiet that they’re probably working the hardest. I spent almost the entire year working on KIT/Together. Version 1.3 was released within 6 months of the bundle and 2.0 another 9 months later, soon after Leopard was released. That was a longer gap than I’d normally like to have but in the meantime, KIT was updated every month or so all the way up until October, when it was made Leopard-compatible.

Obviously Leopard’s delay, and lack of development in the meantime, impacted everything quite significantly. I started Together when Leopard was supposed to be released in late June (and some rumour sites were adamant it would be April). I opened a lot of bugs about Leopard with Apple, a number of which still haven’t been closed and had to do a lot of work twice, to work around problems.

Indie Mac apps in general have frequent free updates that add features as well as fix bugs (often within days of them being reported), and this is what sets independent developers, whether individuals or small teams, apart from the likes of big companies such as Microsoft or Adobe, who release something huge every two years and nothing in between. Even Apple only manages, at best, annual updates to their applications, with the free, minor updates offering fixes but little in the way of new functionality (one exception being iTunes, but generally this is to support new iPods/iPhone or iTunes Store initiative).

Software development takes a long time and it’s most efficient to bundle changes together. One feature may appear as a bullet point, but take many weeks to design, develop and test. Most new features will impact something else, so the repercussions of even a handful of new features can be mind-boggling. Even a release that takes 2 or 3 months can easily devour another month in support, and for all sorts of reasons.

It’s a real balancing act for developers to come up with a release that has enough in it to satisfy people’s requests, works well, and provides enough features to get the attention of new buyers in a reasonable timeframe. I generally manage to release 2 to 3 such updates a year, alternating between both of my apps, and punctuated by the more regular bug fix releases.

Because indie Mac software is pretty low-priced anyway, and full version upgrades (e.g. 2.0, 3.0) often years apart, it’s important to keep that momentum going. There comes a point though where an upgrade like that won’t cut it and you need to make some pretty large changes, and that’s when it’s time for a major new version.

I guess that in Together’s market, where there is a range of diverse competitors people seem to bounce between, and where people may also use web apps that tend to trickle out smaller changes more frequently, people’s expectations can be very high.

4 Responses to “Indie Upgrade Cycles”

  1. Tod Says:

    “I guess that in Together’s market, where there is a range of diverse competitors people seem to bounce between, and where people may also use web apps that tend to trickle out smaller changes more frequently, people’s expectations can be very high.”

    Actually, our attention spans might be very low. I speak from my own experience of jumping from one app to another, then another, never quite learning about the subtle features that set each one apart.

    I most recently went through this cycle with a series of “media library” applications: Dazzled by Delicious, went on to Booxter, the “Pedia” series (BookPedia…), then Librarian. Having tried them all over time, I decided that the Pedia series best suited my needs and I’m now in a longer attention span as I use them exclusively.

    It’s unfortunate that a group of similar apps cause some of us to be very fickle in the short run but, at least in my case, the cream eventually rises to the top.

    As an aside, I’d like to note that though there are legions of Quicksilver users, I didn’t find it to be worth my while, so I moved on to the next one.

  2. Steve Harris Says:

    Tod, that’s very interesting, I think you make a great point. Most people tell me they’ve switched between at least two other apps in the last year (which must be a real pain), they seem to know everything about them too. Far more than me, anyway.

    I know this because people often ask for features from those other apps (and so often when this or that feature will be implemented), but often don’t really explain why. I’m trying to be original and come up with ideas that address “needs” and yet sometimes it feels like I’m receiving a checklist of “wants”.

    The whole arena seems very volatile. Maybe it’ll settle down.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments, as always.

  3. TommyW Says:

    The whole arena is very volatile and certainly I as a user took a while before I could settle down on how I use these kinds of apps. And I don’t think any of them answer all the info management needs. The richness and variety in the arena says a lot about the importance of it to knowledge work.

    I use Together as my favourite set of smart buckets, a catch-it-as-it-unfolds kind of application, where research, stuff to refer to later, important information from serials to photo IDs and scanned passports. A general set of information which I only break down into large chunks Home, Work, Build, Technology, Design, and a few big current projects. If I had to ask myself ‘now where did I shove that?” I probably put it in Together. I like it’s visual qualities the best of all the info managers, the tagging and layout, ease of use…the shelf, the landscape view, all great.

    I use VoodooPad for two things, I use it for generating notes and output for my students, the web output is good and I use it on my college site. It’s one of the few info managers designed to produce output of some form, for communicating. I also use it as a Daybook, a scratchpad, jotter kind of thing, I do a fresh document each month and it functions as a record of phone conversations and other random bits. I like being able to mix stuff I grabbed and stuff I’ve written in the one page. I have a Quicksilver trigger that will append some inputted text to an inbox page for that day. It’s quick and I can look back and see what phone conversations had what actions planned on what day.

    I use DTPO for specific projects, I suck in a project’s Finder folders and documents, including media,images, etc. I also include project specific email and contacts. I only do it when a project is pretty mature so I only have a few databases, about six or so. I’m more likely to look there when I’m assessing my project material than in the Finder for example. I like being able to have my stills from a film in one folder on it and different sets of them created by reference only to the original, so I can keep a record of what stills went to which person. It’s kind of like a meta-FInder, a slow thing to appreciate but great when you do. So DTPO is for particular things in my usage and more detailed and slow in a way. I use Together in a more general way, it’s certainly more responsive and present.

  4. Daniel Says:

    Sometimes developers really do drop off the face of the earth. This does not mean they don’t release upgrades or newer versions of the software, but they don’t blog, don’t respond to their software’s bulletin board, they do not reply to any of the bug reports etc. When you experience something like that, no matter how good the software is, your impulse is to abandon it. As long as you keep blogging (and especially if you continue writing such interesting posts) I’m in no fear about your software and will continue to support it. Cheers and happy holidays!