Under The Microscope

The Delicious Generation

Rogue Amoeba’s a relatively young company, founded just over 4 years ago. If we had a brick and mortar store, we couldn’t put up a “Since 2002″ sign – we weren’t even around the last time Apple was “beleaguered”. But in the scheme of Mac OS X software companies, it would seem that we’re part of the old school.

MacintoshThis realization came at C4, when I had a long discussion with Gus Mueller and Brent Simmons, creators of VoodooPad and NetNewsWire, respectively. These are two applications I use regularly, made by two friends of mine, and they’re great examples of software that rose to prominence using standard widgets almost exclusively1. These applications aren’t flashy (though they’re certainly not ugly), but they are very, very functional. We flatter ourselves that Rogue Amoeba’s applications follow that same model – functional, with a clean, usable design.

Anyhow, the three of us realized that after developing on Mac OS X for just a few years, we felt like not just part of the old school of Mac developers, but the crotchety old men of the Mac software industry. In the past year or so, Mac development had shifted from applications providing new functionality that appeared at the dawn of OS X to applications (and ideas) built around flash and sizzle, with plenty of marketing hype to fuel the fire. This had created something of a toxic atmosphere in the Mac development world. A rift between the old school, with its plain but functional apps, and the new school of flashy but frivolous apps, has developed.

Talking ’bout Their Generation

While talking with Brent and Gus, I dubbed this new school “The Delicious Generation”. Many of the design and marketing ideas of this new school seem to be derived from the successes of Delicious Library2, and I’m sure many members of this generation would readily and happily list it as an influence. So at the risk of increasing Wil Shipley’s ego (and starting a meme), the Delicious Generation is the term I’ll be using for the new school. The old school needs no other name.

Who Are You? Who, Who, Who, Who?

DiscoPerhaps the most prominent current example of the Delicious Generation is Disco. Disco was introduced to the public as a name and nothing more, for sale on MacZOT3. For $5, 2000 users purchased an application about which they knew next to nothing. Ultimately, it’s turned out to be an application for CD/DVD burning, really little more than a repackaged DiscRecording.framework, the disc burning framework written and provided by Apple.

Plenty of those exist already, but Disco looks different, and it was well-hyped, so people are interested. Disco’s smoke effect is now infamous for being a sign of the fall of the Mac. I certainly won’t go that far, but I think it’s clear that it’s a “triumph” of style over substance.

Some other prominent members of the Delicious Generation include AppZapper, the My Dream App contest, and the new MacHeist. These all share a common ancestry of people behind them, but more importantly, they’re nice-looking sites and applications that are heavy on the marketing buzz and light on substance.

Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me, When I’m 64?

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to not describe myself as “crotchety” (I’ve never been comfortable with the word “crotch” hanging out at the beginning of it, for one thing). The thing to do then is to have a look at the new school and see what we can learn from it. There’s certainly plenty of middle ground between a plain-jane application packed with features that has a UI capable of putting you to sleep, and an application so loud and bright it’ll keep you awake, even though it’s not doing anything. So let’s take a look at the Delicious Generation (and yes, I’ll be painting with broad strokes).

Il Buono (The Good)

GarageBandThere’s plenty of good to take away from the aforementioned applications and sites. To start, they’re beautiful. There are plenty of talented graphic artists doing great work here. Given the choice between two identical applications, one that’s beautiful and one that’s plain, the beautiful one doesn’t just look better, it’s more usable. Adding some flash to a solid application is certain to be a good thing.

As well, there’s definitely some impressive new marketing ideas going on here. My Dream App has drawn in thousands of people and gotten them interested in Mac software. It’s also been the subject of countless articles across the web. Many small developers would kill for the kind of press that My Dream App has received. What can we learn here? The old cliche “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” certainly applies.

Perhaps best of all, the members of the Delicious Generation have worked to promote each another. With viral marketing and cross-promotion, they’ve built on one another’s successes, thus lifting up more than just themselves. A few cross-links on blogs used to cut it, but it doesn’t compare to the power evident here. I don’t like the idea of ads or badges on our site, but developers can always look for new ways to help each other.

Il Cattivo (The Bad)

I’ve already touched on the major problem of style over substance. Without getting too many nastygrams, I hope I can say that these applications are a bit light on content. A fellow developer joked that Disco would be released to much fanfare, and then the developers would realize they’d forgotten to hook up the disc burning functionality, having been so busy with the Smoke. This didn’t strike me as too far off the mark. Caring about the UI is A Good Thing. Focusing on it solely to the detriment of user interaction or even features, is not.

I also wonder if the sales these applications get are quality sales where the user is satisfied, or simply people who bought in to the hype. Hyperbole and breathless reporting is certain to receive criticism and backlash. Some definite backlash against the hype Disco received can be seen in this article and its comments. If you bought an application for its smoke effects, what happens when the novelty wears off? In crass terms, everyone wants to sleep with a Playboy bunny, no one wants to marry one.

Finally, I question who’s really benefiting here. With a site like MacZOT or a program like MacHeist, a small developer can gain quick notoriety, but at what cost? Gaining users is good, but it also increases support costs, and selling at a discounted price will obviously net less income. The developer has also reduced the perceived value of his software. If an application appears with a slashed price on one of these sites, will new full-price sales follow, or will people simply hope to find it on sale again? Are these loyal users who will buy upgrades and new applications? My sense is no.

Il Brutto (The Ugly)
I had a little theme going here, so I’ll take the opportunity to point out one ugly bit. There’s been at least some public negativity used in promoting these applications. Potshots at market leaders might be seen as scrappy by some, but ultimately, it comes across as callow. When Disco says “We’re having toast for breakfast”, it cries of sour grapes against an established competitor. Long ago, the RSS reader Shrook advertised itself as “NetNewsWire done right”. Author Graham Parks changed that slogan after receiving negative feedback about it. I certainly hope this sort of marketing doesn’t become the norm.

In The Year 2525 (If Man Is Still Alive)

So what happens next? Quentin puts his faith in capitalism, and trusts the market to shake things out. Its track record is certainly pretty good, but one need only look to network television and the seemingly unceasing rise in popularity of reality television to find a counter-example. Television has never been the most soul-enriching medium, but it’s tough to believe it hasn’t gotten worse as dramas and other scripted genres are replaced with banality.

The FutureI don’t know that I completely trust the market to sort things out. However, a conversation with Brian Wilson at Unsanity really helped me solidify my thinking on what developers can do. The thing to realize is that we shouldn’t be thinking of this as a battle between the old school and the new school. The new school has some good ideas, and they’re shaking things up. It may be scary, but shaking things up is ultimately a good thing. If no one shakes things up once in a while, everyone gets complacent and forward progress stops. Find the good, avoid the bad and the ugly.

I’ll close with a quote I heard from a member of the Delicious Generation who shall go unnamed. He said, “You can be honorable, or you can make money”. I shot back “You can do both!”, and I firmly believe it. Can we learn something from the new school? Absolutely, they’re doing lots of things right. But I think there’s plenty they can learn from the old schoolers as well. It’s time to figure out where the middle ground is, between style and substance, between hype and marketing, between the Delicious Generation and the crotchety old men. Stick around, this should be interesting.

Footnotes:
1. Standard widgets being “what’s provided by Apple, with Interface Builder”, the tool for creating interfaces on OS X. Custom widgets are anything else, and everyone uses some custom widgets. However, making/using them requires artistic ability.

2. The real truth of the matter is that Apple started it. As John Gruber pointed out in his talk at C4, Apple is moving away from a consistent interface across the entire operating system, and towards a model based on the idea that “it should look good”. Whether that’s ultimately sustainable, we’ll see, but for now that’s the way it is. However, while Apple may have started this trend, I think few would argue that Delicious Library took this mentality far beyond anything Apple ever imagined. Others have only gone further.

3. MacZOT is also a prime example of this snacky culture of Mac software, where users purchase software at steep discounts without taking much time to evaluate it. Users can get good deals, and that’s a positive thing. But how many of those customers wind up getting something that they value?


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