Category Archives: Software

Startups: The High of Creation, the Wizard of Oz

(Note: this is a rare guest post, the third in the right-year history of this blog. It was originally published in Medium as Why We Startup: the High of Creation and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by Megan Berry, head of product @RebelMouse, my daughter. I’m reposting because it captures the thrill, and the work, of developing software.) 

Startup Magic

I first did magic when I was eleven. I made a lemon dance across a screen. It looked effortless but it took me countless hours. I debated the lemon’s smile; I finagled the dancing animation; I almost quit, but I did it. I put it on my site and watched it dance.

The (not currently) dancing lemon
The (not currently) dancing lemon

Just like the Wizard of Oz I had discovered the truth: magic requires a lot of hard work and a curtain. And there is no high like successfully pulling off magic.
So why do we throw our lives into startups, working long hours, fighting through daily failures and (mostly) not being paid enough? I don’t think it’s for some future payoff. Instead, we’re addicts seeking that next high.

You might think this high comes from having an idea. Certainly, there is joy in an idea. It can energize, inspire and push you to do great things. But it is fragile and could fall apart with one wrong word or bad day. The true startup addict knows that ideas are too fleeting for the high you’re really chasing.
The high comes from creating something out of nothing. Because, after all, what is more magic than that?

Magic in Programming

So, together, we work hard behind our curtain. We nurture our ideas into a plan. We start building, brick by brick. We change our plan. We build more. Halfway through we look at what we’re building and are sure everything is going wrong. We panic and then push harder. The last 10% seems to take as long as the previous 90%. Finally, we release. Our idea is live. It is all worth it.

All too soon the high is gone and we must start again. Looking for our next tweak, our next idea. Searching for our next creation high. Won’t you join us? We might even let you look behind the curtain.



New Fremium Formula Pits Revenue Against User Satisfaction

What would you think of a restaurant that offered really good food, but the salad is free and the dressing is extra? The potatoes are free but the sour cream is extra. The soup is free but heating it costs extra. And table service is free if you wait two hours, but table service in 20 minutes costs extra.  

That’s sort of what’s happening with a free mobile app that’s generating a ton of money (It’s been called “a big public test of freemium.”) and a lot of user hostility at the same time. I’m fascinated by the trade-offs here. 

Real Racing 3 complaints

It’s an auto racing game: Real Racing 3, published by Electronic Arts. It’s a free download for both iOS and Android phones and tablets. It shows up very high in multiple mobile app revenue tracking reports, such as the App Annie Index — which means it makes lots of money. 

It’s a great game. It’s won several app awards. You drive fast racing cars over simulated tracks. Tilt your mobile device to steer. Use a finger on the right hand to accelerate, one from the left to brake. I’m not a typical gamer, but I do play this one and I like it. 

Playing it for free takes real patience. It works with inside-game money to buy, fix, and upgrade cars. In practice, you either repeat races a lot, wait a lot, or buy game money with real money. The rewards for winning races don’t cover the game money requirements to keep upgrading to better cars and better races. Fixing cars takes time but you can buy time with game money, and you can buy game money with real money. Buying cars is required to move up the degree of difficulty, but the reward for a win isn’t enough to sustain the normal flow of new cars needed, so you either repeat races of go to the store to get more game money.

In my case, because I’m not patient, I’ve spent more money on it than I care to admit. I’ve bought game money repeatedly to speed things up. And still, after an embarrassing amount already spent, I’d need about five million game dollars to buy and upgrade the cars I need to complete the levels I’m involved with. And while technically I can afford the $99.95 the game wants from me now, I’m starting to question my common sense and I don’t want to be an easy mark or a soft touch. So I’m repeating races and waiting. And cooking up rationalizations for later. 

And I’m absolutely fascinated by the trade-offs here. This is so different from normal price-value tradeoffs. This is not the elasticity we all grew up with. 

The publisher controls  the game-money reward for wins, the waiting times, game-money repair costs, game-money purchase price, and game-money upgrades price. Those factors determine the real-money cost to play the game at various levels of patience and waiting. So it’s very much as if they pit revenue against user satisfaction. It’s more money for more hostility, and less money for less hostility. 

Which do you want: Happy users, or more money? You can’t have both. 

I Love These 5 Use-Everywhere Apps

What makes good software? For me, the use-everywhere factor is a big deal. I work with a desktop using Windows 7, a Mac at home and a Macbook for travel, mobile phone and a tablet computer. The more my gadgets spread, the more I appreciate the apps that let me get to my workspace wherever I am. Kindle Reader

  1. Dropbox. Now the files I’m working on, like drafts of documents and slide shows, show up as part of the file system I browse on my Windows desktop and all of my Macintoshes, and are available to me on my iPad and — not that I want to use them on my mobile phone — on my phone too. Its system software manages to work into natural file browsing too, as least on a desktop in Windows or Mac. Nowadays I routinely save documents to DropBox so I can pick them up wherever I left off, from wherever I am. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t pay for my Dropbox, because they are leaving money on the table. I would pay if they made me. As it is, if I don’t use a whole computer’s worth of storage space, it’s free.
  2. Evernote. Every bit as powerful and as useful as Dropbox, which is saying a lot. I can input a note using a keyboard, a microphone, or a screen shot or website. I can get back to my notes from any computer, laptop, iPad or iPhone I use, and I think I could get it on Android as well, probably on Windows Mobile too. Type a note on the computer you’re at, and access it later when you need it. Fabulous software, and this too is free. And I’d pay for it if they made me.
  3. Kindle reader. I have the Kindle software on every device I have. I’m never caught waiting for something without immediate access to the latest book I’m reading, unless I don’t have my phone. Kindle automatically synchronizes to the last page I was reading on whatever device I was reading last. And it’s on phones, laptops, tablets, and desktops. And it’s free … although obviously I have to buy the books. Lately Kindle has also become a document manager too, so that — to cite one example — when I’m reading business plans I can load them to my Kindle and get the documents anywhere I am.
  4. Roboform. I complained three years ago when I switched to Mac at home and couldn’t get Roboform on my Macs. Now I can, and also on my iPad, and on every phone too. Roboform helps me keep track of logins and passwords, and — God help me — I sure hope it’s safe. Roboform is not free, but some of their browser add-ons are, and it’s worth a lot more than the equivalent of a good lunch, which is what they charge. I think I’m glad they charge me, and I hope they invest that in keeping up with security. They do have updates as often as any software I deal with.
  5. Things. Things, by Cultured Code, gets honorable mention here, for the new beta version that synchronizes my to-do list on iCloud so that I can access it, work with it, and massage it from my phone, iPad, laptop, or desktop Mac. That’s not the production version yet, and it doesn’t extend to Windows. But I do like it a whole lot. Things costs $49.95 and it’s worth every penny to me.

Disclosure: Last week I posted here that I didn’t post this one because there’s so much sleazy spammy tactics going on, paying bloggers for plugs, that I worried you’d think I’m doing that. I’m not. Nobody’s paying me a penny to recommend these five apps, and the ones that aren’t free — Roboform and Things — I purchased.

This is just great software. And I felt like sharing.

(Image: a screen shot from the Amazon Kindle download page.)

I’m Loving the New Version of Business Plan Pro

If you’re a regular reader you know I don’t normally do sales pitches here on this blog, but this is special. Last week Palo Alto Software introduced a brand new version of Business Plan Pro incorporating (finally) my Plan-as-You-Go Business Planning ideas into the mainstream of the software.

With this new version, when you start a new plan, Plan as You Go is the first choice for setting up a simple, practical, management-oriented business plan. Not the whole big formal document plan, but just what you need to run a business with. That’s the key screen above (with my annotations in red):

Now the new built-in option is exactly what I suggested in the book: a streamlined, practical outline, shown here on the right. Of course you can add more later and eventually make a larger business plan, but you do that as the business plan events happen, not before. So you add the embellishment, like description of management team, or exit strategy, only when you need it. Which is great, because a lot of people really don’t need it.

I wrote the book in 2008, but because we’ve been busy with liveplan, the new online web business planning, our mainstream software had to wait. So now I’m celebrating that it’s finally here.

We’ve also added a lot of video at many different points, so that – if you’re online – you get me talking about what you’re looking at, in very short snippets. That’s hard for me to watch, frankly, because I’m as self-conscious as anybody else … but as an author, I love the opportunity to talk to you while you’re working with what I wrote.

This is the 12th version of Business Plan Pro since the first one was published late in 1994, and actually hit the shelves in 1995. We’ve come a long way since the first one – it’s still my business planning advice, but I wrote a third of the code in the original, and now there’s a team of a dozen programmers – which makes it way better.

And, by the way, if you prefer an online version, or you’re a Mac user, there’s also a lot of my methodology and my instructions in the new online planning web app at

For more information click here for the website or call them toll-free at 1 (800) 229-7526.

iPhone, Luvya and All That, but Couldya Clean This Up?

It’s not like I don’t know how to read around this, but with all the slickness of the iPhone, iPhone Weatherwhy allow this simple error? The high for the day is 92 degrees when the current temperature is 100 degrees? Isn’t that just sloppy?

There is no computer language that doesn’t have an IF- THEN clause capable of making this look good. Call the high temperature that was there when we started the day H, and the actual temperature A. I don’t program iPhones but whoever does has the ability to do this:

If A > H, then H = A

Which would replace the 92 with the 100. Why not? Wouldn’t that look better? What bothers me is my own in-my-mind related if-clause:

If a logical error like this one, as obvious as this one is, shows up in this obvious a place, what’s going on with the system software in the core?

Software does have its production values, and it’s not like Apple Computer doesn’t have the resources. My guess is they’ve decided to let us keep the predicted high as a reference value, so we can compare it to the actual. Still, is it just me?

Is Flipboard’s Buzz Bad Timing or Good Marketing?

What do you think? Is this bad timing, a buzz-killing mistake, or artificial scarcity that creates more buzz?

I was in an email conversation recently with the founder of one of the coolest new news apps available on the iPad, and he asked me what I thought about Flipboard.

I’m guessing why he asked: all that buzz, all at once. This is an iPad app released last week. It’s supposed to integrate Twitter and Facebook,  with news and blogs, and a cool iPad look. In case you missed it, try this Google search. Nearly two million hits. Suddenly, everybody was talking about Flipboard.

Buzz envy. Who can blame him? Pardon my cynicism, but it doesn’t look that much different from the new Huffington Post app, or Apollo News, Pulse News, or Skygrid. So how did they get all that attention all at once? Have your marketing people study that one. It’s very impressive.

But here’s the business problem: timing. Wasting your buzz by not having your logistics ready for it. Take a look at what happens today, after you download your Flipboard, when you start to use it:

You guessed it: they’re taking email addresses and building a waiting list. “We’ll reserve your place in line,” they say. The bandwidth wasn’t set up to handle the marketing. I got interested, downloaded, and now have to wait for however long it takes to actually run the app. The buzz happened without delivery. Remember a few decades back, when people talked about vaporware? Credibility gone fast. Buzz wasted. What a shame.

Unless it actually works. After all, I just added another page to the buzz.

5 Things Avatar Can Teach You About Development

(Note: this is a guest post by Megan Berry (my daughter), social media evangelist for Mobclix. It was originally posted on the mobclix blog.)

Avatar is a world-wide phenomenon and is currently the top grossing movie of all time*. How can you learn from its success and apply it to your own projects (even if they aren’t billion dollar movies).

  1. avatarTechnology Matters. James Cameron first wrote Avatar in 1994, but he ended up tabling it until 2005 because he felt the technology wasn’t there yet. Figure out what your idea needs and how you can make it happen. If your current idea won’t work well, put it on hold and work on something else.
  2. Love Your Idea. This movie finally came to fruition 15 years after Cameron’s initial idea. He didn’t just forget about it, he waited for his moment and made it happen. And now he’s very rich (er, richer).
  3. Get Fans, Not Just Viewers(/Users). Avatar was so successful because you didn’t just go and think “good movie” and go to sleep. You wanted to tell everyone you knew about it. After watching this movie I immediately started telling my family and friends they had to see it. Now.
  4. A Little Controversy is Good. Avatar’s a commentary on the war in Iraq. And our treatment of the environment. And a critique of the military. And advocates polytheism. And deals with racial issues. Or maybe none of the above, but it made you talk about it, didn’t it?
  5. Make it Beautiful. Avatar is a cinematic masterpiece. It’s gorgeous. Don’t settle for less with your iPhone app. If your iPhone app is the best looking thing I’ve ever seen I’ll not only use it but share it with everyone I know.

*Okay, so this actually depends on whether or not you count inflation. In any case, it did very, very well.

Is Software Management Doomed?

Committees don’t make great software. It takes a single person, an author. Maybe he gets some help. Teams don’t do it. Nobody sees the whole elephant.

I’m pretty sure I heard that basic sentiment first in about 1986, from Dave Winer, who was then the author of a Macintosh outlining program named More (now he’s better known as the de-facto father of blogging).

What reminded me of this over the weekend was my son emailing me about Jeff Atwood’s Software Engineering: Dead post on Coding Horror. In his post, Jeff’s looking at this article by Tom DeMarco, author of Controlling Software Projects, a software management classic.

Creative Programming

What DeMarco seems to be saying — and, at least, what I am definitely saying — is that control is ultimately illusory on software development projects. If you want to move your project forward, the only reliable way to do that is to cultivate a deep sense of software craftsmanship and professionalism around it.

The guys and gals who show up every day eager to hone their craft, who are passionate about building stuff that matters to them, and perhaps in some small way, to the rest of the world — those are the people and projects that will ultimately succeed.

That sounds to me a lot like what Dave Winer was getting at about 25 years ago. And if it takes a single user, someone writing code and working the application because he or she wants to use it, then that’s hard to manage.

And if you’re interested in software quality, creativity, and management, you might want to look at an exchange between user interface designerDustin Curtis and an interface designer at American Airlines. It starts here with Justin’s rant about the hostile interface on the AA website; and gets more interesting here with an AA interface designer’s answer.

However, there are large exceptions. For example, our Interactive Marketing group designs and implements fare sales and specials (and doesn’t go through us to do it), and the Publishing group pushes content without much interaction with us… Oh, and don’t forget the AAdvantage team (which for some reason, runs its own little corner of the site) or the international sites (which have a lot of autonomy in how their domains are run)… Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles that reach into a lot of interests. It’s not small, by any means.

And apparently frustration was had by all.

And it certainly won’t make you wish you had a creative or design oriented position in a large company.

Two guys wrote the original spreadsheet (VisiCalc), one, Paul Brainard, wrote the main part of the first page layout program (Pagemaker). One of the more interesting facets of a lot of Web 2.0 work is that the programs are smaller, written more by authors, less by teams.