The Brent Simmons Interview



Aside from being incredibly cool and an all around great guy, Brent Simmons is also the mastermind behind the sensational news reader for Mac, NetNewsWire.

I have been a huge fan of NetNewsWire ever since I first began using it. And the most current release as of this interview (3.0) is fantastic. It’s what a Mac App ought to be. It would be great if all the apps I used worked this outstandingly. The way you can read all the new articles with only the space bar. The way the selector flows through the panels with the use of the arrow keys. It’s all brilliant. B r i l i a n t.

I had a blast conducting this email with Brent. He was polite, smart, speedy and as you’ll see – gave extremely good answers.

The Interview

  • SHAWN BLANC:

    In my opinion NetNewsWire is far beyond any other news reader out there. Especially in terms of its usability, interface and features. It looks and acts like a Mac App should – simple, clean and responsive.

    What are a few of the key contributing factors that have made NNW version 3.0 into what it is?

  • BRENT SIMMONS:

    From the beginning of NetNewsWire’s development I’ve had a bunch of passionate Mac users who’ve been willing to give me some of their time — I get great feedback, and I take it very seriously.

    Another thing is that I’m a patient developer. I’m willing to try something a whole bunch of different ways until it’s good. That means I write way more code than what makes up the final product — I write code, delete it, write more code, delete it, and so on. This slows me down, for sure, but it’s the only way I know to do a good job.

    And then, even with the feedback and my willingness to iterate, things will slip through: bugs, or user interface that could be improved. I just get right back on my horse and get back to work. For instance, I’m working on 3.1 right now, and I’ve already deleted a bunch of code that was written for 3.0.

    A third thing is that, at heart, I’m an extreme minimalist. An anti-pack-rat. NetNewsWire has a bunch of features, yes, no doubt — but were I not compelled by my temperament to prune and cut and simplify obsessively, it would be, well, a very different app.

    If there was something I could change, it would just be how much time this all takes! I get faster as I continue to progress as a developer, but I’m still not particularly fast. (And, as my colleagues have surely noted, I’m utterly incapable of doing even remotely accurate time estimates.)

  • >SHAWN: This may be dorky, but my favorite feature of the whole program has got to be that little arrow that shoots across from left to right when you double-click or arrow out from a headline to its permalink. Where did that idea come from and how did it end up in the final version? Were there any other ideas you had for that feature?
  • BRENT: The general idea — that there should be some visible feedback when opening a headline in the browser — came from a NetNewsWire beta tester. (Possibly from more than one.) I’d credit the person, but it was long enough ago that I’m not sure who it was.

    The idea of doing the arrow — well, that was me. I wanted to kind of point to what was happening, hence the arrow.

    The funny thing about this feature is that feedback has been really split. I’ve heard from some folks that they love it, and a few others have said it’s cheesy. You can’t please everyone!

  • SHAWN: I assume you use NNW for your news reading. So what is your favorite feature?
  • BRENT: As a NetNewsWire user, my favorite feature is a very simple thing — the way the space bar works. I can read all my news just by hitting the space bar. (For those who don’t know: the space bar scrolls the current news item. If there’s nothing more to scroll, it goes to the next unread item.)

    As a Mac developer my favorite feature is the way it works with other applications such as MarsEdit, ecto, Twitterrific, VoodooPad, Cocoalicious, Pukka, Postr, and WebnoteHappy. There’s a little API I came up with to connect newsreaders to weblog editors, bookmark managers, and similar apps — and lots of apps have adopted this API and support it. This makes it easy to use NetNewsWire as kind of a hub: news items come in, and then you can route them to other places. I’ve always been a proponent of developers making their apps work together, and simple connections like this can be a big deal to users.

  • SHAWN: Since version 1.0 came out how has the development of NetNewsWire changed? What have you learned by being in the shoes of the developer behind such a smash-hit product?
  • BRENT: In some ways nothing has changed. I get up in the morning, groggily find my way downstairs, make coffee, sing to the cat, and go to the same home office I’ve been going to since 1999, since way back when I worked for UserLand Software.

    Some small things have changed, of course — I am not still using the same Mac (a 350 Mhz G4) on which NetNewsWire was originally developed back in 2002. I’ve switched from cvs to Subversion. No more glass monitor: Cinema Display instead. No more ProjectBuilder: now we have Xcode.

    And I have learned a ton in the past five years.

    One of the biggest things is to learn better how to say no, which is one of the hardest things for me to do.

    And I’ve learned a bunch of small things about human nature, about how people use computers — one of the surprising things I learned is about how some people are digital pack rats and like to save everything. (Which is the opposite of how I am.)

    I’ve learned, most importantly, that I am not the representative or typical user of my own software — and no one user is, either, even if they think they are. And most people do tend to think they’re a typical user, that everybody else uses a given piece of software the same way they do.

    But, most importantly, I learned something great about Mac users — they love to root for you. If you make software that they like, that makes their day better or more interesting, then you couldn’t have a better crew in your corner than Mac users.

  • SHAWN: You’re absolutely right. Mac users do root for one another. In fact, that is exactly why I wanted to do this interview.

    Is that one of the reasons for the Lite version of NNW’as a way of giving back to those who root for you? Or was it a marketing hook?

  • BRENT: One of the cool things about the Mac market is that generosity is rewarded. The interests of Mac users in general and my own interests are just about the same thing. So, when I make a decision like that, I first think about what Mac users in general would like — then I check to see if that works for me too.

    The Lite version is an expression of my own generosity, and it’s good for marketing. Both. I consider myself highly lucky to work in a field where doing the right thing, the thing that feels good to do, is also good for me.

    And, by the way, I love NetNewsWire Lite. I think it’s a cool app.

  • SHAWN: I love it too. I used it for a long time until purchasing 3.0.

    Speaking of the lite version, how is the development of 3.0 Lite?

  • BRENT: We’re skipping right to 3.1. I’m working on NetNewsWire 3.1, and we plan to release Lite 3.1 at or near the same time as the full version. I can’t wait — but I’ve got a bunch of work to get done first.
  • SHAWN: What are some of the updates we’ll see in NNW 3.1 full and Lite?
  • BRENT: Some of the new features are in the betas — there’s an HTML archiving feature, for instance, that I think is pretty cool. It saves your news items on disk as HTML files, which can be read by any browser, and which can be searched from within NetNewsWire or via Spotlight. The idea behind this feature is that it doesn’t lock you in: you have an archive of your news that isn’t tied to NetNewsWire.

    A major focus of 3.1 is, of course, bug fixes. Already, even in beta, it’s a much better app than 3.0.

    And there will be a couple surprises, too.

  • SHAWN: The HTML archiving could come in super handy. I can easily see myself using that – especially to collect articles and resources for future reference.

    And surprises, eh? Are you looking for any new sites to add to the default subscription list?

  • BRENT: I’m not actively looking for new default sites. However, people are free to ask to be included as a default, and I can be convinced, sometimes. There is also the Sites Drawer — there are roughly a couple thousand feeds in there now, and I’m always happy to add more.
  • SHAWN: How do you think NNW will be affected by the RSS integration coming in Leopard’s Mail.app?
  • BRENT: When Safari came out with RSS reading, NetNewsWire’s sales jumped up. We may see the same thing this time.

    There will always be very basic users of RSS for whom Safari and Mail are plenty. The important thing from my point of view is that Apple has given RSS a seal of approval by including support in various products. That’s worked to the advantage of NetNewsWire, definitely.

    But of course I don’t really know what will happen — I can only guess based on what’s happened in the past.

  • SHAWN: Now that you mention it – it was the RSS integration within Safari that got me out of bookmarking my favorite sites. Then I found out you could subscribe to lots of blog feeds and then I discoverd I needed a dedicated app … and that’s how I found NNW. SHAWN: Earlier you mentioned one of the biggest things you’ve learned since NNW 1.0 launched was how to say no. Can you share an example?
  • BRENT: As a for instance: when I was originally doing syncing, back before SyncServices existed, well before the NewsGator acquisition, I allowed myself to be convinced that I had to do FTP syncing along with .Mac. That was a mistake, and I should have resisted FTP syncing. I’ve learned that the consequences of decisions like that can least for years. I always thought it was important to be careful — now Iâ’m ever more convinced, even more careful.
  • SHAWN: Why resist the FTP syncing? Wouldn’t that have cut out all the users who didn’t have a .Mac account? The multiple-mac synching provided through NewsGator is one of the primary reasons I use NNW. I spend just about as much time away from my office and on my PowerBook as I do in my office on my Mac Pro.
  • BRENT: I think syncing is highly, terrifically, hugely, massively important. It’s also difficult.

    When I did syncing via FTP I was listening to people saying things like this, “If you do syncing via .Mac only, then reviewers will criticize the app heavily for not including a non-.Mac option.” (Not a direct quote, but the feedback was along those lines.)

    So I was afraid to do just .Mac. (This was before the NewsGator acquisition, before NewsGator even had a syncing platform, as I recall.) I made FTP an option, because I was afraid not to.

    But there are a couple problems with that:

    1. Once you add one option like FTP, the door is now open for feature requests for SFTP, WebDAV, local file system, and so on. People expect that we’ll support all of these, even though every addition is a bunch of work for not that much benefit, and it takes time away from doing cooler new features that more people would use.

    2. Syncing is difficult to do well without a real syncing engine and an API. NewsGator has an engine and API. .Mac has SyncServices, which any developer can use to implement syncing. FTP has no such sync engine and no API. I want to switch the .Mac syncing over to using SyncServices, so it can be better — but then what about the FTP syncing feature? Can I take it away? If I do, will I have a revolt on my hands?

    I have removed features before: it’s do-able. But it’s definitely a case-by-case basis. Were I to take away FTP syncing, a certain set of users would assume that it was mandated by NewsGator management, that this was some evil, anti-choice step. Which wouldn’t be true at all (nobody at work has ever suggested I take it away) — but that perception is something extra I have to consider. (Especially because, on the web, nefarious speculation becomes widely-distributed fact at the speed of light.)

    So, finally, I realize that it’s one of those things that I have to continue with. But I wish I had made the decision, way back then, not to do FTP syncing.

    I would have justified it this way: Mac users for whom syncing is important are already using .Mac to sync contacts and calendars and so on. The $99 (or whatever it is) for .Mac is a very small price to pay for something as valuable as syncing. (That is, for anyone who values their time even minimally.)

    Anyway, I don’t want to make more of this than it is. It’s just an illustration how decisions last, and how they should be made with care.

  • SHAWN: Obviously you’re a Mac fan. How long have you been a Mac user? What’s your current Mac setup?
  • BRENT: I’ve been an Apple fanboy for 27 years. My very first computer was an Apple II Plus, bought way back in 1980 by my parents, who were both programmers, who taught me how to program.

    I started using Macs in the late ’80s, when I was an editor at the Seattle Central Community College newspaper. We used Quark XPress to put together the paper.

    Right now I mostly use two computers. I use my 17″ MacBook Pro for email, reading news, posting to my weblog, taking notes, calendar, all that normal stuff.

    My development machine is a 17″ Intel Core Duo iMac with an external Cinema Display hooked up. It’s the iMac that Apple generously provided upon return of the Developer Transition Kit. (I’m thinking of upgrading to something faster, since full builds of NetNewsWire take about six minutes on the iMac.)

    I have an Apple Extended Keyboard II hooked up to my development machine, via a Griffin ADB-to-USB adapter. If anything ever happens to this keyboard, my career is over. (I’m exaggerating. I hope.)

    I also have a 17″ PowerBook I use for making sure I haven’t broken anything on PowerPC machines. It’s hooked up to an external monitor too, a 21″ Sony Trinitron. Beautiful glass display, still better-looking than any LCD.

    And there are random machines in closets, of course. The oldest is I think a Centris 650.

  • SHAWN: Your home office set-up sounds outrageous. I would love to post a picture of your setup if you have one.
  • BRENT: Here is a picture of my workspace — the main part, anyway, the machines I actually sit in front of. (Not shown is my PPC laptop, Sony monitor, printer, fax machine, scanner, etc.)
  • Brent Simmons' Workspace. Where the NetNewsWire magic happens.
  • Some notes:

    1. The left picture is from the opening of Safeco Field in Seattle. It’s a very cool Jacob Lawrence painting titled “Strike.”

    2. The right picture is from the moon landing.

    3. There are two Eddy awards (for NetNewsWire) kind of hidden behind my iMac.

    4. The weird tall-ish white thing is a HappyLite Sunshine Simulator. It shines 10,000 lumens on me for several hours every morning — it’s how I cope with Seattle’s not being the sunniest of cities.

    5. The tables are heavy and sturdy, from Boeing Surplus.

  • SHAWN: Why have you chosen to work from home? Is it in order to save on office space rent or because you want to?

    And you work with your wife too, correct? I bet that must be great.

  • BRENT: Ever since I was a kid I pictured myself working at home. I thought it would be as a novelist rather than a programmer, but it’s about the same thing: I sit in a chair in front of a computer and make things up.

    I like people and I like meeting people and hanging out. But I don’t like working face-to-face and day-to-day with people. I’m quite introverted that way. I just find it draining, and always have, going way back to elementary school.

    I sometimes think of it this way: there are dog people and cat people. Pack animals, with their politics and pecking order, on one hand — and solitary hunters, camouflaged in the tall grass, on the other. I can be gregarious, and I’m certainly competitive, but I live further along the feline side of the spectrum than most folks. Which is not at all unusual for geeks.

    I make exception for my wife, of course. We work well together. And it is indeed great that we’re both home all day.

  • SHAWN: You travel to Denver a few times a year, right? That’s where I grew up and went to school. Isn’t Colorado great? Have you ever been on the slopes and/or eaten at Chipotle?
  • BRENT: I haven’t hit the slopes — but I’ve been a couple times to Chipotle. There are some big Chipotle fans at NewsGator.

    I haven’t seen a whole lot outside 16th St., but I like what I’ve seen. Denver reminds me of Seattle in the ’80s, which was a pretty cool place to be. Seattle in the ’80s was a bit smaller and quieter-seeming than it is now — but it had this underground explosion of art and music and technology which really broke out in the ’90s. My outsider’s hunch is that Denver may be on the verge of a similar thing. We’ll see.

More Interviews

Brent’s is just one of a handful of interviews with some cool folks.