Posts From May 2011

A great look at both the good and the bad of Windows Phone 7 — and it’s a lot of good. In fact, if it weren’t WP7’s lack of such fantastic 3rd-party apps, Lukas would easily be sticking with the Windows phone over his iPhone:

Now that I’ve used a WP7 phone for a few weeks, I’m asking myself the same question: should I go back to my iPhone? After looking at the clean, ascetic visual language of WP7 for such a long time, iOS suddenly seems garish, overdone, and kind of ugly. Looking at iOS 4 feels like looking at a screenshot of a pinstriped Mac OS X Cheetah from 2001.

I would love to spend some time with WP7 and really get a feel for how it compares to iOS. Also, I’m looking forward to seeing how many of things Lukas points out that WP7 does better than iOS (such as notifications) get addressed in iOS 5 next week.

The task-management app that’s been in beta for years, and which many people thought was abandoned, is now officially a 1.0 release. And it looks great. Moreover, there is a corresponding iOS app (sounds like iPhone-only) that is pending approval in the App Store.

The desktop version has always been popular. And rightfully so: it is fast, easy to use, and has a slightly different approach for organizing and displaying your tasks compared to Things or OmniFocus. In fact, for those that love the simplicity of Things but wish for the syncing of OmniFocus, then The Hit List might be right up your alley.

The Hit List is shipping with over-the-air syncing for all your desktop and iOS versions right out of the box. Though syncing is by way of a paid subscription service that will cost you two bucks a month or $20 a year.

The Hit List costs $50, and is even available in the Mac App Store. But if you happened to get a serial number for The Hit List during the MacHeist Bundle of 2009 then that serial number still works.

Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud.

(Which means that, so far, my iCloud predictions are accurate.)

Memorial Day weekend is the busiest time of year for the Weber Grill hotline. It’s mostly men calling in for emergency advice and it’s mostly women who are coaching them on how to light the grill or how to cook their burgers.

(It’s a New York Times article, so here is a Twitter link if you’re past your monthly allotment.)

Byword is a simple text editor with a less-is-more interface and MultiMarkdown support.

With the integrated MultiMarkdown features you can create and preview plain text documents containing links, images, citations, footnotes and even tables, then easily export to HTML. Perfect for composing blog posts.

Byword is just $9.99 on the Mac App Store.

Q&A with Chad Sellers, One of the Few Indie Mac Devs in the Amazon Mac Downloads Store

The Amazon Mac Downloads Store launched just a few days ago.

According to Macworld there are currently 217 titles available for download on Amazon’s store. Of those titles, just a few are from independent Mac developers. One of them is Pear Note.

Pear Note is written by indie developer, Chad Sellers, who runs Useful Fruit Software. I’m friends with Chad, and Useful Fruit has sponsored this site’s RSS feed in the past.

When I saw Pear Note in the Amazon downloads store I contacted him to ask how he got in. Since Amazon is not accepting submissions for applications I was curious about a few things, such as how and why they approached him, what the submission process is like, and how the contract works.

- – -

  • SHAWN BLANC: How did Pear Note make it into the Amazon Mac Downloads Store?
  • CHAD SELLERS: Amazon contacted me back in February. I’m not sure why I was picked, but I presume it had something to do with being ranked decently high on the Mac App Store’s Top Grossing list at the time. I know they contacted some other developers as well, but I seem to be one of the only indies who signed up right away. Most others seem to have taken a “wait and see” approach.

    Pear Note went live on Amazon in mid-March. I’m not sure why they waited until now to announce anything.

  • SHAWN: Do you know which other developers were asked to sell their software on Amazon?
  • CHAD: I certainly don’t have an exhaustive list. Peter Maurer of Many Tricks and Gus Mueller of Flying Meat were tweeting with me about it a couple days ago. Both of them were unhappy about the terms of Amazon’s contract based on their tweets. I believe Jonathan Rentzsch sent me a tweet when Pear Note went live on Amazon that Victoria Wang was contacted about it for Hibari as well.
  • SHAWN: How are you giving Amazon your application? When you update your app, how do you get that update to Amazon?
  • CHAD: Currently, I email it to them. They are working on an online submission system, but it doesn’t exist yet. It’s non-ideal, but they processed my latest update very quickly.
  • SHAWN: What are your thoughts on the lack of an “approval” process for software? Do you know if Amazon has any safeguards to stop their sellers from distributing buggy or malicious apps? Since Amazon.com is such a trusted reseller, people will have faith that if they buy an application from Amazon.com it should be a safe application.
  • CHAD: For now, I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Amazon seems to be approaching specific devs and presumably would only approach reputable developers. The contract of course specifies that you will not give them malware, but that’s probably not a huge deterrent.
  • SHAWN: What is your preferred point of sale for Pear Note?
  • CHAD: I’m happy for people to purchase from usefulfruit.com, Amazon, or the Mac App Store. I’d like them to purchase wherever they’re most comfortable.

    That said, if someone really has no preference, I’d prefer them purchase from my site, as I keep a much larger percentage of the sale price in that case.

  • SHAWN: If someone buys Pear Note on Amazon instead of from your website, how do the licensing and upgrades work?
  • CHAD: The licensing and upgrades are the same on Amazon as they are on my website. Amazon seems to treat licensing of downloads just like licensing of boxed software — they are simply delivering the file to the user.
  • SHAWN: What’s your take on the whole download process? Dan Frakes wrote about it for Macworld yesterday and it sounds pretty rough for the end user.
  • CHAD: It’s certainly non-ideal, but it is much more flexible than the Mac App Store. Amazon takes the approach that a developer can supply whatever installer they like. This means Amazon can accommodate more complicated installation requirements (like those of Microsoft and Adobe apps). The result is the multi-step process where Amazon handles the first part consistently, then the app handles the second part in their own way.

    There’s certainly work that Amazon could do to improve the process, but it will never be as streamlined as the Mac App Store unless they begin to place requirements on the app developer.

  • SHAWN: What are your thoughts in general about having Pear Note in the Amazon store?
  • CHAD: That’s a good question. The short answer is I don’t really know yet.

    Amazon does not yet have an online system for tracking sales. Instead, I get a report along with payment on a monthly basis. Amazon has 45 days from the end of each month (and 90 days from the end of the first month) to give me my report and payment.

    Since Pear Note just recently went live I have yet to receive any reports or payment, and so I don’t yet know how sales are. The only indicator I have right now is to watch Pear Note’s ranking move up and down. Based on that, I would guess that I’ve only sold a couple downloads since the app went live in mid-March. But that is not surprising since Amazon just began pushing this a couple days ago.

    Amazon takes a much more traditional reseller approach than Apple. This is both good and bad. It means they stay out of my business when it comes to how my app works. Consequently, the Pear Note from Amazon is the same one you get from my site, while the Mac App Store version is a custom build to work within Apple’s system. So, on Amazon I determine what my product is, they just sell it. That said, they are in charge of selling it and I have little say in the matter. I set a list price and a wholesale price (which I get paid and can be no more than 70% of the list price), but they are free to sell it for whatever they like. They also have a rule that I cannot charge them more than any other distributor (which turned some other devs off).

    Overall, I’m hopeful that it will be a good extra stream of revenue. Amazon certainly has a large customer base and knows how to sell. If it doesn’t bear much fruit, at least I didn’t have to spend the effort to roll a custom version of my app (like I did for the Mac App Store).

I don’t mind linking to this because none of my brothers-in-law read my site.

Many thanks to Renkara Media Group for sponsoring the RSS feed this week. I regularly get questions from friends and readers who have an idea or a need for an iPhone or iPad app they want to build but don’t know where to get started.

That’s where Renkara can help:

Renkara Media Group has worked with companies looking to take their first steps into the iOS market. Whatever your need, Renkara Media Group works with you to bring deep iOS experience and a proven delivery approach – ensuring you are getting the right plan, recommendations, and the right mobile application for you and your customers.

These guys have worked with people and companies from all over the world to build and ship over 300 iOS apps that have been cumulatively downloaded over 5,000,000 times since 2008.

If you’ve got an idea for an app that you want to get built, check out Renkara.

Ben and I talk about standing desks, cloud-based remote backups and backups in general, and Amazon’s new Mac Downloads Store. (Note: we recorded early this morning so I had to bring my coffee to the show.)

Brought to you by the definitive guide to Evernote: Brett Kelly’s Evernote Essentials.

Sounds like the “I’m a PC” guy from the commercials was in charge of the installation experience as well.

Answering Reader’s Questions About Writing shawnblanc.net Full Time

Thanks to the wonder of Twitter and email I’ve received quite a few questions from you guys inquiring about the site.

The most common question, by far, has been a semi-generic, “How’s it going?” Most of what I’ve written all this week (such as my ode to Software, a review of my day, writing challenges and observations) has been an attempt to answer that question as in-depth as possible.

Here is a final look at some of the more specific questions that didn’t make their way into the previous posts.

Do you write faster? Do you write more timely?

Admittedly, I am a very slow writer. Not a slow typer. But I do take a very long time to draft and edit my work. I was hoping that I would be able to pick up the pace of my writing and get more done in less time. So far, however, that does not seem to be the case.

I am finding better patterns of working and settling into a stride, but when I’m actually at the computer, typing, working on a long-form article, they still seem to take me as long as they ever did.

Hopefully a year from now the pace of my writing and my ability to put together informed, thought-through, and articulate articles and links will speed up. I think a combination of it is in part being able to write well at first pass, but also being clear about what I want to say at the onset.

Is it hard to come up with fresh content?

Not in the least. This was something I was worried about at the onset of taking the site full time, but I have had no trouble finding topics and ideas to write about. In fact, I’ve somewhat had the opposite problem. Many of the articles that I was planning to write once I took the site full time are still in the works. There is new stuff coming up every day.

How does the real life of your job compare to what you thought it would look like?

On the outside it looks exactly like I thought it would. I mean, I’m here at my desk every day typing and working on the computer. That was an easy thing to imagine.

Internally it is not only different but better. In part, I have grown to enjoy this job even more than I expected I would. I have always enjoyed writing and publishing this site over the years, and that’s why I took it full time in April. But each day I seem to love it and enjoy it a little bit more.

What I did not expect is that I am the toughest boss I’ve ever had. In reality there is no reason I can’t take a day or two off if I need to — the site would be fine. If I worked somewhere else, for someone else, I wouldn’t be allowed to just take a day off and help my wife around the house or do some chores that needed to be done, or run that errand I didn’t get to over the weekend. And so when situations like that arise, I am not yet comfortable with “giving myself the day off”.

This is good and bad. It’s good because there’s no way you can be self-employed without a strong work ethic and daily focus. You guys can rest assured that I am busting my butt over here. But it’s bad because what’s the point of working for yourself if you don’t take hold of the advantages that being self-employed entitles you to? There are a lot of things that stink about being self-employed as well, and those don’t go away. It seems only logical and fair that if I’m going to be stuck with the disadvantages of being self-employed I might as well take hold of the advantages that come with it.

What is your daily balance between reading, researching, and writing?

The trick to running a good link blog is to read more than just the things you have pre-supposed you’re going to link to even before you’ve read it. If so, you’ll only ever link to the obvious and expected stuff. And after a while it all starts to look and feel the same and there’s no more surprises on your site and it slowly becomes breathless.

We all know that to be a good writer you have to be a reader. And the same goes for being a good link blogger. You have to be a voracious reader. Don’t just read for the sake of hunting for what you may be able to link to, but read for the sake of learning and growing and discovering. Getting into a habit of hunting for link-worthy items will eventually lead to a very insipid link blog.

And with all that said, I admit that I need to read more.

It has been a slow journey for me to get comfortable with the fact that the vast majority of the work I put into the site is done “behind the scenes”. If I’m posting a lot of links it may look to you guys as if I’m having a very productive day, but in truth I may be totally aimlessly surfing and not actually getting any substantial work done. And so I am still learning to balance how much work I do keeping the site updated, how much time I spend reading and researching, and where all these things fit in with one another.

How are you balancing your work life and your personal life?

When the day is winding down I’m getting good at shutting the site off. Not literally, but “turning work off in my mind”. It has been a huge help to know that I’ll have 8 hours to work on it tomorrow and that I can pick back up where I left off.

That mindset is also a great way to not always be thinking about the site all the time. Before I began writing the site full-time I was always thinking about the site, and I had to squeeze every spare minute I had into it because I may not have had another chance for several days (or weeks).

But now when I’m not at work I’m not at work. I feel a noticeable change in my ability to be there, in the moment, instead of constantly thinking about work or stats or whatever. And I am extremely grateful for that.

“Given our current technology and with the proper training, would it be possible for someone to become Batman?”

The top answer from Mark Hughes is off the charts.

I love Amazon and shop there all the time. But I’m just saying, this feels like if the “I’m a PC” guy from the commercials had switched to Mac and then opened a software downloads store.

Also, John Gruber notes about the name, “Amazon Download Store”:

Interesting too, in the context of Apple’s legal pursuit of a trademark for the term “app store”, is that Amazon went with “downloads store” rather than the closed-up “appstore” they use for their Android store.

I think they have to call it the “downloads store”. Not because of trademark issues, but for customer communication purposes.

For the past decade if you’ve bought any software from Amazon.com you were buying the physical media and you got it shipped to your house or office. Which means they’ve got ten years of learned behavior from their customers, and if they called their new Mac app store the “appstore” it wouldn’t be enough to communicate that this software won’t be sent over in a cardboard box.

Noreen Malone’s case — please hear her out — against the em dash:

What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?

Dave Pell hits close to home:

I used to feel an immediate sense of accomplishment when I wrote an article or came up with a joke that I thought was good. Now that feeling is always delayed until I see how the material does. How many views did my article get? Did it get mentioned the requisite number of times on Twitter and Facebook. I need to see the numbers.

This link is to a Flickr set featuring images of some of the personal effects of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, which are being auctioned by the U.S. Marshals Service. The pictures are curiously interesting and frightening at the same time — particularly the typewriter which Ted Kaczynski used to type his 35,000-word “Unabom Manifesto”.

Proceeds from the auction will be given to Kaczynski’s victims.

(Via ★feltron.)

“Prepare like crazy so you can wing it.”

Balancing Think and Feel

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it is to over-think and over-edit the things I write about and link to on the site. This is also something Ben and I talked about in the latter half of last week’s episode of The B&B Podcast.

It’s a topic spanning much more than just link blogging. I think it goes so far as to encompasses leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurialism as a whole. The concept is to find the balance between think and feel. On one hand you have logic and reason, and on the other hand you have passion and zeal.

There is a way to do things where, if you find something you’re passionate about, you jump right in. And then analyze and gauge each step along the way.

But what if we flipped that approach from time to time?

When you find something you’re passionate or excited about, then think about it for a long time. Make boundaries. And then? Go for it. Let passion and zeal drive us through each step as we keep within our pre-determined boundaries.

The idea is that sometimes, instead of working with restraint inside of passion, try to put passion inside of restraint.

Zoom out all the way to see the path of the tornado right through all those homes. It’s heartbreaking.

A big tip by Gabe at Macdrifter regarding my new favorite utility program: Keyboard Maestro supports the Boolean conjunction “or” via pipes for arguments.

Tony Schwartz:

It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you’ll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.

“Acts of choice,” the brilliant researcher Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have concluded, “draw on the same limited resource used for self-control.” That’s especially so in a world filled more than ever with potential temptations, distractions and sources of immediate gratification.

I met a man recently who has the same thing for lunch every day because it’s one less decision he has to make. This, apparently, is why.

Because some said comparing the PlayBook to an iPad 2 was unfair.

Writing a Weblog Full-Time

When I began writing shawnblanc.net full-time I was worried that I’d run out of things to write about. There are only so many apps I use all the time which I find worthy of in-depth reviews, and I’m not really one for staying on top of posting commentary pieces about every bit of breaking news.

So far I have had no trouble finding topics to write about. In fact, most of what I’ve published since going full-time has not been on the list of what I was planning to write so far. Meaning, hardly any of the articles that I was planning to write when I began have been written yet. There is still much I want to write about and there are new things arising every day.

So I find myself with the opposite problem, in that there is not enough time in the day for me to write all that I want to, and that, my friends, is a very good conundrum.

However, I will say that it has been difficult choosing what to write about. I am good at writing about things I am involved with and have experience using — such as software and hardware reviews — but am not so confident writing about more abstract issues which I am not as intimately familiar with (such as business model and industry analysis). And while I certainly enjoy writing detailed reviews about software, I haven’t yet decided if that is all I ever want to write. Moreover, I have only ever written reviews about apps that I use and enjoy. But that list is somewhat finite, which means I will, at some point, need to begin writing about software that I am not completely sold on as user. Fortunately, since this job is my full-time gig, I can allow myself the time needed to truly live with an app and get acquainted with it — even if that I am only using it for the sake of reviewing it.

As far as links go, I try to only post links to the things I find interesting or entertaining — something that I found worthwhile in one way or another.

Unfortunately, I am finding just how easy it is to over-think what I choose or chose not to link to. Over thinking these nuanced details can strangle the life out of my work. And so I have been working to focus more on the feel of what I write about and link to rather than over thinking those items. Instead of logically deducing based on n number of factors if such-and-such is worthy of a link, I base it on emotion — do I want to link to it?

In a way, I have to pretend that I’m the only site out there. That if someone was interested in the things I’m interested in, how then would they find out about those things unless I wrote about them? I can’t pass by something I find exciting or interesting because I see that others are already talking about it. That would be a road to silence.

Of course, in another way, I have to pretend that I am not the only site out there. There is so much happening in the tech / design / writing / coffee-drinking community every day that there is simply no way I can stay on top of it all. Let alone write thoughtful and in-depth pieces about everything noteworthy. Harder than choosing what to write about has been choosing what not to write about. And then being okay with leaving certain notable topics left untouched.

At the end of the day, the best advice I can give myself is to: (a) put great care and thought into what I write about and how I write it; and (b) don’t take myself or my site too seriously.

In similar fashion to The Items We Carry, The Burning House is: “what would you grab if your house was burning down?”

Honestly, Anna and I don’t have anything in this home that we couldn’t do without other than one another and the memories, music, and work we have stored on our computers.

This reminds me that since I began working at home two months ago I no longer have an off-site backup of my digital assets. It’s all the stuff that’s on my computer — photos, journal entries, music, financial information, etc. — that is irreplaceable. I think I’ll be looking into a good online backup service so that if anything catastrophic ever does happen all we need to think about is getting out.

A knowledge base article from Apple themselves.

Nice slide deck covering the growth and business model of Amazon.com over the past 16 years. Did you know Amazon.com lost $3,000,000,000 between 1995 and 2003 (see slide 35) and that they’ve introduced a new product category every year since 2000 (slide 16)?

Two weeks ago, as an experiment, I removed the “Previous Entries” link on the bottom of the homepage that would take you Page 2 of the site. In its place I put a link to recent articles, reviews, and interviews.

My reasoning for the experiment was to test my hypothesis that those who wind up at the bottom of the homepage are most likely new readers. And therefore, offering a link to the “best of” content would be more relevant for them and more likely to convert them into regular readers. My metrics for success in this experiment were increase in overall site pageviews and an increased rate of growth of RSS subscribers.

Today I compared the analytics of the site for the past two weeks against the two weeks prior to the experiment.

During the two-week experiment visits to the Reviews, Interviews, and Articles archive pages all went up noticeably. Which was to be expected. However, there was virtually no marked increase in overall pageviews or RSS Subscribers.

As a third metric — reader feedback — the vast majority of feedback I did receive was that current readers missed having a link to Page 2.

And so, I’ve put the link to Page 2 back at the bottom of the homepage.

On a side note: the most-clicked-on link of the recent articles, reviews, and interviews was to the Reviews page. Clearly that’s a hot topic, so I added that as a stand-alone link in the footer in addition to the archives.