The TUAW Interview: 3 Developers behind My Dream App

Scott McNulty
S. McNulty|08.24.06

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The TUAW Interview: 3 Developers behind My Dream App

A few days ago I sat down (virtually) with the 3 developers who will be coding the winning ideas from My Dream App (they are also judges). Austin Sarner (AppZapper), Jason Harris (Shapeshifter, ThemePark, and Chicken of the VNC to name a few), and Martin Ott (SubEthaEdit) have a big task ahead of them. At the moment over 1700 ideas have been submitted to My Dream App and not only will these guys be programming the final 3, they also help choose them.

After the jump is a longish chat that I had with Austin, Jason, and Martin. We go over their programming chops, why they decided to join up with MDA, and why they are so excited about the concept.

Name, Rank, Serial Number

TUAW: Why don't you all tell me what each of your roles in My Dream App are?
Jason Harris: My role is to create a more compelling final application than either Austin or Martin
JH: snap!
Martin Ott: after we sorted out which apps we actually gonna develop
TUAW: So each of you will be getting one app to develop from the search?
JH: Over the course of a few months, the community and the guest judges narrow down the list of prospective apps, refining them along the way until there are just three, at the end then, we each team up with a designer and we each create one of the apps and I'm just teasing about the "better than" part
TUAW: And there is a final App deathmatch?
JH: yes, we put them into the ring and whichever one uses its AI for evil instead of good and manages to "kill -9" the other two is the winner
Austin Sarner: exactly
MO: as we are developing not the same app 3 times we are not in some kind of competition but everyone wants to create the best app ever
TUAW: Excellent, now I am familiar with all of your work (each of you separately that is) but why don't you tell me a little about yourselves for our readers?
: i've been probably known in the mac community for developing subethaedit. i've co-founded thecodingmonkeys with two friends. together we created subethaedit, a collaborative text editor which received an design award in 2003. i also supply the community with my subversion packages for mac os x
JH: (didn't realize that was you, Martin! Thanks for the subversion build!)
MO: currently i'm working half of my time for thecodingmonkeys. besides that i have a part time job at the technical university in munich, doing research in software engineering i've received my degree in computer science last october and now i'm also a 'my dream app' developer
TUAW: excellent, I know a lot of our readers are into subethaedit (or if they aren't they should be)
MO: i started cocoa development 2002. before i've been on the mac doing sys admin stuff, etc.
TUAW: What made you decide to develop for the Mac?
MO: i've been using a mac since '94. when next came to apple i heard about that wonderful framework named cocoa. while doing a prototype for a university course i learned cocoa. i'm developing for the mac because it's a great platform which has customers that are really into new innovative software.
TUAW: Thanks, Martin. Austin, tell me your life story.
AS: I've been making Mac software for a while now and I would assume most people know me for AppZapper, but I've worked on a bunch of smaller freeware/shareware apps as well. Right now I'm finishing up high school but planning on doing this full time afterwards, and living what most Cocoa geeks call "the life."
TUAW: as in the life of an Independent Developer?
AS: Yep, being able to support yourself solely with your shareware.
TUAW: Very cool. And what made you want to develop for the Mac?
AS: I first got a Mac a few years ago when I had to buy one for school and started finding all these great freeware and shareware apps. I distinctly remember one of my friends downloading Jason's Mighty Mouse haxie and telling me how cool it was that his mouse was a lightsaber, and I've been hooked since.
JH: (whooo!)
TUAW: Jason is an inspiration to us all
AS: haha
TUAW: speaking of which, that just leaves Jason to spill the beans about himself
JH: I began Mac-Geeking back in the end of the System 6 days on an SE/30. I started out with a really-easily-subvertible password program, an app that would administer the "purity test" and then tell you your score, and a profanity-prone version of the Eliza expert system. Then I did a bunch of in-house Mac dev while working as an engineer on robotic sculpture. the biggie in that area was an artificial life program that used genetic algorithms to breed neural networks. The codons in the DNA mapped to various neural structures rather than to amino acids as they do in biological systems. that involved all sorts of fun mac geekery, like writing a fully re-entrant and asynchronous OpenTransport stack back in the System 8 days, when it was actually hard to do stuff like that. My senior design project in electrical engineering involved speech recognition, specifically, using statistical analysis to speed computation of the incoming vocal phonemes. So that we could control a car by giving it commands like "Windows down, car!"
TUAW: Just like Kitt!
JH: xactly! grad school was theoretical research into quantum computing. We were trying to find ways of implementing quantum "qubits" using existing fabrication techniques on gallium arsenide so basically, it involved writing tons of horrible Fortran code and Matlab code to visualize the pretty quantum probability flows. I got involved writing ThemePark (my theme editor program) as a way of decompressing from that code and ported a NeXT VNC viewer app called, appropriately enough, VNCViewer to the Mac so I could work remotely that became Chicken of the VNC, and I'm the project manager for that. Grad school didn't work out due to various reasons, but by that time, I was way into the theme thing and was working on ShapeShifter and with the release of ShapeShifter, I went full-time on Mac Indieware, although I still do some contract work outside the Mac sphere

Why My Dream App?

TUAW: excellent, so now that we have a sense of who the heck you all are, what got you involved with 'My Dream App'?
JH: I've been watching Phill play with various marketing ideas over the past couple of years. He's doing really, really innovative stuff in that area - things that are fun and exciting, and hence, market themselves.
JH: So when he told me about this project, I was like "ahhhh HELL yeah!"
JH: it was literally 5 minutes from seeing the original design doc to being involved
MO: i didn't know phill until last sunday. i prepared my breakfast when he popped up in my ichat. he pitched the idea behind MDA and i was sold
AS: I had worked with Phill in the past so he approached me early on with the idea and it sounded cool so I jumped on board. As I've seen the design/idea evolve I'm happy I did.
TUAW: I should point out that I am going to be some sort of judge during the process, just so people know.
JH: I've also had previous association with Phill via the MacThemes website, so I've had lots of past interaction with him, too.
TUAW: The idea of MDA seems to click with everyone as soon as they hear it, why do you think that is?
JH: I think that there's always been a disconnect, however slight, between what software users want and what software developers develop. MDA is going to be the first process by which users can tell us exactly what they want an app to do, and get exactly that back.
MO: it's the community involvement. usually you sit behind your desk thinking about what software could improve people's live. actually developing the idea with users seems to be the right way to go.
JH: It empowers everybody.
AS: The Mac community is great in that they genuinely love cool apps. When you show someone in it that we've got this event in the works that does nothing but let non devs realize cool apps, they dig it.
MO: and throwing in the expertise from all the guest judges helps in shaping great ideas for application which can be done and from which users will benefit
TUAW: Yes, it seems that community involvement is the key here. How does the Mac community impact the apps that you develop on your own? I.e. not with MDA, just so we can get an idea of the development process (for those of us who couldn't code themselves out of a paper bag).
JH: ShapeShifter is heavily driven by community involvement. There's a healthy community that's developed around theme development and use. The theme creators basically drive features - they tell me what they want and I (try to!) figure out a way to accomplish it. The process isn't transparent - I keep features quiet until I've actually implemented them, since not everything can be implemented and I prefer to underpromise and overdeliver
AS: While we don't really have a community around our apps, we have to make sure they fit nicely into the existing one. The most important thing is being open and receptive to feedback.
JH: ignoring user feedback is the best possible way to kill a Mac development shop
MO: the idea and initial development of subethaedit was driven by us developers till version 1.0 got out. along the way till version 1.0 we showed it off to some people to get early feedback. since it's initial release the development is driven by customer feedback and on our own ideas.
AS: Not to mention being active in the community itself. Getting your name out there on blogs like TUAW is just as important as putting your app on MacUpdate. If people don't know about you, you may as well not have the app in the first place.
JH: Yeah, it's been interesting watching how developer blogs have begun to drive sales. I think it's part of the reason MDA is compelling - I think users like to know the person behind the software that they use. It makes things more friendly and accessible. Rather than cold, impersonal software like that made by giants like Microsoft or Adobe.
TUAW: And MDA empowers the user to tell a developer, 'Hey, make this!'
MO: when users have your apps in their hand. they will let you know what kind of improvements and features will help them in their daily work. you should definitely listen to them. MDA starts even before people have the app in their hand.

The Process

TUAW: Will you all be working closely with the people who suggest the 3 winning apps, or will you just get the specs and figure out the rest on your own (with help from a designer)?
JH: I'd imagine we'll be working very closely with the winners. No spec is ever complete. So we'll probably need to solicit more info from the winner, and from the community at large, as we code.
AS: We're definitely going to be working closely with them. The collaboration process starts long before the development, as the designers make the initial mock ups for the idea.
MO: i hope, that we can closely work with the winners because the have the vision what they want.
JH: Part of the fun of MDA is that the dev process is going to be completely open - we'll be blogging our progress which, for me at least, will be a new and very fun experience.
AS: It will be great being able to have the perspectives of a non programmer, an artist, and a programmer mesh.
TUAW: Ah, I didn't know that. So each of you will be posting about the process as it is in progress?
JH: I think that's the plan, yes.
MO: yes
AS: Definitely. I'm sure the community will be able to comment on our progress as well.
TUAW: oh, and I am sure they will which will add another layer to the interaction
JH: It's going to be pretty cool - usually in app development, the user is involved only at the very beginning, during the idea phase, and at the very end, during testing and the designer is involved only during specific UI work. having all three involved all the way through is going to make for some seriously well-rounded apps.
AS: With this the feedback doesn't begin after 1.0 ships, it begins long before -- and that's why the community plays such an important role.
TUAW: now, do you imagine any challenges will come up since you will be working with a non-programmer to build an app?
JH: I'm scared that the winning idea will be "make me an app that lets the computer do whatever I want it to do, before I've actually figured out what I want it to do" but those ideas will be weeded out during the selection process, so that's okay
AS: Along with the Photoshop competitor ones.
MO: the challenge is to actually to make the idea work and implement it. but that's the fun part. that's the reason why we are software developers
TUAW: So, what apps that are currently out do you admire?
JH: Quicksilver. I've actually broken a space key from overuse. The Panic stuff is beautiful from a simplicity-of-UI standpoint.
AS: Quicksilver is definitely one of the coolest projects out there. The amount of time and effort Nick puts into a free project is just mindboggling...and the result is so amazing. TextMate for it's completely custom text view.
JH: yeah, takes giant balls to create your own custom text view starting at the NSControl level, insanely cool.
MO: yeah, quicksilver is pretty cool. like jason i absolutely love the panic products.
AS: Also a big fan of the UI in Watanabe's stuff, especially NewsFire.
JH: Newsfire is beautiful. I love the innovative use of webkit. I don't think it would have ever occurred to me to generate html/css on the fly as a part of my UI
MO: netnewswire is an all-time favorite of mine. because it's so uncluttered and reduced to it's function as an RSS reader
JH: Adium is wonderful - uberpowerful and uberkewl
TUAW: I am always surprised by the number of high quality indie apps that are available for OS X. Do you think this is a function of OS X being cool, Apple being good to developers or something else?
JH: Apple could definitely be better to developers, so that ain't it
TUAW: that's what I thought, Jason, but I had to ask
AS: I think it's twofold: the fact that the community actually appreciates excellent UI and experience, and that Apple provides the frameworks that let developers achieve it.
JH: Cocoa lowers the bar significantly, so programmers don't need to be quite as geeky - they can be a bit more artistic. I agree about the community. The Mac community is insanely picky, but also, very very quick to reward good work. that alone helps to generate quality apps.
MO: in fact, you can't ship crappy apps on the mac. no one would buy them. apple gives us the tools to create insanely cool apps.
JH: add in Cocoa, which pretty much gives you "pretty by default, work hard to make ugly", and you get a preponderance of beauty
MO: apple's technologies allows a single developer to create these amazing apps by themselves. you don't need a huge team of developers to create these nice little shareware apps. so some credit goes definitely to the frameworks and tools provided by apple.
TUAW: alrighty, I think have taken up enough of your time Any parting words that you would like to share with TUAW's readers?
AS: Thanks for the interview Scott. Stay tuned for MDA!
MO: i'm encouraging all readers to submit their app ideas
MO: yep, thanks scott.
JH: I hope the readers will hit us hard with lots of criticism! The more, the better!
JH: Thanks, Scott!
TUAW: thanks to you all, and I am really looking forward to what MDA brings to the Mac community, I think it is going to be great!
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