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TUAW Interview: Gus Mueller on Acorn

Mat Lu

As we mentioned yesterday, Gus Mueller and Flying Meat software just released Acorn, a new, relatively low-cost image editor for the Mac. We've interviewed Gus before with interesting results, so last evening we again (virtually) sat down with Gus to ask him a few questions about Acorn itself, the development process, his company, and a little of what the future holds.

Whom is Acorn for? In your mischievous self-interview you seem to talk a lot about Photoshop, but you're straightforward in admitting that Acorn isn't going to replace Photoshop. So what kind of user did you have in mind when you were writing Acorn?

I designed Acorn for anyone who just wants to quickly open up an image and add text or play with pixels. My hope is that anyone who is intimidated by Photoshop or the Gimp will find a welcome interface in Acorn.

It's really about simplicity. I wanted a really easy to use image editor for myself, and I've heard other folks say the same thing.

You also mention (vaguely) some other lower-cost image editors, but you say that they don't fit your "mode." What did you mean by that? What does Acorn do that others don't?

It was mainly all the palettes that didn't fit in my mode. Photoshop had a ton of them, and everyone else that wanted to be Photoshop followed suit. I got tired of that. What's funny is, Acorn didn't start out that way. Acorn had about 4 palettes open at one time in the beginning- Layers, tools, info, color, fonts. And I just started slowly merging them together till I had two. Then one day about a month ago, I decided I was going to try and put everything in one palette. It took a little bit of getting used to, but I really liked it. Some of my testers weren't so sure, but it grew on them as well.

Speaking of others, have you played with Pixelmator at all? Do you have any comment about Acorn vis-a-vis Pixelmator?

Yea- people have been comparing the two against each other, which I think is natural. Both are new, both are Cocoa, both use Core Image filters heavily. I really think that's where they stop being similar though. I get the feeling that Pixelmator is trying to go after the folks who use Photoshop on a daily basis. I'm not after those folks. Acorn is aimed at the folks for whom Photoshop isn't an option, because Photoshop is too complicated for them.

One thing that I've learned from working on VoodooPad- the market of mac users is big enough for all of us. Even though there aren't many other "wiki" notebooks out there, there are plenty of other "put your information in it" type of applications, which is really what VoodooPad is. When Yojimbo from Bare Bones came out, I got lots of emails asking if I was worried. I wasn't - the two applications had different philosophies. 90% of the time, the type of person who uses Yojimbo isn't the type of person who uses VoodooPad. On the other hand, I've got customers who own both Yojimbo and VoodooPad as well, so that works out perfectly from my point of view.

I think the same thing is going to happen with Acorn vs. Pixelmator. Different philosophies, different customers, and some cross pollination will occur. I think it will be very healthy for both products.

To my mind the more obvious competitor to Acorn is not Photoshop, but Photoshop Elements. Now Adobe is taking their sweet time about getting a Universal version out, but once Elements ships (assuming it does) are you worried that it's going to take your market?

No, I think Photoshop Elements suffers from the same complexities that Photoshop does. The other thing that's always bugged me about Elements is that they have really changed the UI over the past couple of years so that it's more Windows like. The buttons and the icons they used didn't really seem to fit on Mac OS X. One of the goals of Acorn was to make it feel like a modern Mac app.

Of course, Adobe might turn that around tomorrow- who knows?

Is Acorn new from the ground up? What particular challenges did this project represent (I know you mentioned undo support)?

Acorn started out as FlySketch 2, and was going to be 10.5 only. However, as time went on and I was making big changes, it really became another app. Then the 10.5 delay happened and I back ported it to 10.4 (a very painful experience!). [Gus was apparently had this in mind when we interviewed him back in April on the Leopard delay]

Undo support is the thing I like to complain about the most, it was probably the hardest thing to implement.

You might say- "Hey, what about that fancy filter pane? That looks hard to write!". That was actually written by a great local Seattle company named RogueSheep. They've got a product named Magma Effects, which does mostly the same in Acorn- but only for InDesign CS. I was lucky enough to be able to license Magma from RogueSheep and use it in Acorn, which shaved a ton of development time for me.

How did you go about thinking about an image editor? Did you have a clear paradigm in your head before you got started?

I just wanted a pixel-pushing app that I would enjoy using. I figured I would add layers and bitmap editing (with tablet support- that's a big deal to me) to FlySketch, and it would take 2-3 months to develop with some other features and I'd be happy and folks who kept on asking for these things would be too. I didn't really have a clear vision as to what it would look like when I stared though. Maybe that's one of the reasons it took so long.

And besides, who knew writing a bitmap editor would be so hard?

You are clearly excited about the Python and Objective-C plugin architecture for Acorn. Whom do you expect to write plugins? And are you envisioning these plugins mostly as new filters, or more extensive additions like new tools, etc.?

I'm really not sure what's going to come out of it, I'm hoping people will surprise me. I've been using it myself for quick little scripts to upload images to my webserver, saving as certain file types without a dialog box- random power user things that probably only the developer of the app would care for.

I've also created some sample plugins, and Acorn actually uses some of these plugins internally (the "Adjust Color" option is actually a plugin, and ships with the sample plugin code). Hopefully developers will take these samples and come up with new ideas of their own.

I eventually hope to have a spot on my website where people can browse and contribute for simple filters (like "Add a black border to this image") at some point.

Like any version 1.0 there's going to be feature holes. Can you comment on where you see Acorn going? What are your priorities for new features?

Yea, it's certainly a 1.0, and that's why I'm doing the discount till version 1.1. I figure early adopters deserve a discount for having to put up with some missing features. [Acorn is $39.95 now, but will go up to $49.95 with version 1.1.]

As far as features, I really want to add some sort of free rotation in there and a "Save for Web" option. That's all I'll comment on for now though, I don't want to make any promises I can't keep.

Flying Meat is a one-man shop, right? You mentioned that Acorn took 10 months of work; now that you've got several serious applications (VoodooPad, FlySketch, FlyGesture, Acorn) are you getting stretched too thin? Is Flying Meat thinking of expanding?

Yea- Acorn is about 10 months of work. I obviously also did other things during that time period as well, like supporting my other applications, writing and shipping VoodooPad 3.2, etc.

I'm not sure if I'm getting stretched too thin yet. Some days it feels like it, but most of the time I feel like I'm able to handle most everything. Kirstin, my wife, helps out with the money and paperwork side of things, and she has also expressed a bit of interest in helping out with support (so be nice if you get an email from her!). I've often thought about hiring someone on, but that opens up a big can of worms and I like to keep things nice and simple.

Thanks to Gus for taking the time to answer our questions and best of luck to him with Acorn.

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