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Viewfinder for iPad review and interview with Fraser Speirs

TJ Luoma, @tjluoma
Most Mac users know Fraser Speirs as the developer of FlickrExport which allows you to easily export pictures from iPhoto or Aperture to Flickr.

Most iPhone users probably know him from Darkslide (formerly "Exposure"), a Flickr client that he developed for the iPhone. Back in September of 2008, he posted that he would not develop additional applications for the App Store because of the way that apps had been both rejected without explanation or (even worse) accepted and then removed without warning.

That changed in May of 2010 when he announced that he was "Back in" to iOS development, due to the iPad. The end result of that decision is Viewfinder for iPad, a "photo search and download" app for iPad.

Fraser's story has interested me from the beginning because (at least in my experience) it's fairly rare in life that someone makes such a public, definitive statement and then later reverses it. While I suspect the "knee jerk" reaction to hearing his story is negative, I find it compelling because of his honesty. Adults can (and do) change their minds. Some might see it as a weakness (anyone remember the 2004 US presidential election and the term "waffle"?) but I see it as a sign of maturity.

I've been using Viewfinder for a few weeks (Fraser, like many developers, provided a review code for that purpose), but wanted to do more than just a review of the app itself, but also talk to him about this story. He agreed to an email interview, which was the most practical way of doing it since he is in Scotland and I'm in the USA.

Read on for more...

Me: What was it like to "come back" to iOS development?

Fraser: I hadn't been out of iOS development entirely. I was still working on Darkslide, but I hadn't been planning a lot of new work. In many ways, the API changes and additions in iOS 4 are more challenging and interesting than the difference between iOS 3.1 on iPhones and 3.2 on the iPad. The thing I love about the iPad is that it's a chance to think big and build apps that are close to desktop apps, even if we can't exactly match up feature-for-feature yet.

The thing that changed my mind about iOS development was the iPad, no question. When iOS was just "iPhone OS" - an OS for smartphones - a Cocoa developer could decide to take it or leave it. With the advent of iPad, I'm no longer convinced that iOS can be so ignored. I think that iPad represents the future of truly mass-market computing, so decided to get back on board.

Me: Any significant challenges to deal with for the iPad vs Mac or even the iPhone?

Fraser: The iPad is challenging to design for. It has a UI toolkit with several desktop-style idioms (popovers are effectively contextual menus, for example) but running on hardware that's less well-resourced, at least in RAM terms, than the iPhone 4.

Me: Has anything improved since you opted out of the app store?

Fraser: There have been some improvements but, unfortunately, all the general problems remain: unclear rules that change arbitrarily, problems with approval and so on. I've pretty much resigned myself to the reality that, as long as the App Store remains the juggernaut that it currently is, the broad principles will not change.

A year ago, I hoped I could use whatever small voice I have to change the situation. That seems hopelessly naive now but, back then, nobody really realised what a cultural phenomenon the App Store would become. In the UK, the Times newspaper advertises its iPad app on TV with a VoiceOver that just says "The Times. In the App Store now". Think about it - Apple has enough brand recognition that it's now enough to simply refer to "the" App Store in national media advertising.

Today, I have to recognise, my only choice is to take the deal that's being offered or find something else to do.

Me: If you could change one thing wrt the App Store, what would it be? (for me: I want demos, time limited but full featured)

Fraser: As a customer and vendor in the App Store, some demo capability would be most welcome. As a developer, I would like Apple to set clear rules for the app store and stick to them. The fear of being pulled at a moment's notice is pretty grim, even if I don't necessarily expect Viewfinder to be affected.

Who knows, though? One big media fuss on TechCrunch about "iPad App lets people steal copyrighted photos from Flickr" (even though Viewfinder does nothing more than a web browser can do and goes further than most apps to respect rights) and I could be gone tomorrow.

Me: I'm sure some people will wonder, "Why would I use Viewfinder rather than just searching"

Fraser: It's all about the workflow. Viewfinder isn't a "Flickr tool" per se - it's a "photo search" tool. I designed it so that people using Viewfinder neither need to know or care that it's using Flickr on the back end. I could (and might) add other photo services in the future.

Flickr could, in principle, build a search function that works similarly to Viewfinder but I'm not sure that's aligned with their aims. Also, platform integration is always an advantage.

Me: That integration is why I use the Amazon iPad app even though works just fine in Safari on the iPad. Speaking of platforms, you're developing for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad now, how much time do you spend on each?

Fraser: I tend to work in cycles, where one app has most of my focus for a cycle then I move to something else. I would say that, since the iPad was released, I've been focusing on iOS development. However, I'm starting to think about updates for Changes and to plan out FlickrExport 4 so Mac OS X will have my attention again soon enough. Scheduling has become really hard now, with three platforms to play on and Apple throwing unexpected things into the works like the Retina Display. I'd say scheduling work and releases is my biggest challenge now, by far.

Me: Ok, so the obvious question I have to ask is: "$10?! For an app that just finds pictures?!" Or, to put it a more journalistic-y way: how do you make pricing decisions in a market that expects US$0.99 as "normative"? Why not use an ad-supported model like iAds?!

Fraser: Well, iAd isn't on the iPad yet, but I'm not totally against using iAds when available to create a "Viewfinder Lite" but right now, there are challenges with iAd in terms of advertising inventory and international availability but those will be resolved in time, I'm sure.

Secondly, Viewfinder is not "finding pictures on the internet" but "finding high-quality pictures, correctly licensed, for use in your projects." If you're building a Keynote deck for your job, or making a website, or producing a poster or anything that requires an image, you'll earn back $10 in about 15 minutes. I wrote about some of the reasons why I wrote Viewfinder which were specifically about saving time.

When you look at apps like OmniFocus ($40 for iPad), or OmniGraffle ($50 for iPad), or Things ($20 for iPad), or Viewfinder ($10 for iPad), what you're looking at aren't just "mobile apps" - they're "apps" that happen to be in the iPad, and so they are priced accordingly.

I'm starting to think that the hardest thing in iOS development is not persuading someone to pay money for your app but rather getting people to find out about and look at your app at all.

I'm considering making Viewfinder a universal iPhone and iPad application, as I think that dramatically increases the value proposition when you're selling at a price point above $0.99. I know that I mentally divide the price in two when thinking about buying an app if it's universal.

(end of interview section)

So, faithful reader, I'm sure you're asking yourself: "Is it worth $10?"

My answer is a qualified yes. First off, it's important to realize that this isn't a Flickr client like Darkslide. You won't be logging into your Flickr account, there's no way to access your contacts' pictures directly like you would through a regular Flickr client. You are using the Flickr public search, which also means that you seeing any public images which are not age-restricted (and there is no way to "authorize" to Flickr to tell them to show you private images).

In fact, as Fraser said above, the best way to understand Viewfinder for iPad is as a "search engine for pictures" rather than a "Flickr client." The downside to this is that once you say "search engine for pictures" I find myself thinking "Google Images" not just "Flickr"

The good part of this is that most of the pictures that are posted to Flickr are done so by people who take their pictures a little more seriously. Overall, you're going to find a better caliber of pictures than you would from the average Google Image Search. Viewfinder also will let you limit your searches to pictures that are licensed using the Creative Commons licensing, and will let you further limit results to photos which can be used commercially and/or for derivative works. Tapping on the "info" button while looking at a photo will show you the license, the URLs (giving you fast access to copy the attribution text, Flickr URL, small/medium/large/original images), and let you download images directly to your photos library, assuming the license allows it. Viewfinder keeps a record of the pictures that you have downloaded, so you can go back and find them again easily.

As I was writing this article, I realized that when I am sitting on my Mac and looking at an app that I like, $10 seems pretty cheap, but if I'm looking at the App Store on my iPad, $10 seems like a lot. Viewfinder for the Mac currently sells for US$23, but there's one huge difference: demo versions. I can download the Mac version and try it out, but the App Store doesn't allow for demo versions. As I mentioned above, that's the biggest thing I'd like to see changed about the App Store.

Fraser mentioned that "getting people to find out about and look at your app" is the hardest part of the process. On the Mac, this is fairly easy. I downloaded FlickrExport for iPhoto before I bought it, tested it out for awhile, and realized that I really liked it and it made my life a little easier. Sure, I could use the Flickr Uploadr, which was free, but I liked FlickrExport better, it integrated better, it worked better, and it was easily worth the asking price.

On the iPad, I can't "try" Viewfinder, I have to buy it. Not only do some people use this as a justification for pirating apps on their jailbroken iOS devices, but for the rest of us it leaves us in a tricky position. "Do I like the idea of this app enough to think that trying it is worth $X?" I can generally tell in a few minutes if an app is something I'm going to like or not, but it's unlikely that a YouTube video explaining how the app works is going to give me enough information.

Developers like Fraser are stuck. It's unlikely that many people are just going to casually download a $10 app from the App Store, so it's harder to get it in front of people so they can see how it works. Most people are going to wait until they hear about it from others. For larger development companies or apps with wider appeal, that's an easier expectation. It won't take long for you to have a few friends trying to increase productivity who bought OmniFocus or Things. But for more niche products, the harder it will be to break out.

Viewfinder will work very well for someone looking for photos licensed via Creative Commons, but if you find an image with a more restrictive license, you may not be able to download the image through the app, and even copying some of the image URLs may not work. Fraser explained that there is a "candownload" flag which the author sets on Flickr. Some "All Rights Reserved" photos have it turned on, some have it turned off. You can copy the attribution text or the original Flickr URL.

Viewfinder does alert you to photos in your search results which have restrictive licenses by placing a very small red circle with a white line through it over a corner of the thumbnail (if you tap on the image itself, the warning label goes away). The inability to save some Flickr images is part of the Flickr Terms of Services, which Fraser (or any developer using Flickr) is obligated to follow.

The net result of this is that I almost immediately set the preference to make Viewfinder show me Creative Commons results only, bringing us back to Fraser's point above that Viewfinder isn't just about "finding pictures on the Internet" but "finding high-quality pictures, correctly licensed, for use in your projects."

If you have a need for such an app, $10 is a small price to pay. If searching through Google Images on your iPad suits your "needs" then you don't "need" Viewfinder, although you might be surprised how many better pictures you would find with it. Although it's not exactly the same experience as the iPad, you may find it helpful to try Viewfinder for the Mac to see if you like it.

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