The Point of Diminishing Features

Making software products is a great business. You release version 1 and start selling, followed by new major versions from time to time that generate further upgrade revenue. A good product can give you a nice ongoing business.

It seems like a lot of products, and not just software products, are really exciting when they first come out. People go gaga over the product and buy it by the truckload. Then comes the next version, and it’s got some huge improvements and people happily snap it up. The next version really puts the polish on, and again is a hit. In fact, I think I’ve seen it said that Microsoft products don’t really hit their stride until 3.0.
But I think that’s precisely where the “point of diminishing features” is reached. The product went from intriguing to great to “use all the time”. The improvements made after that might entice some new customers but no longer really shine for the existing customers.
Let me make that more concrete: Microsoft Office hit that point a long time ago. Or, more specifically, Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The only useful features Microsoft could add were features that were useful and exciting to a very small subset of their audience. Upgrades to those products simply wouldn’t be exciting enough for most people. And, major UI reshufflings just annoy people, rather than making them want to upgrade.
In the case of Office, since almost everyone buys it as a bundle, Microsoft had the option of creating entirely new products like OneNote and then making it seem like a no-brainer to just buy the upgraded suite.
Watching the Apple “Back to the Mac” keynote, it really felt like iLife had hit the point of diminishing features. Watching Steve Jobs, I didn’t get the impression that even he was truly excited about iLife ’11. He seemed most excited when he introduced the new MacBook Air.
I wanted to be excited by iLife ’11. There were features there that were “kinda neat”, but nothing that made me want to grab the credit card and head out to the store.
What’s the cure? “Think different”. Try to come up with fundamentally new ways for the customer to do things and use that type of product, or create features that take something that you frequently want to do and turn it into a quick, fun task. Making trailers looks like fun in iLife ’11, but I don’t actually want to make trailers. I’ll be curious to see how many of those things show up on YouTube.
Mac OS Lion seems like it will be way more interesting than iLife ’11, because Apple is bringing a bunch of unusual new ways to work with a full computer in from the iOS world. And, you can bet that we’ve only seen a piece of Lion.
I think iWork has the potential to be exciting, just because so many features are still missing from Numbers and Pages. iWork doesn’t feel like it has reached “3.0” yet.
I’ll end this line of thinking with a product that ran for a good number of years before hitting the point of diminishing features: the iPod. The iPod had a good run of big new features because Apple was willing to take major moves like drop the best-selling mini in favor of the new and untried nano.
If you’re working on a product and find yourself unable to be truly excited by the features coming in the next rev, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and rethink some fundamental aspects of it.

The Open Web App Prototype

For some time, I’ve thought that many applications written as native applications for many different platforms could be done just as well as cross-platform web applications. I understand why people would make a unit conversion sort of application as a native iOS app, to give one example, but I’ve thought it’s a shame.

Some others within Mozilla gathered up a lot of opinions, put in a bunch of thought and then put together a prototype which they’ve announced today: Prototype of an Open Web App Ecosystem.

This is really cool. They’ve come up with a good solution that is truly open along every axis. Anyone can build apps and sell them through any channel (including their own!). This is the way apps should work.

Most “app store” designs lock people into a platform. It’s great to see an alternative ecosystem without the lock in.

Generosity in Marketing and Open Source

Seth Godin has written a number of times about being generous, most recently differentiating between “free samples” and “generous gifts”. Seth himself has given generously and benefitted handsomely. For one, just look at his great blog to which he has posted wonderful ideas, free for the taking. Another interesting example: recently, I received a copy of The Mesh:

Apparently, I received this book because I had bought Seth’s Linchpin. Which, by the way, I received by donating to the Acumen Fund and not giving the money directly to Seth. Oh, and I think they sent me two copies instead of one.

I’ve seen a lot of “internet marketing gurus” work the “free sample” angle that Seth is talking about. They give you an ebook for free, get you on their mailing list and then try to sell you lots of random internet marketing-related crap.

Seth undoubtedly knows that all of these things that he does get people talking about him and his ideas. Ultimately, he wins (Linchpin is currently in the top 800 sellers on Amazon, nearly a year after its release). But the way he approaches things feels generous. Donating to the Acumen Fund both made me feel generous and receiving the books in exchange made me feel like Seth was generous as well. How’s that for a promotion?

Over the past decade, I’ve read a good deal about marketing and I think that Seth Godin is the most positive force in marketing today. Read his books, read his blog.

In the title, I promised to relate all of this back to open source. One thing I love about open source software is the generosity that I see there. People make open source software for all sorts of reasons. Some people kick it off specifically to support a commercial venture – a variation of the “free sample” that Seth writes about. Others just sort of toss it over the wall as if to say “hey, I’ve got this thing, maybe you’ll find it useful…”.

But, I’ve also seen quite a few open source projects where people are just trying to make the world a better place through their software. They’re not just tossing it over the wall. Instead, they’re sending a prized creation into the world and continue to nurture and support it. That takes a lot of energy and work, and it often seems like a thankless task at the time. But, you know what? I think for a great many of those projects it actually works out okay in the end. In one form or another, the people behind many of these projects find their careers heading in new, unplanned directions as a result of the work they gave freely.

Negative advertising works

Al over the place, there was news of Obama and McCain moving into a dead heat in the polls. Earlier in the summer, Obama had more than 320 electoral votes according to the polls (270 are required to win). Now, Obama and McCain both have less than 270. If you check out the graphs at electoral-vote.com, you can see that 2008 looks suspiciously like 2004, with the Democrat leading and then losing ground after the negative ads kicked in. (Not coincidentally, McCain has placed a Karl Rove protégé in power in his campaign, so we can expect more Rovian behavior from that camp.)

Of course, Obama is a very different candidate from Kerry, and I think there’s still plenty of time in the election for the trends to shift back.

I was struck by an interesting parallel in the software world:

The new ad effort is expected to use some variation of the slogan “Windows, Not Walls,” according to several people familiar with the matter. Those people say the point is to stress breaking down barriers that prevent people and ideas from connecting.

[From Microsoft Hiring Seinfeld for Major Ad Campaign – Mac Rumors]

Apple’s “Get A Mac” ads were basically negative advertising, playing up the strength of Macs relative to the annoyance of Windows. (Contrast with the iPhone ads, which just show the overall goodness of the iPhone.)

As noted in the MacRumors article, Microsoft sees the Get A Mac ads as having been effective (and how could they not, with Apple’s market share, revenue, unit sales and profits all surging?). Microsoft is taking the “high road” in their response. I tend to think that stressing the “openness” of Windows is not a good approach. For one, Windows is hardly the king of openness. Secondly, Microsoft tried a similar approach with their various media playing attempts, but people still preferred the experience of the iPod. And finally, it seems that the negative, yet still entertaining, spin of the Get A Mac ads is likely to resonate much better.

As with anything, time will tell. But how many people really think this kind of campaign with stop the Mac’s rising tide?

(Update: I should note that the MacRumors article is really about Seinfeld starring in the new Microsoft ads. I presume that they’re going for a humorous slant to the ads, which I do think is a good move. I just still think that the “openness” theme is one that won’t resonate as well.)

MacUpdate Parallels Bundle

Apparently, it’s Mac software bundle time again. MacHeist has “retail bundle” deal going that is entirely uninteresting to me. I first read about it a few days ago, and it’s since only sold 980 bundles… far less than has been typical for one of their deals.

MacUpdate has just released a new bundle that is far more interesting. The Parallels Bundle. They’re being a bit sneaky calling it that, because Parallels is the last app that will be unlocked. They don’t even tell you how many they have to sell before Parallels is unlocked. The bundle costs $65. For people that don’t own Parallels, this could be a steal because Parallels itself retails for $80.

Even so, the collection of apps that you know you will get is pretty decent as it is. I’ve always thought Leap looked interesting, and that’s $59 regularly. Typinator is a useful sort of tool once you get using it. I don’t have time to write a novel right now, but if I did StoryMill looks like a fun way to do it. Art Text looks useful for presentations and such. The other apps I could do without, personally. DVDRemaster might be nice, but is it really better than Handbrake?

I buy my fair share (at least!) of indie Mac software, and bundles like this are a good way to try out and really get into a bunch of new tools. (And, yes, that is an affiliate link up there. I wouldn’t be posting this if it wasn’t interesting, though. After all, the MacHeist bundle has been up for days and I wouldn’t have even mentioned that one if it weren’t for the more interesting MacUpdate bundle appearing.)

Providing support for open source projects

A few days ago I posted a brief blog entry about what I’ve been working on: SitePen Support (Dojo, DWR, Cometd)

We finished the work for the initial launch of this service immediately before I left for PyCon, so I didn’t have a chance to properly blog about it. Getting SitePen Support going has been my primary task in the time since I joined SitePen, so I’m anxious to write about it now that it’s public.

I’m going to start with some of the rationale for the service, and in another post at a later time I’ll talk about how the service is put together.

Imagine that you’re a developer who is facing a deadline or you’re a manager with a team that’s about to become stalled because of an unexpected problem. When working with most open source projects, you’ve got three mighty tools at your disposal:

  1. the documentation
  2. the source
  3. the community

I don’t know how many open source projects you’ve looked at, but #1 is almost always not quite where you want it to be. The unusual situations that are likely to trip you up the most are also the least likely to be documented… so, there’s always #2. Dive into the source directly and check it out for yourself. Of course, Dojo is more than 100,000 lines of JavaScript. Even though it’s nicely organized, there are some tricky concepts being applied and it can definitely take some time to get to your answers.

Which leaves the community. Generally, community support is pretty good at helping you find an answer via forums, mailing lists and IRC. Unfortunately, though, you never know for sure that you’ll get a response from the community, and if you toss a really tricky problem out, project developers might not go after it if they’re in the middle of other big projects.

Now, for Dojo, DWR and Cometd, there is a definite place you can turn for help: the SitePen Support service. SitePen Support is a way for you to bring core project people into your development process when you need them most. All of the plans give you hours of assistance to track down the tricky issues or fix bugs that are important to your projects. They all have a guaranteed initial response, so that you know we’re there keeping an eye out for you. Many of our plans have a feature called “Ask the Experts”. If you can’t find something in the docs, Ask the Experts is a way to find the answer, and we’re even likely to update the docs if need be. For some of the plans, we’ll even troubleshoot and fix your application’s code in addition to the project code.

We’ve also been working on making the service as easy to use as possible. In addition to being able to exchange information via email, we’ve got a Dojo-powered interface for keeping track of what’s going on with all of your support requests.

SitePen Support Screenshot

It’s this interface that I’ll be writing more about later.

If you’re using Dojo, DWR or Cometd and would like some expert help for your projects, check out:
http://www.sitepen.com/services/support.php?packages

MacHeist: even more stuff

MacHeist has caught some flak in the past for selling indie Mac developer wares at a price that’s too low (by some reckonings, see below). On the other hand, those developers are choosing to become part of the promotion and MacHeist raises money for charity. This go around, they’ve raised more than $320,000.

I bought the heist primarily for PixelMator and 1password, though I’ve also found that I enjoy CoverSutra. There are a lot of other apps in the $49 bundle that make it a good deal for many (Snapz Pro X!)

Update: I can’t believe I missed noticing this. The bundle now includes Vector Designer as well. That means that you get a vector drawing program (imagine Adobe Illustrator Lite) and a bitmap editor (Adobe Photoshop Lite). Plus everything else in the bundle. It really is a great deal for the buyer.

I’m mentioning the heist again here on my blog because they’ve opened up more apps and they’ve added a referral program that delivers even more cool software. So, if you’re thinking of buying the heist, time is running out… and please use my link.

Update (1/23/08): Thanks to everyone who bought the Heist through my link. I did indeed get a copy of NoteBook. I hope you enjoy the software bundle! It’s working out nicely for me so far.

Would I be a part of the Heist?

With all of that said, I think it is an interesting question: would I want software I create to be a part of something like MacHeist?

During the first Heist, Gus Mueller broke down the numbers and decided it wasn’t a good deal. I don’t think it’s so clear cut.

First of all, I think it’s better to focus business decisions on absolute measures rather than relative measures. Consider stock market investing. Many mutual funds will compare themselves to the S&P 500 (if they’re lucky enough to be beating it). Let’s say that they beat the S&P 500 by 1% over the past 3 months. That’s pretty darn good performance. Except for the fact that you just lost 10% (for the past 3 months, the S&P 500 is down 11.69%).

Yes, I know that you can’t time the market and all of that. My point is that by relative measures that mutual fund was a winner. Absolutely, though, it was a dog. You could’ve just left your money in a mattress.

So, for a second let’s remove the relative earnings of the MacHeist guys from the equation.

Users cost money in terms of support, but have the potential to bring in word-of-mouth (or word-of-blog) advertising. A micro ISV could get absolutely swamped by a sudden influx of thousands of new users, unless their product was absolutely rock solid, super easy to use and/or had a good, active set of forums to which people could turn for support.

The reason to go for a MacHeist would be the advertising you get from the heist itself, word-of-mouth from people who buy the heist, and upgrade revenue later on. All of that comes at a cost of lower (tiny, even) initial sale revenue and a likely deluge of support work.

If I was just getting a cool, but little known product off the ground (PixelMator?), it may very well be worthwhile. If I had a major upgrade coming in a few months (Notebook?), then I might be a participant. Acquiring users for the sake of having users is a bad goal. But, getting a product off the ground or building up a reasonable expectation of upgrade revenue is a good goal.

As for the MacHeist share of the pie: I’d focus first on whether my needs in the deal are getting met. Once that’s true, then I’d try to push for what I think is a fair balance between my share and that of MacHeist. But, that is definitely a secondary concern. If MacHeist is providing the best avenue for meeting my business needs, it’s worth the cost. Companies pay $1 million+ for a 30 second spot during the Super Bowl, because they feel that it fits their business needs. The same goes for a marketing opportunity like MacHeist.

That was the long answer. The short answer to whether I would participate in such a promotion is likely “no”, because the cost is too great. Only under the fairly limited set of circumstances above (new unknown product or coming upgrades) would I consider it.