Software Sea Change

2,000,000 Strong

Over the week covering this past Christmas Day a piece of software I had contributed to was downloaded two million times.

I’ve been writing Pop Software for my entire professional career. I may be the first to coin the term Pop Software but it’s with the presumption that we all know what I’m talking about – I’ve worked on games and applications targeted at the larger audience rather than businesses or niche products. Admittedly many of these projects had smaller scopes than others but the general principal holds – work with a team to create a piece of software that will be enjoyed by the general public. I have contributed code to hits, misses and to the forgettable wasteland in-between. Granting myself a very generous margin of error the results have laregely been within my expectations.

This particular piece of software continues to defy my expectations – and not just by a little bit but by orders of magnitude. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s worthy of being popular but the sheer scale of its success has been staggering. Before this past December it had already been downloaded over ten million times and has enjoyed an enviable retention rate. Subsequent derivative products have also enjoyed tremendous success. However, my mind finally bent after hearing that it had been downloaded two million times in the space of one week.

I was forced to ask myself a question.

“Who the fuck are these people?”

How the hell does one App get downloaded two million times in the space of one week? To do so it’d have to catch the eye of people you’ve never heard of – like your brother or your girlfriend’s best friend or the dude who made that really cute but slightly awkward heart in your latte the other day. Two million people in the space of a week means we’re talking about exactly that – people. Real honest to God people are downloading software and, importantly, it’s not a big thing for them. It’s what they do when they unwrap their iPod Touch on Christmas Morning. They stick in the headphones, maybe they sync their music to it, and then hit the App Store for some Pop Software to get some amusement out of their new toy.

The people who are consuming software now are a vast superset of the people who used to do so. At one time, especially on the Mac, we’d see people chose software based upon how well it suited their requirements to get a job done. This new generation of software consumers isn’t like that – they’re less likely to shop around for something rather they shop around for anything. These are people who want to be entertained as much as they want to have their requirements met. They’ve not bought into a tool they’ve bought, either financially or emotionally, into The Future. The Future is never about the most practical and useful outcome, it’s about flying cars and cute robots who shit talk but will still mix you up a killer G’n’T when you need it. The Future isn’t a service that’ll send you a text message when you’ve been out too late on a work night, The Future will get you laid on a Tuesday and make excuses to the boss the next morning.

How did applications that make farting noises or make you sound like T-Pain do so well on the App Store? The answer is simple – they made people laugh.

That should have been the first sign that the software market was changing. It’s obvious in retrospect; people were buying software that would make them laugh. This runs counter to the common understanding of an Application. An Application represents the developer’s best effort at creating software that applies the capabilities of the device to solving a specific problem. Making people laugh is not a problem an Application can solve; it’s not about the device it’s about the person using it.

App Store

The thing is these people don’t buy Applications, they download Apps. “Software” is dead, don’t bother putting that word on a sell sheet. Have you written “a program” recently? That’s nice, find a place in line behind all the other nerds but try not to step on the Coke-bottle glasses they tend to drop. “Oh … you’ve developed an application … is it something my doctor would know about”? People, lots and lots of people, people who have no idea what software even is, will download Apps like they’re snacking on potatoe chips. What’s my proof? Well, two million downloads of an App in a week supports that and I’d argue that a total of three billion Apps downloaded backs up my argument too. Also, I spell potatoe with an ‘e’, as God intended, so you know I’m right about this.

“Apps” is fun. It’s fun to say, it sounds unthreatening, it’s a word sufficiently abbreviated that it takes on a life of its own without dragging to the forefront of peoples minds the more sterile and technical sounding “application”. Apps are not Applications – they are their own things. They are smaller. They are more fun. Apps are treats atop your technological sundae. They are not potential time sinks. They are neither burden nor investment. They each represent a nugget of fun, of fleeting amusement. Apps are gobbled up in the millions by people who would never rush so willy nilly to buy desktop software. Apps are Pop Software writ large in blinking neon lights.

Are Apps good business? No, they’re not. From a small developer’s perspective the App Store is a total disaster. If you’re reading this I’ll assume you’re familiar with the complaints developers have with the iPhone OS marketplace. Suffice to say that between a review process that seems arbitrary and a store front that seems insufficiently nuanced quality oriented smaller developers have, by and large, given up on the App Store as a market worth competing in.

Apps, by their very nature, are a hit driven industry. Making hits requires taking risks. Risks cost money. Despite the fact that developing a quality application for iPhone OS is less of an investment than developing an equivalent application for Macintosh there are far more factors out of your control when dealing with the App Store than there are with (what has become traditional) web based downloadable software delivery. As we’ve seen time and again designing a quality application is no guarantee of success on the App Store. That’s not to say that quality isn’t a factor, only that quality alone isn’t going to lead to success.

“Well … that sounds really fucking unfair. Why is that”?

Desktop Publishing Syndrome

The mid to late 80′s saw an abomination arise. An abomination so large that no matter where you hid eventually you would be splattered in its shit. Wave upon wave of fucked up tastelessness washed up upon our shores. It clung to our telephone poles screaming, “Missing dog!!!” in three different fonts, each bolded, at least one with its innards hollowed out. Our dot-matrix printers cried out in pain as pages upon pages were rendered in agonizing pixelated detail, noisily vomiting out reams of daisy-wheel paper destined to adorn the hallway leading to the cafeteria – “School Dance Friday 7PM”!

Publishing had been democratized. It was loud, it was ugly, it was popular and we feared it would never improve.

But it did.

The mid to late 90′s saw an abomination arise. An abomination so large that no matter where you hid eventually you would be splattered in its shit. Wave upon wave of fucked up tastelessness washed up upon our shores. It clung to our Navigator windows screaming, “Under Construction!!!” in three different colours, each bolded, with at least one blinking. Our browsers cried out in pain as pages upon pages were rendered in agonizing animated gif detail, virtually vomiting out reams of star-field backed text – “AltaVista Indexed”!

The Internet had been democratized. It was loud, it was ugly, it was popular and we feared it would never improve.

But it did.

The mid to late 00′s saw an abomination arise. An abomination so large that no matter where you hid eventually you would be splattered in its shit. Wave upon wave of fucked up tastelessness washed up upon our phones. It clung to our oleophobic touch screens screaming, “Tap to Fart!!!” in only one font but with three different gradients, at least one being yellow. Our devices cried out in pain as pages upon pages were rendered in agonizing ineptitude inducing developers to vomit out the question, “how the fuck did this get past review”?!

Software has been democratized. It is loud, it is ugly, it is popular and we fear it will never improve.

But.

Well, we’ll have to wait and see.

Time And Tide Wait For No Man

The Web Dreamtime was only ten years ago. Context. History. A thing is born and it is as dumb as fuck. Give it time and it will grow. Give it more time and it will learn things you never knew. Give it all that you are and it will become even more. Does that mean it will develop into what we want it to be? Probably not – it will be what it will be.

Over the span of one week two million people downloaded one application to their iPhone or iPod Touch devices.

Something has changed. It has changed for good. Has it changed for the better? I’m not yet sure – but I am sure there’s no going back.

best of luck in the new year, Guy