Retreat, rethink, regroup, relaunch

(or: The year when my app was #2 in the Productivity category on Mac App Store but I didn’t know what to do)

I’m not American so I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact details of Thanksgiving protocol, but the basic idea seems good enough that it could be a worthwhile cultural export (like what has happened with Halloween). As the year draws to a close, it’s too easy to let one’s mind linger on all the things that didn’t really work out. Why not take a day to sit back, forget regret and think of all the things that are worth thanking for?

I ought to give thanks for all that has happened this year, even if’s not been all roses. My last update on this blog was in January… As the lack of updates suggests, I’ve been going through some turmoil. The things I was doing in early 2013 simply were not taking off. I spent a lot of time on relaunching PixelConduit, improving Radi and building up a multimedia publishing service called See.io which – so I hoped – would provide an avenue for monetizing Radi.

These efforts didn’t reach many people, and soon I reached the end of my runway as an entrepreneur. After being on my own since 2005, that was a bitter pill to swallow. Luckily it’s not difficult to find employment as a programmer, so at least my family didn’t have to suffer for my financial troubles.

PixelConduit is not gaining many new users, but I’m deeply thankful for the hardcore users that find it a useful tool in their work and often tell me about it. The best part of this job has been the feeling that I’m making something that can meaningfully improve other people’s creative output. For me, that’s the best kind of fulfillment I’ve ever been able to derive from work.

I’m working on open-sourcing most of PixelConduit. I’ve already released a few of the core libraries (see my GitHub page), and more is coming. A big chunk of code is the Conduit Effect System, which is also some of the oldest code. (There are 2002 copyrights in there!) While cleaning it up for release, I’ve also thought about ways I could package it in such a way that it would become more useful to other projects. Cross-platform support is one of the things that I’d like to have working right out of the gate. Windows has been supported in Conduit for a long time, and that’s going to be in the open source version as well. There is also an iOS rendering backend, but it’s out of date. That’s something I want to fix, because the Conduit Effect System could be quite useful for iOS apps.

Another project I released this year was Presentable, a presentation app with unique web integration – you can use live, full-motion web pages as slides. It’s actually something that was primarily driven by the need for closure. I’d had the project kicking around on my hard drive in half-finished form for a long time, and when I had to wind down my personal work, I wanted to polish it up and get it out there instead of letting the app be completely buried. Slight despair is sometimes an effective motivation for getting lots of work done…

To release Presentable, I tried two quite different app stores: Leap Motion’s Airspace and Apple’s Mac App Store. The app was released for free, partly because I was feeling unsure about asking money for it given my personal circumstances, and partly because it seems like the kind of app that would benefit from a more refined monetization strategy than simply selling it for 10 bucks or whatever.

Leap Motion’s Airspace (app link) was not the right kind of channel for this product, but I didn’t quite know that beforehand as I developed the Leap-enabled version for their store before the device launched. Once it did launch, it turned out that Leap Motion users were not very interested in productivity apps, and they also had unrealistic expectations of the gesture control device’s performance. Thus a new kind of presentation app, one which has a bit of learning curve and requires you to do most of the work with the mouse, went over like a lead balloon. That was probably to be anticipated, but I was too enchanted with notions of waving hands in the air to zoom on slides and being featured on a brand new app store to see that…

The Mac App Store release of Presentable (app link) in September was more successful. The app was featured by Apple in the store’s New & Noteworthy section, which netted Presentable over a thousand downloads per day while the placement lasted. I suspect that most users just picked it up since it’s free and haven’t really used it for anything, but I can’t tell for sure because I forgot to include any kind of analytics in the app…! (Shows how little I was thinking beyond release.)

Screenshot of Top Free apps list in Mac App Store

My 5 minutes of fame: Presentable was briefly #2 in the Productivity category on the Mac App Store.

I did get excellent feedback and bug reports from several users, and for that I’m very grateful. I’ve done my best to improve the app although my time has been seriously limited. Also, there is a quite embarrassing import-related bug on OS X Mavericks; the fix is still pending, over a month after the Mavericks release. I’m thankful for the patience of Presentable users – the fix is coming, I assure you!

Long term, I don’t know where Presentable is heading. I had essentially no plan and no ideas about monetization going into this release – I was basically looking for closure, and that kind of thinking doesn’t lead to solid long-term planning. Now that it’s out there, it seems to be useful to people, but I still don’t know what the “big picture” plan could be… Maybe someone else with more vision could pick it up and take it to new places? I feel that there is strong potential for integration with some kind of web service. If you think of Presentable as an advanced special-purpose browser, it opens up all sorts of ideas – at least to me. (If you feel the same way and you’d like to do something with Presentable, don’t hesitate to get in touch!)

Finally, there’s my personal white whale, the Radi project. I had big hopes for finishing Radi in 2013, but it fell into disarray once I realized that my idea of integrating a web multimedia publishing service into the app just wasn’t going to work – not for any technical reason, but simply because it wasn’t something that people wanted. I realized that I didn’t know Radi’s users and potential customers all that well. At that point, I had sunk lots of hours and some money into the service (which I called See.io because I had that domain already). That setback left me without a clear direction of where Radi was going, and so it’s been without an update since April.

I’m happy to say I’ve finally got a grip on it, although it’s more like a pivot. I’m taking the good stuff in Radi and building a new design app that specifically targets mobile user interfaces. I’ve got new editing concepts in the works that make it possible to do dynamic layouts for various screen sizes and to create interactive mobile experiences without coding a single line. It’s even better than that, as the tool actually does the coding for you: it outputs native iOS and Android code that integrates neatly into existing projects, so it’s useful to both designers and programmers.

This new app is called Neonto Studio. There’s a little teaser site up at neonto.com – have a look!

I’m hoping to find a co-founder for Neonto. I’ve still got that entrepreneurial spark burning strong, but I’ve definitely had enough of working on my own… If you are interested in creating the future of mobile app interfaces, why not get in touch? If we share a vision, who knows, maybe we could also share a company.

That was my 2013. Some lukewarm failures, some outright flops, some hint of modest success on a product without any kind of direction… But also new energy and much hope for 2014.

If there’s anything I’ve learned, or rather re-learned, it’s that I’m doing this stuff for users. When strangers around the world spend their time to experiment with a piece of software I made, that’s something to be thankful for. The technology world would be much less interesting without that kind of curiosity – probably we’d all be IBM customers, typing away on a green-and-black terminal connected to a mainframe somewhere… In a modest way, software is an expression of liberty, and I want to be part of that.

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