In December 2012, I started a company with my friends Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus. We named it Q Branch. In June 2013, we launched our first and only product: an iPhone notes app called Vesper.
Yesterday, we announced that development was ceasing, and we’ll soon be shutting down our sync server. I am terribly sad about this. I love Vesper. I use it every day. I mean that in the present tense. I still use it. When we pull the plug on the sync server, I’ll stop, but until then it’s my go-to notes app. In my career, the only things I’ve done that I’m prouder of are writing Daring Fireball and the creation of Markdown.
What went wrong was very simple. We never made enough money. Why we didn’t make enough money, what we should have done differently to make more money — those are complex questions (which I’ll tackle below). But what actually sunk Vesper was not complicated. Even as a relatively popular app at a relatively high price (for iOS), revenue was never high enough. Brent took a job at the excellent Omni Group in September 2014, and from that point onward the writing was on the wall. We could have, and probably should have, shut Vesper down a year ago. But we loved it too much. Or at least I did.
When we started at the end of 2012, Brent still had a few months to go working on Glassboard. Dave and I spent that time designing Vesper for iPhone. Our basic plan was:
In hindsight, I am now convinced this plan was fundamentally flawed. The market for paid productivity apps for iOS is simply too difficult. There are exceptions, of course. Fantastical and Tweetbot are two examples from my own iPhone’s first home screen. But paid apps for iOS are the exception. The norm is clearly free apps, with in-app purchases. This is completely clear now, but it should have been clear to me three years ago.
If I could do it all over again, here is what I would do differently. I would start the exact same way, with Dave and me designing Vesper for iPhone. But then, before Brent wrote a single line of code, we would immediately design Vesper for Mac.1 And that’s the product we’d have built and shipped first. There is downward pressure on pricing for Mac apps, but the market is still there for quality apps that cost $20–100 (or more). The plan would have looked like this:
The biggest advantage to this plan would have been that (I think) we’d have made far more money in step 1 than we actually made by doing Vesper for iPhone first. I can’t prove that, of course. I could be wrong. But I’m pretty sure I’m right. That would have made a big difference in terms of having revenue to continue working to turn Vesper into a multi-platform system.
We didn’t know it at the time (and couldn’t have), but this alternate schedule would have also saved us a lot of work. iOS 7 was introduced at WWDC 2013, just a few days after we shipped Vesper 1.0. In many ways, Vesper 1.0’s look and feel was ahead of the iOS 7 curve — Charles Perry wrote a very kind piece calling Vesper 1.0 “the first app for iOS 7”. But it wasn’t. iOS 7’s appearance was so different that even an app like Vesper that was designed with many of the same ideals needed a thorough redesign. So we spent the summer of 2013 not building a sync system, but rather building an iOS 7 version of Vesper. If we had built the Mac app first, we wouldn’t have had to build Vesper for iPhone twice.
iOS 7, in addition to looking all-new, introduced new architectural features like size classes. In the pre-iOS 7 era, building an iPad app was like building a second app. You could bundle it together with the iPhone version in a universal binary, but from a developer’s perspective it was nearly twice the work. If we had started with iOS 7, we might been able to natively support the iPad from day one on iOS, so the actual schedule might have looked like this:
I’m a firm believer that you always need some good luck to succeed. We would have been luckier, timing-wise, if we had done the Mac app first, because we would have been able to build the iOS version for iOS 7 right from the start.
We suffered an enormous chicken-and-the-egg problem with our decision to keep to a small team and self-fund our efforts through revenue from the app itself. A notes app is only of interest to many people if it’s available both on their desktop and mobile device. The number one reason, by a long shot, that people didn’t buy Vesper is because it wasn’t available for the Mac. I get that. It makes total sense. Hell, I even cheat, personally, and run Vesper on my Mac in the iOS Simulator. The bottom line is we needed revenue from the first version we built to fund development of the next version, and I think we would have made money from the Mac version.
Ultimately, what we should have done once we had versions of the app for both Mac and iOS is switch to a subscription model. Make the apps free downloads on all platforms, and charge somewhere around $15/year for sync accounts. That’s where the industry is going. It would have been more sustainable, and on iOS it would have solved the “free” barrier. What most people do when looking for, say, an iPhone notes app, is search the App Store for “notes”, and then start downloading free apps until they find one that seems good enough. There are so many free apps in a category like notes that paid ones — even if they’re just $1 — never get a look. Again, I’m not complaining. That’s just the way the App Store is.
It’s also entirely possible that a notes app was never going to work, financially. That it was a bad idea from the get-go, and no matter how nicely designed the app was, no matter how lovingly well-crafted, no matter what price point we had picked (higher or lower), it wasn’t going to work financially.2 But given how well Vesper did do, I firmly believe it was possible that we could have made it, if we’d done it differently. And I’m convinced the best chance would have been with free Mac and iOS apps and a paid sync service.3
We’ve been asked “Why now?” Why not just let Vesper and Vesper Sync keep going as they are? The biggest factor is that we have recurring costs: primarily, the sync server. We’re losing money every month.
The most common comment I’ve seen since our announcement yesterday is something to the effect of “This is why I wish you had used iCloud instead of rolling your own sync service.” Long story short, we thoroughly investigated iCloud as a sync solution. And in 2013, iCloud just didn’t offer what we needed. I’ve never seen anyone say good things about iCloud Core Data. I know developers who had simply nightmarish experiences with iCloud Core Data. CloudKit wasn’t announced until WWDC 2014, and didn’t ship until later that year. If we were starting today, I’ll bet we’d wind up using CloudKit.
We also wanted to keep our options open for a web-based version of Vesper — or, less likely but still possible, Android or Windows versions. That’s possible in 2016 with CloudKit Web Services, but it wasn’t possible using iCloud in 2013. As delineated above, I have many regrets about Vesper, but creating our own sync system isn’t one. In 2013 it was the right thing to do. (And, I’ll add, Vesper Sync is the best sync system I’ve ever used. It was fast and reliable right from the moment we started testing it internally. I can brag about it because I had nothing to do with it — it was entirely Brent’s work.)
Vesper is now free in the App Store. If you were ever curious about it, but were reluctant to pay, you might as well check it out.
I quoted Brent Simmons yesterday:
I loved working on Vesper. It was one of the great software-making experiences of my life. We’d get on a roll and it was wonderful.
And now it hurts to turn it off, but it’s time.
So short, but so true. I really enjoyed working with Brent and Dave. When we were on a roll I could tell that we were doing good work, and it was fun. I’ve spent the better part of my career working solo. It was great to be on a team. I don’t remember who came up with the names “Q Branch” (I think that was Brent), or “Vesper” (I’m pretty sure that one was Dave), but in both cases, as soon as the name was proposed, the whole team said, Yes, that’s the name. That’s it.
With “Vesper” we were thinking things like beautiful, smart, clever, strong. In the end, the name was more apt than we knew, because it also carries heartbreak. ★
The reason I think we were correct to *design* Vesper for iPhone first, before designing the Mac version, is because mobile is more limited. There are technical constraints and screen real estate constraints. A Mac app can do anything an iOS app can do; the opposite is not true. By designing the iPhone app first, we’d be far more likely to avoid the mistake of adding features in the Mac version that were difficult or impossible to do on iOS. Any app you intend to bring to mobile should be designed for mobile first. ↩︎
It certainly didn’t help Vesper’s chances that Apple put a lot of much-needed love into Apple Notes last year, especially the iOS version. I still have many complaints about Apple Notes, but overall it’s pretty good, both on Mac and iOS. ↩︎︎
If we had gone this route, where people had paid for the first version of Vesper as a paid app and we subsequently switched to a subscription plan and made the apps free downloads, we would have given existing users a free year or two of subscription service. ↩︎︎
I have a few problems with Bloomberg’s report on the upcoming Apple Watch 2, credited to Mark Gurman, Alex Webb, and Scott Moritz. Starting with the headline: “Apple Hits Roadblocks in Cutting Watch Ties to iPhone”.
Apple Inc. has hit roadblocks in making major changes that would connect its Watch to cellular networks and make it less dependent on the iPhone, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The company still plans to announce new watch models this fall boasting improvements to health tracking.
The updated versions will also be able to integrate GPS-based location tracking, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.
The use of present tense in the headline (“hits roadblocks”) instead of past tense (“hit roadblocks”), and “has hit” in the lede makes it sound like these are recent issues. If Apple ever had any hopes of putting cellular networking in the second generation Apple Watch and shipping it this year, those hopes were dashed months ago, if not last year. Hardware has long, long lead times. The lead time for new iPhone hardware is over a year long. I doubt Apple Watch is much shorter. Once the design is set, it takes many months to get the supply chain set up to produce the actual devices in volume.
The only exception I’m aware of — the one time Apple made a last-minute change to a device — was the third-gen iPod Touch in 2009. Rumored to contain a camera, it shipped without one. But as proof that last-minute changes of this sort are highly unusual, teardowns of that iPod clearly revealed a socket where the camera would have gone.
I’d bet my bottom dollar that teardowns of the new Apple Watch will not reveal places where the cellular modem and antenna would have gone.
Ever since its inception, network carriers have been urging Apple to release a version of the watch that can connect to data networks independent of the iPhone, and the Cupertino, California-based company had been working to untether it from the handset, one of the people said. As it is now the watch must be synced with an iPhone to download most types of content and consistently track location.
Since when does Apple take advice from network carriers? And of course Apple is working to add cellular networking to Apple Watch. The question at hand is only whether they had actually hoped to add to this year’s new models. I highly doubt that.
During the discussions, Apple executives expressed concern that the cellular models may not be ready for release this year and that the feature may be pushed back to a later generation, according to the people. Apple warned that, even on an aggressive schedule, the earliest possible shipment time-frame for cellular models would have been this December, one of the people said.
This makes no sense to me. If the best case scenario was shipment in December — the best case — then there would have been no question about it. Cellular would have been postponed for a subsequent generation. The holiday quarter is essential to Apple across all product lines, but it is particularly important to obvious gift items like iPods, a decade ago, and Apple Watch, today. It is highly problematic to ship a holiday quarter item as late as December. Too many people do their gift buying in November and even October. And new Apple items often hit a weeks-long backlog. A three-week backorder for an item that only shipped in December is too late for Christmas. And that’s the best case scenario. Any small glitch would mean the new Apple Watch would miss the holiday quarter entirely. That’s a disaster.
If Apple wanted to ship the second generation Apple Watch this year, it was essential that they be able to begin shipments in October, perhaps as late as the first week of November at the very latest. Anything later than that is too late. Why does Bloomberg have no timeline on when any of these decisions were made? That, to me, would settle the matter on whether this is a disappointment or was the plan all along.
The tone of Bloomberg’s report is that it’s a disappointment, even within Apple, that the new Apple Watches won’t have cellular networking. Consumers may well be disappointed, but within Apple I don’t think there was ever any serious hope that cellular networking would arrive before the third or even fourth generation models.
The whole thing feels to me like Bloomberg wanted to have a story on the new Apple Watch, but the one and only fact they had is the addition of GPS, which has been widely rumored all year. That’s it. So since they couldn’t make a story out of what the new Apple Watch is going to have, they instead spun a story about a feature it almost certainly was never going to have. ★
Nate Silver, “Trump Is Doubling Down on a Losing Strategy”:
So it’s not surprising that Trump has undertaken a major shakeup of his campaign, hiring Bannon and promoting the pollster Kellyanne Conway. Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort has effectively been demoted. But rather than make a much-expected “pivot” toward general election voters — as Manafort had reportedly been pushing for — the new plan is to “let Trump be Trump,” doubling down on the strategies that Trump used to win the nomination, including an emphasis on nationalism, populism and “brutal fights with Clinton”. […]
If you trust the polls, this seems like a fundamental strategic error. Trump is running worse than Mitt Romney among almost all demographic groups; white men without a college degree are the most prominent exception. But there aren’t enough of those men to form a majority or really even to come all that close.
It’s a crazy strategy if his goal is to win the election. But what if Trump doesn’t want to win? Back in March, former Trump strategist Stephanie Cegielski wrote an eye-opening piece for XO Jane, claiming the goal was never to win:
Even Trump’s most trusted advisors didn’t expect him to fare this well.
Almost a year ago, recruited for my public relations and public policy expertise, I sat in Trump Tower being told that the goal was to get The Donald to poll in double digits and come in second in delegate count. That was it.
The Trump camp would have been satisfied to see him polling at 12% and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50%. His candidacy was a protest candidacy.
Even if this is true, I disagree with describing him as a “protest candidate”. He is, fundamentally, a self-promotional candidate. He’s doing it to promote the Trump brand and increase his personal celebrity. His support comes from people who see him as a protest candidate, but Trump himself cares only about Trump, not immigration or Middle East foreign affairs or who’s nominated for the Supreme Court. The evidence is that his positions on those subjects have been all over the map.
I found Cegielski’s bold claim credible right from the start. That could be wishful thinking on my part, because I don’t want him to be president. It’s easy to believe what you want to be true. That’s the sort of thinking that led a lot of Mitt Romney supporters (including Romney himself) to believe that because of “skewing”, Romney was going to beat Obama in 2012 despite the fact that all the major polls showed him losing. The basic idea is that U.S.-based polls are “skewed” in favor of Democratic candidates, and that when “unskewed”, you could see that Romney was actually winning. But there was never any actual evidence that the polls were skewed — Republicans bought into it simply because they wanted it to be true.
But to my mind, Trump’s entire campaign strategy makes more sense in this scenario. I think Trump finds being a candidate for president to be a lot of fun. He loves the big crowds and the sound of his own voice. He loves being on the TV news non-stop, and on the front page of every newspaper, every day. I think he’d find actually being president to be terribly boring. By all accounts, it’s a lot of work, even for presidents like Reagan and George W. Bush, who delegated smaller decisions and seldom concerned themselves with the intricacies of policy details.
[Update: As proof that Trump knows the job itself would bore him, note that The New York Times reported the following:
One day this past May, Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., reached out to a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, who left the presidential race just a few weeks before. As a candidate, Kasich declared in March that Trump was “really not prepared to be president of the United States,” and the following month he took the highly unusual step of coordinating with his rival Senator Ted Cruz in an effort to deny Trump the nomination. But according to the Kasich adviser (who spoke only under the condition that he not be named), Donald Jr. wanted to make him an offer nonetheless: Did he have any interest in being the most powerful vice president in history?
When Kasich’s adviser asked how this would be the case, Donald Jr. explained that his father’s vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy.
Then what, the adviser asked, would Trump be in charge of?
“Making America great again” was the casual reply.
Kasich himself confirmed the phone call in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. That’s an extraordinary offer, but admittedly, not the same thing as not wanting to win the election. It’s certainly on the spectrum, though. I suspect it hinges on cognitive dissonance — Trump doesn’t want to lose (and certainly not in an embarrassing landslide), but also doesn’t want to perform the job of president.]
Michael Moore, writing yesterday for The Huffington Post, claims to know for a fact that Trump doesn’t want to win. He’s only trying to get a better TV deal:
So, on June 16 of last year, he rode down his golden escalator and opened his mouth. With no campaign staff, no 50-state campaign infrastructure — neither of which he needed because, remember, this wasn’t going to be a real campaign — and with no prepared script, he went off the rails at his kick-off press conference, calling Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers” and pledging to build a wall to keep them all out. Jaws in the room were agape. His comments were so offensive, NBC, far from offering him a bigger paycheck, immediately fired him with this terse statement: “Due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants, NBCUniversal is ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump.” NBC said it was also canceling the beauty pageants owned by Trump: Miss USA and Miss Universe. BOOM.
Trump was stunned. So much for the art of the deal. He never expected this, but he stuck to his plan anyway to increase his “value” in the eyes of the other networks by showing them how many millions of Americans wanted Him to be their Leader.
Moore does not reveal his source for this information, but hints that it comes from someone at NBC. Take it with a grain of salt. But it jibes perfectly with Cegielski’s claim that they only wanted to finish second and do a lot of showboating along the way.
Where I’ve struggled with this scenario is Trump’s intended end game. If it’s true Trump doesn’t want to be president, how does he get out of this while saving face? As Nate Silver wrote above, if he wanted to try to win, or least wanted to make the election as close as possible, he’d be campaigning hard to the center. Instead he’s running hard to the right.
What if Trump’s goal, now that he’s the Republican nominee, remains the same as it was a year ago when he announced his candidacy? Not to become president, but to be on TV and make a lot of money doing it. But now, instead of being the star of a show on someone else’s network, he could own a channel of his own. (Or in typical Trump fashion, own a minority stake but put his name all over it.)
Jeet Heer, writing for The New Republic, lays out the case, in the wake of Trump naming “media firebrand” Steve Bannon to run the remainder of his campaign:
But if the Trump campaign is an epic disaster, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In fact, by cementing ties with Breitbart and seeking advice from disgraced former Fox News head Roger Ailes, Trump has sent his strongest signal yet that long-held suspicions about his media-mogul aspirations are true. He’s using the election to develop an intensely loyal audience that occupies a special niche: those who think Fox News is too mainstream. Who better to help him cash in on such an effort than Bannon and Ailes?
The idea that there is sufficient demand for a media outlet to the right of Fox News is extraordinary, but Trump’s sizable minority of supporters suggests that there might be. Fox News is the network of the Republican Party. (Or as Bush speechwriter David Frum remarked in 2010, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”) Trump voters support him not despite the fact that he’s touting ideas that are almost completely contrary to traditional Republican policies; they’re supporting him because his ideas are contrary to traditional Republican policies. It makes sense these same people would be dissatisfied with the traditional Republican news network. There aren’t enough of them to win the Electoral College, but there are more than enough of them to form the audience of a successful media outlet.
In recent months, Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have quietly explored becoming involved with a media holding, either by investing in one or by taking one over, according to a person close to Mr. Trump who was briefed on those discussions.
At a minimum, the campaign’s homestretch offers Mr. Trump, who has begun to limit his national media appearances to conservative outlets, an opportunity to build his audience and steer his followers toward the combative Breitbart site.
(Kushner is publisher of The New York Observer.)
In short, Trump isn’t trying to appeal to more people, which is how you win elections. He’s trying to appeal more to the people who already support him. That’s how you might build an audience for an “alt-right” media company.
The idea that the Republican nominee for president doesn’t actually want to be president is outlandish. But Donald Trump is outlandish. And what I find compelling about this scenario is that it does not imply that Trump is stupid. Here is a short list of adjectives I personally would use to describe Trump: reprehensible, bigoted, reckless, obnoxious, selfish, incurious, under-informed. But one word I wouldn’t use is stupid. Ignorant, yes, but not stupid.
If Trump is trying to win the election, what he’s doing the last few weeks doesn’t make any sense. But if his goal is not to win, then maybe he’s crazy like a fox. A fox with no regard whatsoever for civil discourse, the stability of our republic, or the future of the Republican Party — but a fox nonetheless. ★
Near the end of 2014, Uber co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick flew to Pittsburgh on a mission: to hire dozens of the world’s experts in autonomous vehicles. The city is home to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics department, which has produced many of the biggest names in the newly hot field.
That’s a bit of a whitewashing. What happened is that Uber approached Carnegie Mellon to create a “strategic partnership”. Uber’s strategy, it turned out, was to identify CMU’s best engineers and hire them away. As I wrote at the time, their “partnership” was like that between a fox and a henhouse.
The goal: to replace Uber’s more than 1 million human drivers with robot drivers — as quickly as possible.
The plan seemed audacious, even reckless. And according to most analysts, true self-driving cars are years or decades away. Kalanick begs to differ. “We are going commercial,” he says in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek. “This can’t just be about science.”
Jobs that can be performed by machines eventually will be performed by machines. That’s been the steady march of progress since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But it really is extraordinary for a CEO to flatly declare that he considers the company’s workforce not to be an asset, but rather a stopgap measure he’s committed to eliminate. Say what you want about the politics of his bluntness, but he certainly deserves points for honesty.
Starting later this month, Uber will allow customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon self-driving cars from their phones, crossing an important milestone that no automotive or technology company has yet achieved. Google, widely regarded as the leader in the field, has been testing its fleet for several years, and Tesla Motors offers Autopilot, essentially a souped-up cruise control that drives the car on the highway. Earlier this week, Ford announced plans for an autonomous ride-sharing service. But none of these companies has yet brought a self-driving car-sharing service to market.
Google has certainly generated a lot of publicity regarding its self-driving vehicle efforts, but I am not convinced they’re the “leader in the field”. For one thing, Google’s cars only go 25 MPH. I’ve ridden in a self-driving Mercedes S-class sedan. Not only did it travel at highway speeds, but it didn’t have any obtrusive cameras or sensors. It looked like a regular Mercedes sedan — except for the fact that it had “S 500 Intelligent Drive” painted in large letters on the side of the car. The engineers I spoke with at Mercedes were adamant that even now, while the technology is still in development and years away from production, the cars need to look beautiful. Any sensors that make the car look silly are out of the question.
Perhaps Mercedes is too rooted in tradition in this regard. The first automobiles really did look like “horseless carriages”. Perhaps we’ll soon adapt to self-driving cars equipped with telltale obtrusive sensors. But right now, Mercedes has prototypes on the road that are remarkably close to full autonomy, yet don’t look any different. If Mercedes is correct that customers (or at least Mercedes customers) won’t want to buy self-driving cars that look ungainly, they have a significant leg up on competitors whose sensor arrays protrude. The technology isn’t everything — design matters.
Update: If you disagree — if you think the outward appearance of a self-driving car doesn’t matter, only the comfort and amenities of the interior — I think you’re being shortsighted. If all self-driving cars are ungainly-looking, they’ll still sell. Uber is already buying ungainly-looking self-driving cars. But what happens when a company starts selling good-looking self-driving cars? Cars are status symbols — even cars you don’t own. What else explains the existence of black town cars? A lot of people used to argue that the exterior design of personal computers didn’t matter, either — only the functionality. No one argues that anymore.
For now, Uber’s test cars travel with safety drivers, as common sense and the law dictate. These professionally trained engineers sit with their fingertips on the wheel, ready to take control if the car encounters an unexpected obstacle. A co-pilot, in the front passenger seat, takes notes on a laptop, and everything that happens is recorded by cameras inside and outside the car so that any glitches can be ironed out. Each car is also equipped with a tablet computer in the back seat, designed to tell riders that they’re in an autonomous car and to explain what’s happening. “The goal is to wean us off of having drivers in the car, so we don’t want the public talking to our safety drivers,” Krikorian says.
On a recent weekday test drive, the safety drivers were still an essential part of the experience, as Uber’s autonomous car briefly turned un-autonomous, while crossing the Allegheny River. A chime sounded, a signal to the driver to take the wheel. A second ding a few seconds later indicated that the car was back under computer control. “Bridges are really hard,” Krikorian says. “And there are like 500 bridges in Pittsburgh.”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at the use of the term “self-driving” to describe a car with two employees in the front, ready to take control at a moment’s notice. But the fact that regular people will soon be taking real-world rides where no human takes any control throughout the trip is a genuine milestone. We’re on the cusp of the biggest change to the car industry, ever. ★