On Beta Testing

Craig Hockenberry tweets:

Something that hasn’t been written about Vesper: it had the best beta test I’ve ever been a part of.

We used Glassboard, which worked very nicely for discussion. I knew it would work because we had used Glassboard to beta-test Glassboard.

The greatest beta testing group I’ve ever been a part of was the NetNewsWire beta mailing list. It was a discussion mailing list originally hosted at notabug.com (which breaks my heart to remember), and later at ranchero.com.

It had a couple dozen pretty active people and a few dozen more who didn’t post quite as often. What I would do is post super-early builds — not even betas, not even alphas, but development builds right off my machine — and we’d talk over everything.

Not just bugs but every detail large and small, every idea, every feature request, every aspect of design and behavior. Even though NetNewsWire was my thing, it was very much a collaboration with a great bunch of people. That collaboration played a major role in the quality and success of the app. I’ve thanked those people and thank them again.

From the outside it may not have looked like it, but development of NetNewsWire was always a very social experience. (Same with MarsEdit.)

And the thing I miss most about NetNewsWire is that mailing list.

* * *

This style of beta testing isn’t something I just accidentally fell into. It came from the mid-’90s. UserLand had just released Frontier’s free “Aretha” version, and there was a mailing list for people using Aretha.

I’d never been a part of anything like that. There were all these people talking about everything about the app. It was collegial and interesting and fun — and Dave Winer, the developer, was so open about everything, and he listened. It seemed like a miracle to me that such a thing could exist. I loved it. I’d been waiting all my life for such a thing, for a community like this.

I threw myself into it, then ended up working with Dave informally on some small projects, and later took a job at UserLand (which was my dream job, for sure).

(Another great mailing list at the time was Chuck Shotton’s list for MacHTTP, later named WebSTAR. I was an enthusiastic, though not at all accomplished, developer of WebSTAR plugins. I made $0 on my plugins! But I loved writing them.)

When my time at UserLand ended in 2002, and I started working on NetNewsWire, one of the first things I did was start a new mailing list, and some of my friends from the Frontier community joined me on the NetNewsWire list, and they formed the seed and the backbone of the NetNewsWire mailing list.

It might seem funny to think of beta lists as having children and grandchildren, but the NetNewsWire list was very much the child of the Frontier list, and the Glassboard and Vesper lists were the grandchildren.

* * *

Anyway: that’s how you do beta testing. Get good people and let them talk things over. And listen.

* * *

One of the rules I’ve used — which I probably got from Dave — is not to argue with “I bet lots of people are like me and want feature X,” but instead say why you specifically want feature X, or why you’d prefer some behavior or design change.

In other words: instead of just asserting that a thing would be better or more popular if done a different way, tell a story with details.

Maybe that’s not right for every beta test, but that’s what works for me. I like stories. A single person can convince me with a good story. Voting is not necessary or desired.

Why Vesper Didn’t Start as a Web App

Some people — people I respect — have asked why we didn’t make Vesper a web app from the start.

Or: why not make it a web app now? Surely it would be cheaper to run, and you wouldn’t have to worry about syncing or about keeping up with changes to iOS.

Well, we did want to do a web app. We worked with Alex King, who got pretty far along on the design. In those days there was no Apple-provided syncing system with web services (there is now), so we wrote our own sync system in part because we wanted to make a web app.

And: all three of us love the web. We have blogs and podcasts and videos on the web. My longest-running “product” is this very site — it’s 17 years old, and of everything I’ve ever done it’s the thing I’m most proud of.

But we didn’t get together to make web apps. We love making iOS and Mac apps, and we don’t love making web apps. We’d do it, but it’s not our passion. (Well, we would have had Alex King’s team do it, actually.)

There’s a difference between loving the web and loving making web apps.

Way back in 2002 I wrote Why I Develop for Mac OS X — it’s because of what Joel Spolsky called an “emotional appeal.” I wrote:

But to me it’s the difference between an empty night sky and a night sky with all the stars shining and a big, bright bella luna. “Emotional appeal?” Oh yes indeed. And I don’t apologize for that for one second.

It’s still true, 14 years later. And it’s why Vesper didn’t start as a web app, and why we’re not converting it now.

More Notes on Vesper

This is the first time I’ve ever shut down an app. In the past I’ve sold my apps (MarsEdit, TapLynx, Glassboard, NetNewsWire) — and two of those are still going. (I’m writing this post — like all my posts — in MarsEdit.)

* * *

We never debated about providing an Export feature — not only was it the obvious right thing to do, it was a feature we’d planned to do regardless.

Initially I thought we’d do it as a web app. You’d kick off an export, then the web app would create a zip file and send you email later so you could download it.

We didn’t do it this way because it sounded like a real pain to write, and, more importantly, it didn’t do anything for people who didn’t use syncing.

The iOS document provider feature — which was introduced after Vesper shipped (it was originally an iOS 6 app) — was just what we needed. It meant we could write the notes and pictures as files in a folder, and then a document provider could upload those files to iCloud Drive, Dropbox, or wherever.

Perfect. It works whether you’re syncing or not — it has nothing to do with syncing.

And it will continue to work even after sync shuts down. It will continue to work as long as you have the app on your device.

* * *

We decided to make it so that new users can’t sign up for syncing, since it’s going away. And, since a new user can’t sync, we can’t really ask them to pay for the app, either — so we made it free.

Consider the alternative: we allow new sync users, and we continue to charge for the app. Some people would buy it the same day we shut down syncing. That’s not good.

Since it’s free, it will probably get more downloads in the next few weeks than it’s had in its entire life.

* * *

Some people have asked that we make it open source. The request is getting serious consideration, but I can’t make any promises.

The code is all Objective-C. It’s an iOS 6 app with just enough changes to keep it working on iOS 7 and beyond. It knows nothing about size classes, presentation controllers, and so on. Doesn’t even use auto layout. It’s not an example of how you’d write an app these days.

* * *

Belief inside Q Branch: if we had started with a Mac app rather than an iOS app, Vesper would have been much more successful. That wasn’t clear at the time we started, though (Dec. 2012).

* * *

This is the last app on the App Store where I wrote all (or almost all) of the code. Odds are excellent that there will never be another app written largely by me on any app store.

(Yes, my day-job-apps are on the app stores, but they’re written by a team.)

I’m working on new stuff from Ranchero Software. I had planned two apps, but I think it’s going to be just one, just because two takes too much time. So I picked the one I’m more passionate about.

It’s a Mac app, because I’m a Mac developer at heart, and it won’t be on the Mac App Store because I prefer the freedom of shipping instantly, without any large corporation’s bureaucracy slowing things down and holding veto power.

And then that will be my app. The thing I work on for the next 10 or so years, until I retire. That’s the plan. (To be clear, though, I don’t plan to leave my day job, which I love.)

When will it ship? I don’t have a date. I don’t know.

Last Vesper Update, Sync Shutting Down

We at Q Branch just released the final version of Vesper. It does one crucial thing: it allows you to export your notes and pictures. See the new Export section in the sidebar.

Sync will be turned off Aug. 30 at 8pm Pacific. We’ll destroy all the data, and neither we nor anyone else will be able to recover it.

The app will be removed from the App Store on Sep. 15. Until then, starting now, it’s free — since you can’t create new sync accounts, and it wouldn’t be fair to charge new users if they can’t sync.

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.

To everyone who used the app: thank you so much.

Radical Infantile Terrorism

We can’t just keep letting babies into the country. We can’t, or we won’t have a country. Won’t have a country. We have to get smart, people.

No country in history has ever been ripped off like this. We’re going to build a giant condom and make them pay! A giant, beautiful condom — oh, so beautiful — and so big.

That baby had no right to stand there and viciously attack me. Even CNN — who won’t interview me, which is fine, which is fine, believe me — well it’s disgraceful — even CNN, which I guarantee you will be out of business in three years because they won’t interview me — fine — says it was vicious. So, so vicious. Can’t I respond?

This is what’s wrong with our country — which, by the way, we won’t have anymore. People who’ve seen the plans for the condom — wonderful people, so wonderful, people who support Trump, who by the way is going to win big in November — say it’s beautiful. They say they’ve never seen anything like it in the history of the world. Believe me.

I’m a builder, so I think I know a few things about building things, okay? It will be big, and beautiful, and we’ll have a country again. We’ll make America great again.

Oh, I miss the old days. Remember the old days? We used to know what to do with babies. But now you can’t even say it, right? You can’t even talk that way anymore. We’re so politically correct.

I was always against the babies. Hillary Clinton had a baby! Do you know where babies come from? Don’t ask. It’s disgusting. Disgusting.

Where is that baby now? She won’t tell you. Crooked Hillary is hiding that baby. I’m not saying, I’m just saying, is she hiding something? You tell me.

In the old days we used to know what to do with babies that won’t even speak English, which by the law is the law of our country.

[Trump points to man in crowd.] Sir? That’s right sir — we’d carry them out. Carry them out! [Crowd chants “carry them out!”]

It’s sad, it’s so sad. We have to get smart, and tough, and babies aren’t tough. I know tough guys, and babies aren’t tough.

After we build that giant, beautiful condom, and make them pay for it — which, by the way, will be so easy, so easy — we’ll build a big, beautiful boob and make them pay for that too. So beautiful.

[Crowd chants “giant boob!”]

In Ryan’s Shoes

I try to imagine what I would do were I Paul Ryan. I think and hope that I would un-endorse Trump. It’s obvious by now that a Trump presidency would be a calamity.

The cost of un-endorsing Trump might be the end of Ryan’s political career. He’d make more money in the private sector, sure, and he could probably still work on policy, but as a private citizen. Plenty of people do.

He’d lose an awful lot of power, though. I don’t think he’s in it for power alone — I think he’s in it for the power to turn his policies into law. Which is totally fine. Which is how it should be. (It’s not true of every politician, I grant, but I believe it’s true for Ryan.)

That’s a big thing to lose. He believes his policies will help the American people, and that the policies of Democrats (and some other Republicans) will hurt. I may disagree, but I respect it.

But here’s the thing: Trump is already hurting our country. Continuing to endorse him — no matter how tepidly, no matter how leavened with criticism — makes Ryan complicit in this harm.

Americans need to believe that the leaders of both parties are patriots first and party loyalists second. I’m sure Ryan knows this.

His un-endorsement may not hurt Trump. It may even help him. But there are times to think tactically and times — like now — to just do the right thing, the selfless thing, and be a hero.

Sound Off Round 4: Live-Captioning Open Source & Feelings

From Sound Off:

Open Source & Feelings has a thorough and unambiguous code of conduct, one of the best diversity statements we’ve seen from a conference, and an about page with everything from venue accessibility, to public transit, to tips about keeping safe while traveling to and from the conference. Everything about Open Source & Feelings communicates thoughtfulness, deliberateness, and listening to feedback.

Donate now to help out this good cause.

Sound Off board member Ashley Nelson-Hornstein explains how live-captioning is useful for all physically-present attendees, not just for people you’d expect to need the help.

It’s also worth remembering that accessibility issues aren’t just something for a small percentage of the population.

Everybody has — or will have, if they live long enough — something they need help with. I have increasing trouble hearing, and live-captioning would certainly help me, and maybe you too.

Straight up: help make sure everyone can participate.

PS The conference will be here in Seattle, at Seattle Central College. I was on the college newspaper there, in moons past.

My Rules for Mutable Foundation Collection Objects

I have some simple rules that I always follow when dealing with mutable Foundation collection objects (plus mutable strings) in my Objective-C code.

Construction

I often use a mutable collection object when constructing a thing — array, dictionary, set, or string — and then pass it somewhere else.

Once it’s passed, ownership is relinquished. The construction code never continues to hold a reference to the thing it made.

Wherever that thing goes it’s treated as immutable (whether or not it really is).

No mutable collection objects in APIs

In my .h files, under no circumstances are properties or parameters allowed to be mutable collection objects.

(Or, well, it’s extremely rare. There could be a utility API that takes a mutable thing, but that API does some kind of work that doesn’t retain that collection, so it can’t mutate it later on.)

Mutable collection objects are internal to a .m file

An object may use mutable collection objects internally, but those aren’t allowed to escape the .m file they live in. There’s no chance, then, that one of these could be mutated without its owner knowing about it.

* * *

By following these rules — which, after all these years, I do without even having to think — I never run into an issue where I’ve passed a mutable array (or whatever) to another object, then held on that array and mutated it. It just can’t happen.

But, really, whatever — these days I write Swift code instead.

Copy vs. Strong NSArray Properties

At work this morning I added a property to an Objective-C object that looked something like this:

@property (nonatomic, strong) NSArray *someArray;

And then it was suggested to me that copy would be better than strong in this case.

I have nothing against copy — but with an immutable array, is that really necessary? The array can’t change, so why copy it?

Well… that’s not strictly true. A caller could use an NSMutableArray — which would be perfectly valid — but then hold on that array and mutate it later on, which would be dumb.

So I ask: who would write code like that?

It’s not a class of mistake that I personally make. (I’ve internalized this so completely from years of writing Objective-C. I do make other classes of mistakes, of course.)

And then I think “Who would write code like that?” is the wrong question. The real question is, “Why wouldn’t I write code that minimizes the effect of a possible mistake?”

(Or even not a mistake. It could be entirely legitimate that the caller has a mutable array that it holds on to and mutates later on.)

* * *

This makes me wonder about the difference between code I write for myself and code I write as part of a team. Since I know that I wouldn’t make this particular mistake, I can safely use strong instead of copy in my own code.

But, really — sharp right turn here; buckle up! — doesn’t it make me wish everything was already in Swift, so we’d have the safer behavior automatically?

Yes. Yes it does.

My personal projects are mostly in Swift — converted to Swift 3 already — but, for obvious reasons, at work we often write new code in Swift but still have a large Objective-C codebase.

What I don’t need in life — because it adds complexity, and I don’t have time for that — is three separate coding styles: Swift, my Objective-C, and work Objective-C.

The only one I can get rid of is “my Objective-C.”

Okey-doke.

So Merlin Says to Me…

I saw Merlin Mann before the Talk Show last Tuesday, and he thanked me for letting him play in my internet treehouse.

I completely misunderstood. He was talking about a small and specific thing (I realized later) — while I thought, at the time, he was doing a thing Merlin would do, which is to thank a software developer for helping to build up the world of blogs and podcasts where Merlin does, indeed, get to play (and be awesome at it).

(What you don’t know about Merlin — or maybe you do — is that he’s one of the best at liking people. It’s creativity and Jonathan-Winters-meets-James-Joyce — but mainly effort and empathy. So he would say what I thought he said.)

Anyway, my answer didn’t make any sense, surely, when I said, “We built it all for you.”

(Because he’s thinking of this one small thing and I’m thinking of the web.)

But it struck me that, as a reply to what I thought he said, it was absolutely correct. We — and I mean me and many thousands of people like me — worked hard to make the decentralized web, the web of blogs and podcasts, a place where all the Merlins would thrive.

Blogs are the Pad Thai, the rib-eye steak, the bowls of spaghetti of the web. Podcasts are the mashed potatoes, the tacos, and the hummous. You could get by for a little while with Skittles (Twitter) and peanut butter cups (Facebook) — but eventually you need something more filling, something you can sit down with and take your time.

* * *

I realize that decentralized-web fanatics are often looked at as if we’re the Libertarians of the web. Or the crazy-conspiracy-theorist-uncles. Or as if we’re stuck, sadly, in a rosy past and we won’t move on.

Think whatever you will. But wonder if, if all this goes away, could there be any more Merlins.

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