inessential by Brent Simmons

January 2010

Pretend you’re Apple

Say you’re Apple. It’s a few years ago. You make and sell computers.

You see the rise of web apps, and you notice people talking about how desktop apps are done. Desktop apps are done because, with web apps, people can login from anywhere, any machine, and get to their stuff. That’s cool, and you know it’s cool.

You make computers and operating systems, and you think to yourself: “How can I sell computers that are pretty much just web browsers? How is a Mac better than a Dell or a Sony in that case?”

I think the first thing you do is make sure you have a great browser. Faster and better than the competition. And keep at it, don’t let up.

Then you think to yourself: “What if people didn’t have to just use any machine they find? What if they have their computer with them all the time?”

I think you then work on making great laptops, so people actually can have their computer with them most of the time. You make the hardware and OS and software so great that people want these laptops.

Then you think to yourself, “People aren’t carrying their laptops to the grocery store! They don’t always have their computer with them.”

You decide to expand your definition of computer: you make iPhones. And then iPads. You make beautiful hardware and software — you create an experience so new and compelling that people lust for these things.

You open these up to developers, too, and hope a hundred thousand flowers bloom, since that makes these devices all the more valuable.

And it works!

You’ve avoided the bleak future where computers are nothing but web browsers, where user experience is struggling to hit 1995 levels of quality, where all you’re making is a dumb terminal that can show pictures and play video, where you’re back to being the “beleaguered” Apple, whose product is a commodity easily matched, or close enough, by other companies that charge less.

Instead you’re this Apple, the one that reports record sales and profits.

Good job, you!

J.D. Salinger

I’m broken up with the news that Salinger has died.

Mom talks iPad

Adventures in Newfield (my Mom): “Most of the media reports don’t seem to get the new iPad — it’s not about how fast it is, or its lack of a camera or the flash to display video — it’s about using it just about anywhere and not needing a mouse!”

Mom wants one. Me too. :)

Bad Gravity

iPhone apps, and now iPad apps, have always reminded me of what I want Mac apps to be: focused, carefully-designed, with every feature carefully considered and usually thrown out instead of included.

Even more than the iPhone, the iPad will function as a laptop replacement. (Or, you may still have a laptop, but you’ll do more and more work on an iPad.)

I like what I’ve seen so far about iPad app design. It has the virtues of iPhone app design with just enough more space and new features to make doing real work possible. I think this is fantastic.

My concern, though, is that people may think that Mac apps should include every possible feature and preference. The reasoning would be like this: “It’s not an iPad or iPhone. It’s a computer. Therefore it’s for power users. Therefore it should be totally customizable and have every feature anybody might want.”

That would be a big mistake.

My hope, instead, is that Mac users and developers (all developers are users too, by the way) learn even better the virtues of focused, opinionated software that pays attention to experience more than to long feature lists and heavy preference windows. I hope we see even better Mac software.

You might think this is ironic — didn’t I just propose a Mac email app for power users and developers?

I did. But I actually picture an app that is simpler, in many ways, than Mail. No POP or Exchange support, no stationery, no to-dos, no notes. I’d like to see a programmable app, yes, with a design friendly to people who type for a living — but I also want a leaner app.

Here’s the thing about the power users and developers I know: they use a lot of apps. They manage a lot of complexity already. They often have a few powerful apps (Xcode, Photoshop, Final Cut, Excel, whatever) that they use to get their work done.

They’re not sitting around wishing for more complexity. Quite the opposite! But they do wish that some apps fit them better. And in many cases they wish for less complexity.

Too much complexity is for people who want to waste their own time. Who has time for that? Every day means a new world we have to create. Futzing and configuring and confusion — these things don’t help.

Things 1.2.9 likes me

Release Notes - Things Wiki: “Added support for emptying the Trash immediately. Hold down the option key while choosing the ‘Empty Trash…’ menu command.”

Thank you to my long-lost cousin Michael Simmons and the fine folks at Cultured Code for catering to my psychotic computing needs!

I can’t have stuff in the Trash. If I do, then it’s a thing I have to do. So I empty it right away, since it’s easy. But not easy enough — there was a confirmation sheet. Now I can hold down option and bypass the confirmation sheet.

“Well, Brent,” you might ask, “how often do you trash stuff in Things?”

Every time, is the answer. I never mark stuff as done. No. Must get rid of right away. I did a thing, it’s out of my life, good-bye, don’t want no log, don’t want to look back and remember the glory days of five minutes ago when I did that thing.

So I empty the trash after every task I accomplish.

And now it’s friction-free. So happy.

P.S. After so many years of GUI computing, I have yet to adapt to any Trash can thing anywhere. Not in the Finder either. (Especially not there.) I’ve given up any hope that I can change on this matter.

Maybe, I like to reassure myself, it’ll be okay. In the long run.

Letters president

We had three great candidates for the first president of Jonas Wisser, Caio Chassot, and John Gruber.

I thank them all for being willing to lead this thing. It’s no milk run.

In the end, John Gruber got the most votes. Congratulations, John!

I like this tweet: “Shit just got real.”


The earliest reference I can find on the web to my mythical $500 email client is on Gus’s blog from July 2007. It’s been a periodic discussion at the Luau after Xcoders for years.

(Xcoders has a Twitter account, naturally. Check out the awesome artwork that Brad Ellis did for it. Also note that Brad’s employer RogueSheep won another award for Postage.)

Letters (email app) update

Letters (or, for the suffixophiliacs in the audience) is the name of the email client that was kicked off in my Email init post.

That was Saturday. I’m writing this Monday night, many hundreds of emails later. It turns out that lots of people are not only interested in a new email client, they’re willing to work on it. Way more than I expected or even hoped for.

Though I’m usually not a fan of bringing voting anywhere near software, there are exceptions — and voting on a leader for an open source project is one of them, at least in this case. We start voting Tuesday at noon Pacific, and voting ends 24 hours later. Then we’ll have a leader, and this thing will be off-and-running.

I’ve been using the title President rather than leader, to emphasize the election thing and also imply a term limitation. The president’s job is to ship the next major release. The first president will ship 1.0. This keeps the job product-focused rather than time-focused.

The name Letters is courtesy Caio Chassot — @kch on Twitter. Great name, I think. It was adopted quickly and without disagreement.

There is an @lettersapp Twitter account you can follow. We registered as well, but nothing is set up there yet.

Once we have a president, I’ll announce it on the mailing list and on this weblog, then turn over the Twitter account and to that person.

And then you can expect to hear more from him or her as work continues.

Email init

We need to talk about email clients.

I’ve been joking for years that I’m going to write an email client and charge $500 for it — an email client that actually meets the needs of developers and professionals who rely on email, folks who type for a living.

But I’m not going to, and I don’t know anybody who is. The economics of it make it kind of tough, given that Apple ships a good email client with OS X.

Nevertheless, we need that email client. The only way to get there is via open source: there might be enough interest and energy in the community to make it happen.

I am not volunteering to lead it. I may not even be able to contribute. But I can at least kick off a conversation about feasibility and interest and scope.

I’ve set up an email-init mailing list: if you’re interested in talking about it, you can sign up.

The first steps are to define what we’re talking about and find out who may be able to contribute. We’ll need a benevolent dictator (I have some ideas in mind, but that’s a lot to ask of somebody).

A couple obvious things to start:

  • It should be a Cocoa app.

  • It should just do IMAP. (Not POP or Exchange.)

The app would need not just coders but testers, designers, documentation writers, bloggers, at least one project manager, and so on. It would need a bug tracker. Repository. Wiki. Website. It will need a name. (I started a Twitter account, which I’ll turn over to whoever leads this once we know who that person is.)

My thinking is that these days, by the year 2010, we’ve learned not to get bogged down in process discussions and things can move quickly. (The goal is to create software, after all.)

The only thing to do is start. It might fizzle out in a couple hours. Or it might lead to that email client we all want.

And, to be totally clear: this is not my thing. I just want the software.

It’s a big job, I know. But our tools have gotten very good and we have a talented and energetic community. I know we can do it.

Scary moment

My iPhone developer and distribution certificates were going to expire in two days. But right now, tonight, was a good time to renew them, given my plans for the next couple days.

Well I couldn’t figure it out. There’s nothing about renewing. That I could find anyway.

Finally, the only thing left to do was click the scary Revoke button. The idea being that I could revoke the current certificates and then I’d be able to upload my certificate signing requests and get new ones. (I saved my signing requests from last year.)

But, really, Revoke? I’m going to click that? Are you insane?

Will the Revoke button ban me forever? End my career as an iPhone developer? Will I have to go back to busing tables?

Will I be a broken-down drunk a month from now, remembering every night when I clicked that damn Revoke button, bothering everyone in the bar for free drinks and a chance to tell my story of how I used to be on the inside?

“I could write code, man, for iPhones, I used to be somebody, and then I made a mistake on the program portal, just a little mistake. It said revoke, I know, I know, why oh why did I ever click that thing? Well. I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a whiskey today.”

I thought of all that, then screwed my courage to the sticking-place, cranked up the Pogues, and clicked.

You still there? Am I still here?

Notes in no good order about success, part 1

The only class I ever stayed awake for was AP English. On the first day our teacher Mary Starita said:

There’s no such thing as going too far. If I ever hear anyone in here say that something goes too far I’ll toss them out of the room.

That fixed my soul.

My plan was to be the next Hemingway (with dashes of Fitzgerald, Salinger, and Vonnegut) — but modern, and me. It was 1986, not 1928, and I was me.

But semi-rural Maryland, just outside the college town of Newark, Delaware, didn’t look or feel like the kind of place for boldness of any kind. Everything strongly-said was out-of-place; every bendy vision that didn’t include cows and cul-de-sacs and normal behavior got put back straight by a sneer or, worse, someone feeling sorry for you.

But Starita — little star — was the first person to say out loud to me what I’d been waiting for, what I’d needed. I’ll be grateful forever for that permission. I didn’t have to care about cows anymore — or, if I wanted, I could turn them into aliens or dinosaurs or, or, cows, which, when you really look, are pretty goddamn weird.

Transformed in his bed

Billy Pinder was my sadistic pleasure. He was the one guy in school who wore a blazer and sometimes even a tie. He was in AP English but planned to attend business school.

Billy preferred a literal reading of everything. Metaphor wasn’t his cup of fur. And he didn’t like anything that wasn’t realistic.

So pretty early on we read The Metamorphosis by Kafka, which begins (in one English translation):

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

(Not a cockroach: some kind of gross beetle, though probably not a dung beetle.)

In the second paragraph was this important line: It was no dream.

Well, you know it: poor Billy was trapped, and I toyed with him. I made him answer questions.

Was he really a big insect, Billy? No, said Billy.

But, Billy, it said it was no dream.

Well, said Billy, you can’t just wake up as a giant bug.

Billy, are you saying it’s a metaphor or symbolic somehow? Or that it really was a dream even though it literally says it’s not?

It reminded me of those old Star Treks where Kirk would say something illogical to the evil planetary computer, which would then explode.

What I learned from Billy

Billy was kind of right, in a way, to prefer sticking with literal readings. (He just should’ve stuck to his guns even when the going got unreal.)

After all, The Metamorphosis as metaphor for life in Prague as a clerk with a crappy family is pretty boring. As religious allegory, even upside-down, it just becomes a pretty easy puzzle that satisfies nobody and explains nothing of the power of the story.

Once you accept the premise — and you have to, to get past the first sentence — the story is told entirely realistically. You believe this guy turned into an insect, and you believe his reactions and how his family behaves. You believe in his bed and the room he’s stuck in.

And you believe it when things go from monstrously bad to worse to even worse.

In other words, it’s a thrill ride, and I love that story.

On going too far

Had Kafka written about a guy who felt a little beetle-like or unloved or isolated at times, well, we’d never have heard of him. Yawnz Yawnka.

No matter what made Kafka start thinking about his character, Kafka turned him into a beetle. And he started there. He started where other writers wouldn’t even end up. And wrote a great story.

I can’t explain what makes this story light fires in my head any better than I can explain why Gregor Samsa woke up that way.

It seems so transparent — it’s very real — and yet you can’t get in there and figure out why for any of it. It’s opaque.

Which makes it more real, as obviously unreal as it is — it’s more like real life, which is not written with any schema of symbols or planned-out metaphors: in real life there are no clues for AP English students to get taught.

Real life is more like the imagination of The Metamorphosis than it is like any thousand “realistic” stories where something represents something and something means something.

You know what I’m talking about, right? “See, the bear represents their dead father, who is an archetype of ohgodshootmenow…”

No, the bear is a big smelly mammal with sharp claws who doesn’t care what you care about.


All of the above was just meant to be a brief introduction to some notes for software makers. And I haven’t even made it to Othello (or Iago, as I prefer to think of it) yet. So I’ll call this part one, post it, and pick it up later.


One of the reasons Walker rocks: on a panel at CES he said, essentially, that if you’re not on the iPhone you don’t exist.

I totally agree. I — and many others — have said the same thing about the web, and then about blogs. And now it’s true of iPhone.

(Walker is the GM at NewsGator in charge of media and consumer stuff: TapLynx, NetNewsWire, API clients, widgets, and so on.)

It makes me think back to when I first came to NewsGator: I was the Mac user. The one.

Then more people started using Macs — and then the iPhone came along, and lots of people got iPhones. That was like magic, watching Apple products get in the company.

And now? Walker Fenton appears at CES, talking about iPhone apps. I totally love it.