inessential by Brent Simmons

For the entire 20 years of inessential.com, I’ve been in the same house, at the same desk, with even the same keyboard.

Happy 20th to This Blog!

Today is my blog’s 20th birthday!

It started like this: at the time I was working at UserLand Software on a blogging app called Manila, and this was my own personal Manila blog. It’s gone through a few other engines since then. (These days it’s rendered — as a static site — by some Ruby scripts.)

* * *

It‘s tempting to think that The Thing of my career has been NetNewsWire. And that’s kinda true. But the thing I’ve done the longest, love the most, and am most proud of is this blog.

* * *

The original tagline was “You don’t need to be here.”

The name inessential sounds like a low self-esteem thing. It’s not. It was named for the idea that literature is inessential. Without it, people would still go on fucking and fighting and grocery shopping.

In other words, the name comes from huge and unwarranted self-esteem, as if my blog would be the first to be literature. Sheesh! Now I laugh at myself. What arrogance!

I hope I’ve matured, at least a little, since then. But I keep the name, because nowadays that’s just its name.

* * *

Old proverb: “The best time to start a blog is 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.” :)

This Feature Should Be Easy

From time to time people note, in feature requests, that a particular feature should be easy, and they’re surprised it hasn’t been done yet. Sometimes they even say that it’s so elementary that they really consider it a bug that it hasn’t been done yet. Especially given how easy it is.

I’ve written about this before. See Bug Guilt Trips from 2003 and Anatomy of a Feature from 2009.

A feature is pretty much never as easy as it seems. The main function of a feature — whether that’s making a https call to a read-it-later service or adding some fairly simple new view — is often the easiest part.

It’s everything around the feature that makes it harder: UI design, localization, refactoring, accessibility, state restoration, getting new artwork (for a toolbar button, for instance), dealing with errors, testing, updating the documentation, etc.

And then you still have to schedule it: as important as a feature request is, there might be others with a higher priority, and resources are always limited. Doesn’t matter who you are.

* * *

When you get developers alone, and you make a joke like “Why don’t you just…” or “I bet you could do this in an afternoon…”, they all laugh, because they’ve all heard this.

I most definitely do not want to discourage people from making feature requests, whether for my app or anybody else’s app. Please make feature requests! And report bugs!

But I would ask that you try not to call something easy. The developer of that app will have a pretty good idea of the requirements and the level of effort, and it’s never as simple as it looks on the surface. And they also have a good idea of what needs to happen, for various reasons, before work starts on that feature.

Amateurs

One thing I’m weirdly proud of is my position as an amateur programmer.

When I point that out, people say, “Well, but…” — and I know where they’re going, that after 25 years of professional experience I’m not what you think of when you think of “amateur.”

And yet, it’s still true. It’s just that I’ve come out the other side, and now I get to work on exactly what I want to, the way I want to, without any thoughts of trying to make money at it.

I can take risks! I can work with anybody who shows up! It’s a pure thrill. It’s like writing single-malt apps.

And I would wish for more people to find themselves in this position — eventually, anyway — because I want to see what they would make.

PS The Dictionary app on my Mac says of the origin of the word “amateur”:

late 18th century: from French, from Italian amatore, from Latin amator ‘lover’, from amare ‘to love’.

Spot-on.

You Choose: Follow-Up

It came to my attention after writing my blog post about how we choose the web we want that the pessimism is about not being able to make a living from blogging.

Here’s my followup: I don’t care. Bite me.

ETAs: Follow-Up

Some people took my post No ETAs as if I were arguing against doing software estimates of any kind, ever.

I didn’t actually mean that. If your boss, project manager, or person you’re contracting with asks for an estimate, do your best to come up with something accurate. If you’re writing enterprise software, you may even be contractually bound to provide estimates for when features will ship.

There are ways to get pretty good at this. Pay attention to history and avoid wishful thinking. Don’t assume perfect productivity. Allow for the unexpected, because there’s always something.

What I’m talking about is the case where you’re writing a consumer-facing app — something that would get published on an app store, for instance — and customers or potential customers ask about an ETA for a given feature. Don’t do it! (For the reasons stated in the article.)

You Choose

On Twitter, Molly Lambert writes:

RIP blogging we all tried real hard to make the internet good and then corporations and rich idiots destroyed everything a generation of writers tried to build

Charlie Warzel re-tweeted her with this comment:

there’s almost no space for writing anymore that’s joyful or an attempt to be creative. hardly anyone is playing around with form or even just trying to entertain. so much of the joy has been sucked out of the internet unless its crowdsourced by platforms from ppl who aren’t paid

They’re both right.

But I’d also note: fuck that shit.

Here’s the thing: there are good blogs to read. Some old ones are gone, but new good ones are created all the time.

And there are good RSS readers which you can use instead of (or in addition) to Twitter and Facebook.

And — most importantly — nothing is stopping you from writing joyfully and creatively for the web! You can entertain, you can have fun, you can push the boundaries of the form, if you want to. Or you can just write about cats as you develop your voice. Whatever you want!

There are plenty of great places for it. (I quite like Micro.blog, personally.)

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You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work.

A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.

Again: you choose.

No ETAs

People often ask me about ETAs. When will the feature they’re waiting for ship? If you’re a software developer, they probably ask you too.

I totally get it! Though I write an app, I’m mostly a user of apps, and I too want to know when the features I’m waiting for will ship.

The Problem

But here’s the thing: ETAs are very hard to estimate with any amount of accuracy. Even if you plan well.

There are just too many variables. You have some very rough idea of the work to do, and how much time it ought to take, yes. To start with: those ideas are wrong.

You don’t know what you forgot to take into account, or what pieces you underestimated or overestimated. You never know what weird bugs will trip you up.

You don’t know what OS release between now and then will make you spend extra time on something. (For instance: iOS 13.2 just came out today. How is it different? Does it affect the app? Every OS release is a moment of anxiety for developers.)

You don’t know if you’ll need to do some serious, time-consuming refactoring or rearchitecting. You don’t know if the person working on the feature might get pulled away for some reason (vacation, emergency, reassignment, etc.).

You don’t know if the fallout from some other feature in progress will require more time, which ends up pushing back this feature. You don’t know if some other feature or bug fix will suddenly get a higher priority based on any number of good reasons.

You don’t know if your testers will be pulled away to work on something else. You don’t know if your tools will be updated in a way that affects productivity. (Hopefully for the better! Though, if there’s a learning curve, maybe it will hurt productivity at first.)

There’s all that and plenty more — and none of the above are extraordinary conditions. They’re all quite normal. So any ETA will almost surely be quite wrong. Even if you take all of the above into account.

On Not Setting Expectations

The problem with stating an ETA then, is that it sets up expectations. When you don’t meet them — and you won’t, most of the time — people sometimes get upset. Not everybody. But some people take ETA to mean “I promise to ship that day or damn close to it.”

So the better thing to do is plan which features go into which releases, and have a date for internal use for just the next release — and refrain from making public ETAs.

Even if you the software developer think you can make accurate ETAs — and maybe you did, once or twice — you’re not going to be that lucky most of the time.

PS This is all just to say that app-making is nothing like building a house. It’s more like building the first house ever in the history of houses, with a pile of rusty nails and your bare hands, in a non-stop tornado. It’s different every time, and it’s astonishingly complex, non-linear, and unpredictable. We all do our best to mitigate this, to make it more regular, but the industry just hasn’t gotten very far with that yet. The only reason anything ever ships is because people just keep working until it’s ready.

Update 30 Oct. 2019: See the follow-up, which explains that I’m not talking about all ETAs.

NetNewsWire 5.0.3 for Mac Released

NetNewsWire for Mac icon: globe with a satellite in the foreground.

The main things in this release are 1) enhanced performance and 2) importing subscriptions from NetNewsWire 3 (since it won‘t run on Catalina).

There are also a bunch of bug fixes — including a fix for the space bar behavior on Catalina — and there’s a new feature: you can type the s key to star and unstar an article.

For more details, read the change notes on the NetNewsWire blog.

SwiftUI Is Still the Future

We’ve been using SwiftUI in NetNewsWire for iOS, for its settings screen and related pieces (such as adding an account).

But now we’re redoing that code in classic UIKit. Maurice Parker, NetNewsWire for iOS lead developer, lists the limitations we ran into with SwiftUI:

1) Unable to customize cell selection color for our vibrant cell selection requirement. I was able to hack around it, but it made cells behave strangely. You couldn’t tap and hold the cell. You also couldn’t scroll using the modified cells.

2) No pop back to root for NavigationView. Longer scene flows weren’t possible.

3) ActionSheet flat out just crashes if you use it on an iPad app. https://forums.developer.apple.com/thread/124530

4) TextField will crash the app if it has the cursor and is hidden. We wanted this for the show/hide password functionality.

5) There is no way to display attributed text. You have to bridge to UIKit and use a UITextField that has a modified intrinsicContentSize calculation. We had to take input from GeometryReader and pass it into the UITextField to calculate intrinsicContentSize.

There are more, some of which I have probably forgotten about.

We very much want to use SwiftUI, and we believe it’s the future of Mac and iOS development — but emphasis should be on future, because it’s not quite ready in the present.

Which should surprise nobody, given that it’s so new. But I thought it might be interesting to know exactly what issues we ran into when using it.

We look forward to the day when we can use it everywhere, but we suspect it will be incremental. Hopefully next year we’ll be able to do the Settings screen using SwiftUI. And maybe some parts of the Mac app, too.

PS Once we’re ready for a public beta of NetNewsWire for iOS, we’ll announce it here and on the NetNewsWire blog, and you’ll be able to sign up to get it via TestFlight.

NetNewsWire 5.0.3b2 is faster — and it adds the ability to import NetNewsWire 3 subscriptions.

If you’re a NetNewsWire 3 user who needs to upgrade because you’re on Catalina (where NetNewsWire 3 won’t run), then I recommend either trying this beta or waiting a few days till the final 5.0.3 release.

NetNewsWire OS Compatibility Strategy

We have two goals with the app: 1) get as many people using RSS as possible, and 2) make the best app we can.

To reach #2 — making the best app we can — we need to do a couple things. One is stay modern: use new APIs and tools that make the app better and easier to maintain. A second is to not spend time on things that don’t make the app better. A third is to attract and retain contributors, who are usually more psyched to work with modern stuff than with old stuff.

You can see how that’s in a little bit of conflict with #1 (getting as many people as possible using RSS readers).

Here’s the plan

After a major OS update, we will switch to requiring that update on our next major release — where major is defined as something like 5.0 or 5.1, but not something like 5.0.1. (In other words: the upcoming NetNewsWire 5.0.3 release will run on Mojave, while NetNewsWire 5.1 will require Catalina.)

At the same time, we will make older versions available via the website. For instance, the last version that will run on Mojave will likely be 5.0.4 (which isn’t finished yet) — and we’ll make that version available indefinitely for people who haven’t upgraded to Catalina.

This will mean that people running older OSes will still get a high-quality app — it’s just that it won’t have the latest features.

The key is that this allows us to make NetNewsWire the best app it can be, and making the best app we can is also part of furthering the goal of getting as many people as possible using RSS. (The biggest part, in fact. Bigger than compatibility with older OSes.)

While I know this will disappoint some people, I hope you’ll understand why we decided to do it this way. Decisions like this are never easy — there are always conflicting values to weigh, pros and cons and add up — and we don’t make them impulsively. But making NetNewsWire the best app it can be has to be job #1.

Omni Job: Senior Front-End Web Developer

Omni’s hiring a Senior Front-End Web Developer to work on OmniFocus for the Web.

Omni’s a truly great place to work. You’d have your own office — and there’s a decent chance it would be right near mine. (The job is part of the Design department, and marketing is also part of the Design department.)

We also have common areas too, for when you prefer to work around other people. You’re not locked into your office. :)

Benefits are great. The view of Lake Union and Capitol Hill is beautiful. The kitchen folks make us wonderful food.

But best of all: it’s great fun to work with these people on these apps.

So — if you’re a web developer, please apply!

PS You can learn more about OmniFocus for the Web by listening to How We Built OmniFocus for the Web (an episode of The Omni Show) and by reading OmniFocus for the Web: Under the Hood.

Xcoders 15th Anniversary

This Thursday, Oct. 10, Xcoders turns 15 years old!

We’d be thrilled if you could come to the meeting. Your Xcoders podcasters will be talking to a panel of old-timers about the history of the group. And afterward we’ll go to the Cyclops and hang out — just like we always do.

I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the importance of community. It gives back to us so much more than we as individuals could ever put into it.

And Xcoders is one of the oldest and greatest of the Mac and iOS app-making communities. Any good history of the modern Apple development ecosystem would have a chapter on Xcoders: it’s an institution, and it’s been amazing to watch it grow and evolve over the years.

So I’m asking something of you: please come to this one and help us celebrate!

Come even if you haven’t been in a long time, or even if you have to travel. Even if you go to Redmond or Vancouver Xcoders. Or even if you’ve never been. We’ll be so happy to see you!

PS The Xcoders blog has the details on time and place.

NetNewsWire 5 is all good to go with Catalina!

New macOS days are super-fun. This year we get the added bonus of checking out all the new Catalyst apps. I’m psyched to see what cool apps are coming to Mac.

But I can’t help but note that two apps that I’ve put my heart into — and many thousands of hours of work — won’t run on Catalina: UserLand Frontier and NetNewsWire 3.3.2.

Well. I take note, and then I move on.

NetNewsWire Status

NetNewsWire 5.0.2 is the current shipping release; NetNewsWire 5.0.3b1 is the current test build.

We’re also working on NetNewsWire 5.0 for iOS, NetNewsWire 5.0.4 for Mac, and NetNewsWire 5.1 for Mac.

We have a lot going on! But we have multiple contributors, and we can handle it. :)

Here’s the status of each…

NetNewsWire 5.0.3 for Mac

This release is all about performance. NetNewsWire is pretty fast, but it can and should be faster.

Since there are places where we can get performance enhancements without having to stand on our heads, we’re doing them. (I’m a performance junkie, but I draw the line at writing weird code just to get performance.)

I was going to release 5.0.3 this weekend, but I found some more work to do. Just this morning I found a very significant boost we can get when downloading and syncing feeds. I bet we’ll have another beta later this week.

NetNewsWire 5.0.4 for Mac

This will have more bug fixes. It might also appear on the Mac App Store. No guarantee, though.

NetNewsWire 5.1 for Mac

This will have some small features — and one big one: Feedly syncing. (It might have some other syncing systems as well, but for sure we want to get Feedly syncing in there.)

NetNewsWire 5.0 for iOS

It works! I’m using it. Since I commute to work via bus, this is awesome.

We’re going to do a limited TestFlight release, by invitation only, right at first — mainly because I want to get my friend who’s an Award Winning iOS Designer™ to help with it.

After he’s finished with it, then we’ll do a general TestFlight release — you’ll be able to sign up if you want to. I’ll be sure to announce that here and on the NetNewsWire blog.

The plan is for the initial NetNewsWire 5.0 for iOS to include both Feedbin and Feedly syncing, but it’s possible the early TestFlight releases won’t have Feedly yet.

Here’s what the app looks like in Springboard:

Screenshot of NetNewsWire icon in Springboard.

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