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Kevin Walzer, software developer.



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Mon, 03 Mar 2008

Market forces, customer needs, and business success

A couple of developments this past weekend prompted some thinking on my part about the software business, customer needs, and fashion.

First, David Watanabe, a well-known independent Mac developer, announced that he was making his NewsFire newsfeed reader free. Previously it had been a shareware product requiring a registration fee.

Second, Dave Taubler, a cross-platform Java developer whom I've never heard of, released a point update to OverSite, a website-design tool. OverSite is a shareware product that requires a registration fee.

Watanabe is well-known among the Mac user and developer community for, among other things, the elegance of his programs. They are, quite simply, beautiful. They show the full potential of Apple's recommended Cocoa developer frameworks.

Taubler isn't a semi-celebrity in the Mac community. Looking at his website, he appears to have a day job, and develops shareware part-time, using Java as his chosen technology. By contrast to Watanabe, users don't find Taubler's application beautiful.

Why am I comparing these two developers and their software? Because it appears that, although Watanabe has the shinier product--a beautiful Cocoa newsreader--Taubler's plain-Jane Java program is the more financially successful program. How do I reach this conclusion: Simple. Watanabe has apparently concluded that there is no paying market for NewsFire, and has made it free of charge. Taubler, on the other hand, continues to charge for his program.

How can a Java program do better than a Cocoa program on OS X? Such a development runs against every bit of conventional wisdom that one sees in the Mac developer community. I see several reasons for this.

One factor is that markets change and evolve, and in the specific instance of Watanabe's market--desktop newsfeed readers--the paying market is imploding. There are numerous free, web-based feed-reading services, such as Google Reader. There are numerous free desktop readers such as Vienna. And finally, the leading Mac desktop RSS client, NetNewsWire, became free; its corporate owner decided, in the words ofits developer, that "the software is great marketing for our enterprise software; and the more users we have, the better able we are to calculate relevance and importance."

In short: desktop RSS clients are now like desktop web browsers and e-mail clients: a commodity that few users will be willing to pay for. This development hasn't discouraged at least one other developer of a desktop RSS client, but it is clear that this market segment is now exceedingly difficult.

Taubler's market--web designers--is a smaller one, not growing exponentially like the RSS client market used to, but it is also more likely to include paying customers who use the software professionally. Consequently, while there are a number of competitors at several price points, it is possible for a software product with a specific, specialized feature set to find a place in the market.

Another factor in an application's success, apart from its market growing or drying up, is how well the applicaiton works and how well the developer supports the application. Users apparently find Taubler's application functional. It does what they need it to do. Users also seem to find him to be a responsive developer.

Users seem to have some serious issues with Watanabe's approach to customer service and the stability of his programs. I'd say that opinions of his customer service and application stability run as strongly to the negative as opinions of his application design run to the positive.

While one shouldn't base an opinion of a developer or product entirely on comments posted at a download site, those comments do offer useful information--especially if they seem to converge on a consensus. In the cases of both developers, they do: one is considered unsupportive, the other is considered supportive.

So what lesson am I trying to draw here?

The lesson is that there are many factors that influence the success of an application. One's choice of technology is, based on my observation, a minor factor. Making a fetish of your chosen technology, touting it as a feature in itself rather than something that enables useful features, strikes me as misguided. Targeting the right market, offering helpful user support, and most of all, providing a stable application that solves the user's problems--these are the most important ingredients for success.

A beautiful Cocoa design was apparently not enough to make NewsFire a profitable application for David Watanabe--not when the application's market was imploding, and when many users recommended against purchasing the program because of their own experience with customer support. By contrast, although users seem to find Dave Taubler's application a bit unpolished in terms of its design, its specific functionality and the developer's customer support make it a worthy purchase--even in a market segment that offers several alternatives.

This is a lesson I'm taking to heart myself. I have tried to continually improve the design and the functionality of my programs, and provide good customer support. I'm also continually looking at different market niches as I research potential new products to develop. But I'm not continually reassessing the technologies I use to develop my programs--I am leveraging their strengths and working around their limitations, but most importantly I am using them to develop software that customers find useful, and will pay for.

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