A while ago I read a story about ‘extreme commuters’, commuters who spend around 4 hours commuting to and from work each day. I hoped I’d never end up being one of these people but at the moment I find myself spending 3 hours a day trapped in the car while I commute to and from work. It’s a temporary situation that will only last for another month at which time I’ll be able to trim my round-trip travel time down to less than 2 hours a day. Not ideal but bearable. We’ve just moved back from 18 months living in New Zealand and are currently staying with my mother-in-law until the tenants in our own home vacate. At that time we’ll move back into our house which is about 20 minutes closer to work. This translates into at least 30 minutes less travel time each way.
Photo courtesy of kaptainkobold
When I first came up with the idea for Text2Go, a product that allows you to capture text from the web, convert it to speech and transfer it to your iPod I was travelling to and from work in NZ by ferry. The ferry ride was a pleasant 12 minute trip across the Auckland harbour.
However my office was about 20 minutes brisk walk uptown from the ferry terminal. I wanted to make productive use of this time. I’d used text to speech technology before and knew from my a recent project that computer generated voices had come a long way in the last few years. Finally they were starting to sound quite natural and were easy to listen to and comprehend. Initially I looked for an existing product to fill my needs but when I couldn’t find anything that was really convenient to use, I decided to design and develop Text2Go. Now I could listen to any of the vast quantities of information from the web while I walked. Having the information read to me, meant that I could use my eyes for important tasks such as dodging other pedestrians and avoiding those drivers that assume they always have right of way because they’re enclosed in a deadly hunk of metal. Now as I sit in my car crawling my way to work I can once again listen to information being read to me from my iPod. It certainly makes my journey a lot more enjoyable and keeps me from getting frustated at what would otherwise be a complete waste of time.
I would be interested to hear from others about their best and worst commuting experiences during their career.
It seems hard to imagine a time when there was no Internet or world wide web. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, the internet as we know it today didn’t exist. However this was the glorious age of the micro computer. It was the first time that the general public could afford to buy a computer. In the beginning there was the BBC Micro, the Sinclair ZX81 & Spectrum, the Commodore Vic-20 and 64, and the Apple II series of computers to name but a few. Later in that period, the Apple Mac , IBM-PC and Commodore Amiga computers appeared.
In the early days computer magazines would distribute software as source code listings within their magazines, either in BASIC or in machine code (e.g. 05 34 56 8F 9a C0 87 9A 3e). If you were lucky the machine code listing would include a checksum at the end of each line which could be used in conjunction with a machine code editor to verify that you’d entered each line correctly.
Eventually the magazines moved to cover disks, a floppy disk stuck to the magazine cover which contained public domain software and trial/demo versions of commercial software. Over time the number of cover disks increased, from 1 to 2 to 3 before CDs took over.
Instead of the Internet, people could buy a modem or an acoustic coupler and dial up a BBS or Bulletin Board System. These devices were incredibly expensive (e.g. $500) and very, very slow (e.g. 1024 bits per second). The BBS’s were all character-based but allowed you to chat with other computer users via forums, exchange public domain software and play online games. These bulletin boards were not linked together in any way. In fact many BBS’s only had a single modem, which meant that only one person could be online at any one time.
During this period a number of microISV’s began to appear. However the term microISV hadn’t been coined back then and instead independent software developers generally adopted a shareware model and referred to themselves as shareware authors. The basic concept of shareware software is that the software is free to distribute but if you find it useful and use it on a regular basis then you need to pay a small fee to the author. Often the freely distributable software has limited functionality (crippleware), or can only be used for a limited period of time (trialware/demoware). This is to encourage you to pay the fee to the author, at which point they will send you a fully functional application.
I wrote my first product back in 1989 while I was studying computer science at university. I owned an Amiga 1000 which I upgraded to an Amiga 3000 a few years later. At the time I was a member of the New Zealand Amiga Users Group which was based in Auckland. They had a monthly magazine called AMSMAG which was published monthly and distributed on a floppy disk to club members. I wrote an program called Magnetic Pages, which allowed you to create a disk based magazine that had a similar look and feel to a regular magazine. Each page was displayed on a single screen. An article could be made up of many pages, with Next/Prev/First/Last/Goto Page navigation functions. When you turned a page, the top page actually peeled back to reveal the page underneath, giving the impression of turning a physical page. Text could be flowed across multiple columns and around graphics. Hyperlinks were supported so that you could click on a block of text or a graphic to navigate to a new page. It supported playing sound effects and background music. You could have the text read to you using the Amiga’s build in speech synthesis libraries.
The page definitions were all simple text files that contained the text and ANSI formatting codes to specify text colours, styles, etc. I then added proprietary codes to specify things such as links to graphics, hyperlinks, etc, etc. It was similar in concept to HTML today, although not nearly as well designed.
I took over the editorship of AMSMAG and published the magazine for a number of years using Magnetic Pages. By eating my own dogfood each month so to speak, I was able to improve the usability of Magnetic Pages.
You may be wondering how you would distribute and market software without the Internet. In the case of the Amiga there was a large number of Public Domain libraries that would accept software, graphics, music, etc from authors, catalogue it and distribute it to other users. The end user would pay the library a small fee to cover the cost of the floppy disk, postage and handling charges. The PD libraries didn’t actually charge for the software, only the distribution of the software. Often the software you wanted shared a disk with a large number of other software, so the end user would actually receive a number of often unrelated software programs. The most famous of all the PD libraries was the Fred Fish collection. This library was of an excellent standard (not all submissions were published), well-catalogued with detailed descriptions of each item, frequently updated and rapidly distributed to a large number of Amiga user groups around the world.
This was one of my major sources of marketing. I submitted Magnetic Pages to the Fred Fish library and it quickly appeared a few weeks later on disk 372. I also submitted it to a number of UK based PD libraries, many of which would publish their listings in the Amiga computer magazines of the time.
The other marketing approach that I employed was to submit Magnetic Pages for review to some of the Amiga computer magazines. These magazines had a regular PD column in which they would review some of the newly released PD and shareware software. Magnetic Pages was reviewed by Amiga Format and Amiga Shopper magazines.
That was about it. I couldn’t afford to pay for any advertising. There was probably some indirect market that occurred due to the fact that AMSMAG was also distributed to a number of other user groups.
Magnetic Pages was a shareware product that cost US$25 to register. The software consisted of three separate programs, a Viewer that was used by readers of the magazine, an Editor that was used to create and layout articles and an Organizer that was used to organize the articles into a magazine. The Viewer and Editor programs were freely distributable. However the Organizer had the save function disabled. When you registered Magnetic Pages, I would send out a fully functional Organiser. The Organizer also had the name of the owner or user group hard coded into the application. This name would then be displayed in any magazine that was published using the Organizer, which was to discourage the illegal distribution of a fully functional Organizer. To my knowledge, no one ever illegally distributed the Organizer.
The registration process was incredibly slow and tedious by today’s standards. A prospective customer would have to print out a registration form (if they had a printer – some customers didn’t so they just wrote a letter containing the relevant information) and send off the equivalent of US$25 to myself in New Zealand. Most forms of international money transfer were incredibly expensive, so most people ended up sending cash in the mail. When I received an order, I would create a customized version of the Organizer for them and send them this, along with some sample magazines, tutorials and the latest versions of the Viewer and Editor on a set of 3 floppy disks. It would usually take 3-6 weeks from the time the customer sent their order to the time they received their disks in the mail.
Despite all this, over a period of about 4 years, I received over 100 orders for Magnetic Pages. It was never enough to make me rich or even gave me an income I could live off but it certainly made checking the mail box a lot more exciting. It was quite a thrill to receive a letter from someone on the other side of the world (yes I know if you live in NZ, just about everwhere is the other side of the world, except of course Australia which is a home away from home for a large percentage of Kiwis).
Note that this is the story of Magnetic Pages 1.3. There is also a Magnetic Pages 2.0 but that’s a tragic tale that deserves a post of its own.
If you ask your average computer user what one of these is you’ll probably get a blank stare. This is despite that fact that every time you install a piece of software on your computer you will be asked to acknowledge that you’ve read the EULA (End-user license agreement) and agreed to its terms and conditions. The terms and conditions of a typical EULA will restrict the number of computers you can install the software on (usually to one), waive your rights to any warranty or technical support (i.e. the software is sold ‘as-is’, think of buying a used car) and exempt the manufacturer from any liability due to any conceivable misadventure that may result from the use of the software.
The EULA is usually displayed during the installation of the software and it’s at that point that you are supposed to read through the terms and conditions, and only proceed if they are acceptable to you. Now if you’re like me, this is what a typical EULA screen looks like.
This practice is almost universal in the software industry and probably can be traced back to a point in time when a software company decided to employ the services of a lawyer for the first time. Since then, it’s been perpetuated by just about all software companies without question. Now I don’t have anything against a reasonable EULA. I have one for Text2Go and don’t really think you can do without one if you plan to sell software. However I don’t really see the point in asking the user to read and accept the terms and conditions at installation time. To my mind this is way too late. How many people have you heard about who’ve bought a piece of software only to get it home, begin the installation process, read the EULA and then decide that no, the conditions are unacceptable and so return the software to the place of purchase? None I suspect.
The EULA needs to be available to the customer at the stage when they are making their purchasing decision. I suspect that when software was primarily sold as a boxed product over the counter, publishers would have been reluctant to print the EULA on the box due to the fact that the entire box would probably end up covered in dense, capitalized text. Now that most software is sold over the web, there is no harm in providing a page that contains the EULA. The majority of customers will never read this page anyway but at least it is available for those who do want to. I’m going to go with this approach and will also include the EULA as part of my help documentation. I will not be including it in my installer.
Maybe it’s the blogs I’m reading these days but it seems a lot of people are starting microISV’s, small software companies run by a single person. It’s certainly never been easier, with every resource you need available over the net, the large majority of which are free or very inexpensive. There’s even an excellent step-by-step guide in the form of Bob Walsh’s book ‘Micro ISV: From Vision to Reality’. These factors all contribute to make the barrier to entry very low. Well, low for existing software developers who’ve spent years writing software for other companies.
One of the effects of this low barrier to entry is that there’s not a lot of risk in getting started. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment or rent office or floor space. You don’t even have to invest in expensive advertising. You don’t have to give up your day job, sacrificing a steady income or the lifestyle you’re accustomed to. The only major investment you need to make in your microISV is your time.
What this means is that it’s very easy to walk away from the business at any time. That’s great for your peace of mind. If your circumstances change and it doesn’t make sense to continue, you know you can close up shop very quickly, with very little financial loss.
The danger is that because it’s so easy to walk away, it’s also very easy to give up. It might not happen overnight. You probably won’t wake up one morning and think “Blow this microISV business for a game of soldiers! It’s taking too long. I want to spend more time with my family/down at the pub/ etc, etc.” Instead it’s likely to be more gradual. Perhaps an urgent short term project will come up that takes over for a few weeks, like building a garden fence, or perhaps you just start spending less and less time on your microISV until you get to the point where you can’t remember the last time you did work on it. At this point you can be honest with yourself and say you’ve given up on the project, or more likely, you say to yourself that you’re still working on it, you just haven’t been able to spend much time on it recently because “I’ve been busy at work/the new season of TV has kicked in/[insert your own excuse here]”.
One of the things that makes it so easy to give up is that you’ve really only invested your time and you can always justify it by saying it’s been a great learning experience. However this reasoning depends on how precious your time is. If you’ve got a family or partner, then your time becomes much more limited and hence much more precious. It also means that you’re not the only one with a stake in your microISV. All that time you’ve investing in your microISV could have been spent with your partner or family. They now have a rightful share of your microISV.
This is a great situation to be in. You’ve now got someone who wants you to succeed and see their investment come to fruition. When the going get tough, or just plain tedious, you’re much less likely to give up because you don’t want to let your partner down. Joel Spolsky, of joelonsoftware.com fame, stresses the importance of having at least one partner with which to start a microISV. I agree completely but also believe that partner need not play an active role in the business. As long as that partner has some form of investment in the business, they will provide the incentive you need to keep going. Even if that partner has no technical knowledge at all, they can still be a great sounding board for ideas and provide valuable input into business decisions. Often a non-technical perspective on a situation is more valuable than another technical perspective.
Now getting back to my original question of when you can say that you’ve created a real, live, microISV? At what point does it come into existence? No doubt different founders have different ideas on when their microISV became real to them. Some may have the confidence and belief in themselves to assert this after the first week or perhaps it’s the day they register their company. At some point along the path you reach a point where it’s easier to keep going than turn back or give up. You’ve made it over the pass and you know you’re going to do it. The finish line may still be a long way off but it’s an easy downhill from here.
I feel I’m currently at this stage now, well I hope I am. Text2Go is about to enter beta and I have a basic website that’s live. However I won’t believe that I’ve created a genuine microISV until I’ve got my first paying customer. At that point, I will know beyond a doubt that there’s at least one independent person who believes enough in Text2Go to pay money for it. It will also be the point at which my microISV takes on the added commitment of supporting customers. I’m still a little way off from this goal but it is in sight and I believe I’m going to get there.