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Interview: Brent Simmons

In Mac OS X, you vote with your Dock.

Think about this. How many applications are sitting on your hard drive. How many of those came with the OS? How many did you read about on the web, download, try, and forget. How many of those did you buy? How many actually made it to your Dock?

If you’re a tidy desktop freak like myself, placing an application in the Dock is a bigger commitment than forking out the $19.99 to get rid of that annoying pay-for-me nag-o-grams. Dock placement is an honor. It says, “You are useful enough to stare at me all day.”

Currently, other than internal applications necessary to get my job done, the only application in my Dock that I’ve chosen to put there is NetNewsWire. (Recap: It’s an RSS reader and you can read all about it here.)

brent_n_papaSimply put, NetNewsWire is Brent Simmons. A former employee of Dave Winer’s Userland, Brent set out in early 2002 as an independent programmer based in Washington state. Working alongside his wife, he released the first public Beta of NetNewsWire in July of the same year. It rapidly became the de facto RSS reader for Mac OS X and won the recent Mac OS X Innovators Contest.

I had a chance to interview Brent via email.

RANDS: Can you make a living off NetNewsWire? Is that your goal? How far can one husband and wife team scale before something gives?

BRENT: Yes, we do make our living from NetNewsWire. We’re paying the bills — which means we get to keep making software.

One husband-and-wife team can scale to handle a few products. It helps to have products that don’t require much technical support — NetNewsWire isn’t a complicated and powerful development environment, it’s not Director or WebObjects or even Photoshop, it’s a news reader with a familiar interface, similar to other news readers and email apps.

Not having to spend tons of time on technical support means we can fix bugs and do new features and do all the business things we need to do.

Being a recent convert to the Mac, I was surprised to find a slew of tools and utilities provided by small software shops that I was willing to pay for. This contradicted my Windows experience where most of what I wanted I got out of the core operating system. Do you think there is more opportunity for small software shops on the Mac? If so, why?

The markets are so different, and every product and every developer is unique. It’s hard to generalize.

I think that developers who care very strongly about user interface and aesthetics, and who have the drive and ability to back it up, can do very well doing Mac software, since that’s what Mac users care about. Mac users love to reward well-designed software.

Windows is different. Even though I’ve worked on Windows software I can’t claim to understand the Windows market. It’s a little mysterious to me. (Mysterious, but not actually intriguing.)

What’s the next big feature in NewNewsWire that you can talk about? What feature in the current product could you not live without?

I’m right now trying to decide what the next big feature will be. One strong possibility is Rendezvous support. I’d love to have people be able to share subscriptions with people on the same LAN. I’d love to be able to find out what the weblogs are of the people near me. That kind of thing.

But there are tons of other ideas, big and small. Another big one is synching between two copies of NetNewsWire. (It may be that synching and Rendezvous support are related. Or not. I’m still thinking about it.)

I’m not sure what feature in the current product I couldn’t live without would be. I want to say: all of them! It’s a hard question.

ed: Brent has recently published a potential feature list.

What’s the biggest hassle of developing in Cocoa? The biggest benefit?

The biggest hassle so far has been the lack of a decent HTML renderer. The one NetNewsWire uses — the one that’s built into Cocoa — is totally lame. To be fair, no one, not even Apple, ever claimed it was anything but lame.

The good news is that that’s about to change: Safari’s renderer will be available to Cocoa developers via WebKit. I expect NetNewsWire will benefit hugely from WebKit.

The biggest benefit to developing in Cocoa? Probably that so much comes for free, that so much is just so easy and just works.

It goes back to your question about how far a husband-and-wife team can scale. Cocoa allows us to scale farther faster, since we don’t have to spend time doing the boring bits that Cocoa handles for us.

With Mac OS X representing ~3% of the PC market, wouldn’t it make more sense to build a Windows RSS reader? Why Mac?

Have you seen how many three-paned RSS news readers for Windows there are? A dozen, maybe? Many more than there are for Mac OS X.

So that’s the downside to doing Windows apps: there are more people doing the same thing you’re doing. And then there’s Microsoft — who I’ll remind you is in fact a convicted monopolist.

But the thing is I don’t really care about the numbers that much. I like Mac OS X, and I do Mac software because I enjoy it tremendously. I work very hard because I like the work. Were I doing Windows software I wouldn’t like the work, so I wouldn’t work hard, so I’d probably never ship any software at all.

Back to the numbers — ~3% still means millions of people. They don’t all have to buy NetNewsWire for me to be able to pay the bills.

How/when did you know when NetNewsWire was a success?

When the public beta of the Lite version first came out, and people were writing about it on their weblogs, I got the first hint that NetNewsWire could really be a hit. I don’t think anything’s really surpassed that, yet — except perhaps for winning O’Reilly’s Mac OS X Innovators contest. That meant a lot to me.

But it’s hard to define success. In some ways NetNewsWire isn’t a success yet, but it could become a success.

Quote from your MacSlash interview: “And with user interface the best innovation is often no innovation — in other words, you take something new like RSS feeds and present them in a familiar way.” Can you describe the development process you use to achieve this?

The process is simply described: take a problem, break it down into smaller problems, then solve each problem.

For instance, before NetNewsWire there was MacNewsWire. It was a Cocoa app, a newsreader — but it had a fixed subscription list of Mac news sites. It had just two panes: one for headlines and one for the description. You didn’t even see the subscription list.

So the problem was how to extend the interface to make it so you could pick and choose your subscriptions. The answer was to add a third pane for subscriptions. And that sounded a lot like Outlook Express and Mailsmith and lots of other apps. So I just laid it out the same way that people are used to.

That’s just a snapshot, of course — how did I get to the two-paned approach in the first place with MacNewsWire? I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure it seemed obvious at the time.

The answer for me then is that you take things one small step at a time. Those small steps are often obvious steps.

Do you see any way for companies to make money via weblogs other than providing software (like NetNewsWire) or services (like LiveJournal)?

It’s not something I’ve thought much about, actually.

I probably wouldn’t hire anybody for anything unless they had a weblog.

What about having a weblog would be a prerequisite for hiring? Is it having a weblog would give the candidate a familiarity with the space you work in? Or that they have a command of the written English language? Both? Other reasons?

The main thing is: if you don’t have a weblog, I probably don’t know you, and I don’t have an easy way to get to know you. If you have a weblog, I’m either reading it already or I can read it and look in the archives a bit to get a sense of who you are.

It’s kind of like if we all lived in the same small town. The people who have weblogs are like the people who make a point of going to Main Street at least a few times a week. They go to the barber shop, the grocer’s, the lunch counter — they get out and talk to people.

If you don’t have a weblog, it’s like you live on the outskirts of town and have all your food delivered and you even have people come mow your lawn so you don’t have to go outside.

No matter how big the web gets, it will always be a small town because that’s how you interact with it. You can’t help but make your own small town out of it.

As your body is to your physical presence, your weblog is to your web presence.

Pick one; I’m in Vegas and I can’t do without: Gambling, Booze, or Girls Girls Girls.

Booze. I’m married, and odds are pretty long against me going to Vegas without my wife. And though gambling is fun, booze is much more fun. (Note that in my regular life I hardly ever drink.)

Does your cat hang out with you when you program?

Yes. He’s in the office most of the day when Sheila and I are in there. But he usually prefers to watch TV (through closed eyelids) at night.

The office has two big windows. His habit, especially on cold mornings, is to go to one, meow until I open it, then go to the other and meow until I open that one too.

If I then close the one he’s not at, he goes back and meows at it until I re-open it.

His name is Papa. He’s named for both Ernest Hemingway and Mariners’ designated hitter Edgar Martinez.

Name your favorite software development tool. Why is it your favorite?

Project Builder. It’s my favorite because that’s where I write code.

BBEdit is my other favorite. I don’t tend to do my Cocoa code-writing there, but I do PHP coding there, take notes, etc.

Do you program best in the morning, afternoon, or evening?

I’m not a morning person. Afternoons and evenings are tied.

Do you keep a to do list and, if so, what does it look like?

I have to-do lists of varying scopes. I make lots of to-do lists. Sometimes they’re on paper. I also use NetNewsWire’s outliner and I use MORE. (The only reason Classic ever comes up on my machine is for MORE.)

Some lists are just the steps it takes to complete a certain feature. Another list is the list of what’s going into the next beta. Another list is a list of good ideas for the future. And so on.

Name three web sites / weblogs you are obsessive about reading.

How about 146? That’s how many subscriptions I have in NetNewsWire. My unread count is usually zero, so I suppose I’m obsessive about all of them.

However — here are some of my favorites.

Daring Fireball is cool because I love user interface, and John Gruber is good at thinking and writing about user interface.

I’ve been enjoying ongoing, Tim Brayfv site, because I like how he writes about things like programming languages, standards, and the occasional odd thing like the history and psychology of flaming.

I like Surfin’ Safari because I like reading about the challenges of other developers — and it doesn’t hurt that he’s writing about Safari, an app I use and like.

I could name lots more, but you asked for three…

What gets you coming back to a web site / weblog?

Good writing. It helps when it’s on topics I care about — but then I care about lots of topics, and good writing *makes* me care about a topic.

I’ve always been an obsessive reader, since even before I knew how to read. I just kept staring at the words until they started to make sense. It’s no surprise that I wrote a news reader — I need it to feed my habit. I can’t read enough quickly enough with just a web browser.

Name one gadget (for whatever your definition of gadget might be) you can’t live without and why.

I’m not a gadget kind of guy. I’m a software guy and a words guy. I have a difficult relationship with actual physical things.

Oh! I know! I love my hot-air popcorn maker. Mmmm, popcorn.

7 Responses


  2. Dan Dickinson 21 years ago

    Ugh, started writing a long tangent and then realized it was mostly bullshit.

    I can think of a few possible reasons why people on the Mac side are so willing to pay for shareware:

    -Differences in the software buying experience; PC users will go into a store and pull something off the shelf. Mac users (save those living near an Apple Store) generally don’t get the same experience, so they normally *have* to find the appropriate tool online and, since you’re not spending money in stores for software, are willing to part with it for shareware.

    -Smaller warez community; while it’s definitely there, there just isn’t as much of a presence on the Mac side. Of course, since it’s smaller, it’s easier for the developers to keep up on it, and fight back – I know one author who, if you put in a pirate serial number, the video quality on his software gradually degrades over a few minutes until you’re left with just snow. At some point you think, “Is it worth all this trouble when I could just pay $10 and be done with it?”

    -Mac shareware companies are very human. I work for Freeverse; I talk to a good chunk of our customers on a daily basis. Our customers awww over pictures of my boss’ new baby. Most every person in the industry I know is easily accessible via AIM, a forum, or at the very least email. You don’t often get Faceless Corporation Syndrome, and I think that might lead people to make personal connections and be ready to shell out the cash more readily. It’s harder to rip someone off when you talk to them on a semi-regular basis.

  3. John Whitlock 21 years ago

    OK, here’s an arguement against demanding blogs for potential job candidates.

    Questions about race, religion, creed, sex and age are all prohibited during the interview process. However, race, religion, creed, sexual practices and age are all prime topics for blogs. So, if an employer turns down a candidate after reading the blog, does the candidate have a legal suit against the employer?

    Discuss with your lawyer in the toilet, or just search for “Illegal Interview Questions”.

  4. Bosko 21 years ago

    I agree with John W.; the idea that Mr. Simmons wouldn’t hire anyone without a blog is ridiculous, especially given his reasons. There are perfectly good people out there who don’t write blogs because:

    a) they think it’s stupid to “tell the Internet” about what they’re up to every N days (if not useless);

    b) they don’t have the time or they do but they’d rather spend it doing something else;

    c) the world was perfectly fine before blogs were “invented” and, personally, I think that if you look at THE_CURRENT_UNIVERSE_OF_BLOGS, you’ll find more noise than valuable information anyway. Therefore, the ‘blog’ alone is not any indication of intelligence, wisdom, or what have you. People lie. Especially on the Internet.

  5. That blog hiring thing weirded me out too. Why would you trust any information obtained about a person through their OWN blog; it requires you to make a leap of faith that what they write is actually an honest representation of their life and other such things. I mean, you might be able to figure out I’m ‘smart’ or ‘competent’ but you’ll sure in hell not be able to tell I beat my girlfriend every night, steal office supplies at every opportunity and attempt to sniff my women coworker’s crotches in meetings (unless said blogger is a total idiot or honest to the point of self-destruction). The entire thought that the existence of a web log is some requirement for hiring is as close to offensive to me as anything gets; ‘is this truly the only earth I can live on?’. Just..ugh.

  6. Stephanometra 21 years ago

    Even if reading an applicant’s blog didn’t raise legality questions with regard to whatever incarnation of the discrimination act is in force at the time, it’s still an invasion of privacy. Professional and private life should be separate because things get extraordinarily messy when they’re not. If a blog addresses a topic peculiar to one sector, then the other oughtn’t be reading it, much less using it as an accessory to the interview process.

    I’m all for some other, much more objective and tangible way of ensuring that a job candidate isn’t a fucking idiot (such as the interview), and I’m tickled pink by any notion that gives internet people an employability edge over lesser mortals, but blogs aren’t the way for either to be decided.

  7. In Mac OS X, you vote with your Dock.

    I have totally supplanted the Dock’s “Keep In Dock” feature with LaunchBar. When I login for the first time, my dock contains the Finder and the Trash. It accurately reflects my running applications, and never shows anything I’m not running at right then.

    This is slightly unfriendlier to strangers, but works out beautifully for me. I’ve pinned it to the left side, bottom, where it’s out of the way unless I attack it — and I *rarely* trip over the dock by accident, in this position.