Each year at WWDC, TMO interviews a few Apple developers who want to tell their story. The result is usually a number of serious insights into the state of mind of the developer community. In our seventh interview, Dave Hamilton chats with Marc Edwards of Bjango, famous for iStat Menus on the Mac.
Dave Hamilton: I’m here at WWDC with Marc Edwards from Bjango. You are most well known for iStat Menus. Certainly in our world that’s the product that comes to mind when Bjango is mentioned. Was that the first product that Bjango made?
Marc Edwards: We sort of started back around Mac OS 10.4, when Dashboard widgets came out. And we made a lot of Dashboard widgets, maybe fifty or sixty. We were just doing it as a hobby, and some of them stuck, some of them didn’t. Some of them were pretty terrible, some of them were great. One of the ones that kind of did okay was iStat Pro. We stopped tracking the numbers towards the end, but I think of all our widgets and Mac apps that we gave away for free, before we kind of started becoming, you know, a real company, amounted to about 30 million downloads. Maybe more. iStat Pro the widget was the most popular third-party dashboard widget yet. Which is probably going to stay that way because dashboard widgets aren’t really a thing anymore.
TMO: Yeah, it’s not a thing.
ME: So that’s where we started, and iStat Pro morphed into a whole lot of other stuff and we ended up doing a whole lot of Cocoa stuff for iStat Pro. And then we became Mac developers and iStat Pro, as a Dashboard widget, seemed more appropriate as a Menu bar application. Which is iStat Menus.
TMO: That’s interesting. I didn’t realize that was the evolution of that. Had you developed a Mac app prior to iStat Menus or was that really, truly the first thing?
ME: That’s a good question. I think that might have been the first one we released because it was a preference pane, so it wasn’t necessarily even a real, full Mac app.
TMO: It wasn’t a full Mac app until version 4.
ME: Well, when did we change that? In version 3 we moved to preferences, that was the first paid. Sort of a recent thing.
TMO: iStat Menus is an interesting thing because it can’t exist in the App Store.
TMO: Just by definition. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. But of course you then went on to create iStat for iOS, which has to exist in the App Store.
ME: Yeah, and obviously all the stuff that makes iStat Menus difficult to be in the Mac App Store doesn’t exist because iStat for iOS is just viewing data from your Mac or from Linux, or Windows, or whatever. All those issues we would have just aren’t there.
TMO: And have you looked into creating an iStat for iOS that actually pulls data from iOS and delivers that?
ME: There’s less interesting stuff there. There’s obviously less going on. The front most app, well, generally speaking, historically has been mostly all that’s running. I guess the beauty of iOS is that it just kind of works, unless you’re a developer trying to figure things out.
A lot of our iStat Menus users are music or video professionals. You know, people who are rendering things or running things in the background. Those who want to know what’s happening, if things start getting a bit choked up, and they want to hunt down what they either need to improve or which tasks they need to kill. That isn’t an iOS thing.
TMO: It could be, though.
ME: It could be. Who knows?
TMO: Especially with backgrounding coming up, right? You’ve got some app that’s spinning around in the background. Perhaps there’s an opportunity.
ME: Well, it doesn’t sound like something that would be on the iOS App Store.
TMO: No, that’s true. You'd get yourself bounced right out for that. But with iStat Menus, you’ve iterated this over time. It has grown exponentially. How has that process happened? Is that based on your needs? Or the user’s needs?
ME: It’s definitely been a bit of both. And the great thing about having something as mature as iStat Menus, I mean we’ve been working on iStat for eight years now, in some form or another. Which is practically ....
ME: It seems really bizarre to me. So I guess we’ve had a lot of feedback. We’ve got a lot of passionate users. There are things that seem like a natural fit, and we’ve hunted those down. It’s one of those apps where every new Mac model that gets released has new sensors, and there’s new stuff to check, so we have to buy a lot of Macs for testing. It’s good fun.
TMO: Well that’s good, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. I know a lot of our readers use iStat Menus and, I’m a geek, but even I stumble into things in iStat Menus, regularly, that I had no idea were there. What are your top two favorite hidden features in iStat Menus?
ME: Oooh, hidden is tricky.
TMO: Well, okay, so not hidden. But less obvious.
ME: I think we added date and time and all the calendar stuff, that was, I think ... this is really stretching ... it might have been version 3, that’s something is maybe a little bit outside of what iStat would seem to do, and it’s something that a lot of people are using, including myself. That’s really cool as a replacement.
TMO: And that’s actually a great thing to mention because you can replace the system time by turning it off and turning iStat Menus time on. And then you get a whole lot more info in there.
ME: Okay, I do have something. A lot of people don’t know that you, certainly new Mac users don’t know that you can hold down the Apple/CMD key and drag menu items around. Which means you can drag iStat Menus. If you are replacing the time, you can make it rightmost, so it’s right near the Spotlight icon. Also we have History in iStat Menus 4, so you have to actually open up the menu and then, depending on the item, hover on the item with the mouse and then it’ll show the History. So that’s a little bit hidden too, but it’s kind of cool.
TMO: Are the Mac and iOS as a companion app the only platforms you develop for?
ME: This is a long answer to your question, but I’ll do my best. We are definitely passionate about iOS and the Mac and we definitely use Macs and iOS ourselves. We have Skala View for Android, and Skala Preview the Mac app, which sends real-time design previews to mobile devices, works with iOS and Android. So you can be designing in Photoshop for Android and have a preview on your Android device.
So we’re kind of Android developers, but not really, that was outsourced to some friends who are really close. That was good fun. And it was actually built in a week and a half, which was amazing. But they were quick and we just knew exactly what we wanted, and Android development actually turned out to be not as bad as I’d assumed from the outside looking in.
TMO: That’s good. A little taste of the reality of it.
ME: Plus we have iStat Server for Windows that we’re maintaining, but, again, we’re not really Windows developers. Even so, that seemed like a good thing to make as well.
TMO: Interesting. Okay, so there are some other apps that you make though. Tell me about a couple of those.
ME: We have something brand new that you’ve just seen a little bit of. That’s Darkness version 3. That’s actually our first iPhone app. And it’s a world clock with some cool features to help you plan meetings with different time zones involved or just if you’re interested in photography and planning a shoot and you want to know the sun or moon position for certain location on a certain date and time.
TMO: And you created it, clearly this is something you created for yourself and then released.
ME: Yeah, this certainly helps with scheduling podcasts. I’m on the Iterate podcast with Rene Ritchie and Seth Clifford and yeah, we talk to people all around the world, and that’s kind of a headache unless you’ve got something like this. So maybe you can use it?
TMO: Could be! So the changes to OS X that we saw yesterday, did that impact you folks at all?
ME: It did actually. There’s another app I failed to mention that is just massive for us. We are working on a design tool called Skala. So that will work with Skala View for iOS and Android as well. So you’ve got a design creation tool and preview on [the] device. And 10.9 now has OpenGL version 4, which is really interesting for us. That could be a big thing. We’re discussing what we’re going to do there, because we’re in the middle of development. To incorporate that would mean some changes, but they might be so good that we’ll do it.
TMO: Interesting. Tell me more about this app Skala. What exactly does it do? What would I use it for?
ME: We’ve announced it, but we haven’t announced any details yet.
TMO: How about a preview?
ME: I’m happy to give you a little bit of info. It is a design creation tool, and it’s for creating final, high-quality designs. So it’s something I will use myself to build the new versions of iStat Menus and our iPhone apps and iPad apps.
TMO: So more than just mocking things up, you’re creating the design that you will eventually use.
ME: Absolutely. It’s very much the end of the process. So you may use something else to mock things up. You’ll be able to mock things up in Skala, but it’s more about finishing; it’s and IDE for designers. It’s really for integrating the process into development as well. There’s really nothing like it. We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to love it, but we’ll see if other people like it. It’s very technical.
TMO: Again, you’re making an app for you to use and therefore you’re going to make it work well.
ME: I think the market’s big enough to have a few of them anyways.
TMO: There’s a ton of developers out there. Well over a million.
ME: Even to support several different design tools, if this flavor is for a certain kind of people, someone with my kind of design finishes where things have to be a certain way. Like I said, it’s very, very technical. Very, very opinionated too.
TMO: That’s good though. Can’t cater to everybody. Anything else going on that you want to mention?
ME: Yeah, there is actually something I can mention. Oh, my we’re busy.
TMO: That’s good!
ME: We also have iStat for Mac: it’s remote monitoring. So it’s like the iOS app, but on the Mac. And that’s something that a lot of people asked for since day one. Since we announced the iOS app that’s something people wanted. We’re finally going to be able to provide it, which is great.
TMO: So this is monitoring multiple Macs and seeing them all from one.
ME: Or Windows or Linux.
TMO: And monitoring not just machines on the local network, but machines over the Internet as well?
ME: Of course. Server monitoring, with all the full history we have in iStat Server. So this kind of completes something we’ve been working towards for a very long time. It completes the entire suite. And we also now have a consistent look across the entire suite. Which may need to be revised now that iOS 7 has been released.
TMO: What were your thoughts on iOS7. You’re clearly an opinionated designer. So I’m sitting here with an opinionated designer ... I want to hear your opinions on iOS 7.
ME: I think there are some amazing technical changes, engineering changes. I think there are some amazing features. I think there are some really, really positive changes to the design. Stuff like apps zooming from their position on the spring board. That’s cool. There are lots of really nice touches like that. There are also quite a few things that I have to say I don’t like about iOS 7. I think the icons don't fit my taste. Well, it’s not that they’re not my taste, they seem maybe like they’re not finished yet. And this is a beta, so maybe they aren’t finished yet.
TMO: You know, watching the keynote I noted a lot of inconsistencies. You look at the icons in Safari and they’re these wireframe things with no words, you know one pixel sort of deal, it seems like, I mean I haven’t used it, but it looks like a one pixel type thing. And then they launched the Music app and here’s these rich, full icons with words underneath them.
ME: I saw your tweet, and I agree. Yeah, I definitely agree. There are a few things like that. The nav bar I kind of mostly like. The new nav bar and combined status bar, that’s cool. But buttons that are just text without a frame around them don’t look like buttons to me, and I think that’s going to cause serious usability issues. So there are things that need to be tweaked. But overall I like the direction. I just don’t necessarily love the execution right now.
TMO: Sure. It’s an interesting thing. Because clearly it’s not even version one, it’s beta. But at the same time, they’re rolling it out to developers and saying: make your apps like this. And I’m sure there are a lot of developers putting their hands in the air saying “like what exactly?”
ME: I completely agree. I think this is something that is going to evolve. This is clearly a direction for the next, maybe decade. Who knows for iOS? It could be a long time. But it will have to be refined.
TMO: Well, that’s one thing Apple is very good at. Iteration is at the core of what they do.
ME: Which is probably why this was such a shock. I mean, I don’t know how you felt after the Keynote, but I just felt like I had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. It was like “what just happened then?”
TMO: Yeah, this is not an iteration. This is a do-over. But that’s good sometimes.
ME: That is very good sometimes.
TMO: Let’s hope it turns out that way.
ME: There are going to be a lot of surprised people. People not like us. People who use iOS casually. They will be very shocked when they hit that magic update button in Settings.
TMO: That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right. Apple will need to do a good job of communicating before you hit that update button, and perhaps weeks before you hit that update button that change is coming.
ME: Yeah, maybe even some kind of preview in the Settings app. Hey, here’s what you’re getting yourself into. It’s quite different.
TMO: Well cool. So what’s one of your favorite new things about iOS now that we’ve complained about iOS a little bit?
ME: That’s a tough one. I’ll tell you what I thought I was going to hate, that I now love, is the new icon shape. I thought that was really going to ruin a lot of existing icons. And you know, obviously, there’s what? I don’t know. How many apps are on the store? It's 900,000, I believe.
So I thought that was going to be a big issue, and now I’ve now seen some third-party app icons with the new masking and not only do I now love the new shape, and in fact with Darkness, the titles in Darkness are the same kind. It’s hard to explain especially in text.
The anchor points are kind of pulled away from the corner and the control points are pulled into the corner more so it ends up with this curve that’s not regular. It looks great. So I love the new icon shape. It’s a small thing.
TMO: No, but it’s something we all will have to look at all day. Or at least every day. Some of us all day.
ME: Oh, and the parallax. That’s just nuts.
TMO: That is crazy. Well, cool. Anything else before we wrap up?
ME: I guess that’s kind of it. We covered all the good stuff.
TMO: Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Interview by Dave Hamilton, transcription by Julie Kuehl, editing by John Martellaro.