The Mac Observer was able to spend some time with SmileOnMyMac at WWDC and chat about all things related to TextExpander, including some unique uses. Greg Scown, Philip Goward (co-founders) and Jean MacDonald (partner) joined our own Dave Hamilton for lunch. Along the way, lots of interesting subjects came up, like competing with Apple, how PDFPen and PageSender complement Apple’s offerings and the increasing uses of developer SDKs. The interview is brimming with insights from an Apple developer’s perspective.
For those not familiar with TextExpander, it allows one to assign shortcut keystrokes, snippets, to a longer string. After typing the snippet, text, a logo or even a photo will be inserted automagically into the text, saving a lot of typing and potential errors. Many apps on the Mac and iPhone (using TextExpander touch) support this feature by utilizing SmileOnMyMac’s SDK.
TMO: You’re Developing for the Mac and the iPhone simultaneously. How’s that going… where are you seeing more of your traction?
Mr. Scown: Our biggest traction is still on the Mac. We’ve been doing software on the Mac for years. It’s really grown very quickly, and we’re excited about that.
TMO: Now you have TextExpander on the iPhone…
Mr. Scown: Right. Expander Touch
TMO: … which is really interesting because not only is it a stand alone app, but you’ve got a framework, right? Talk about that. It’s interesting to me that I can use TextExpander [on the iPhone] as part of all these other apps and all my snippets just work. But I thought there’s not supposed to be communication amongst multiple apps on the iPhone.
Mr. Scown: There’s not really communication amongst the apps per se. We’ve got a static library, and that allows developers of other applications to essentially take the text input that they’re getting, pass it to us briefly, allow us to act on it, and pass it along to them. We do that with their knowledge and permission. It’s very different than the way it works on the Mac. On the Mac, TextExpander is running in the background all the time. On the iPhone, the library has to be integrated by the developer.
TMO: But it’s still accessing my one TextExpander Library.
Mr. Scown: That’s correct. There are mechanisms to store persistent data on the iPhone. And so, TextExpander takes advantage of one of those, and that particular store is available to multiple applications.
TMO: Very interesting.
Mr. Scown: Let’s say you were developing an application suite on the iPhone. You would need the same sort of storage, it’s just we’re doing it across more than one app. But you might do it internally, and that’s why the mechanism is there.
TMO: Okay. That’s cool. And, you’re up to 30 plus [supported] apps now, is that right?
Ms. MacDonald: Yes. 30 plus. We hit 30 during WWDC.
Mr. Scown: We’re hoping, during the developer conference as we move along, to talk to people and make sure they’re aware of our SDK. One thing that we’re learning in the conference that we need to emphasize is that [our] SDK is free. There are other companies that offer static libraries for the iPhone that they charge for, and that’s their business model, no problem with that. But our business model is that we want to sell more TextExpanders, and we want TextExpander to be more useful across the board, consequently the library is free to developers who want to use it. They get a new feature for their app, their customers are happy, and then we get a TextExpander customer, a broader TextExpander base.
TMO: And just for the sake of clarity, even if you have 15 TextExpander enabled apps, you won’t see the TextExpander functionality unless you buy TextExpander and install it.
Mr. Scown: Yes, that’s correct. You have to have TextExpander installed to manage your snippets. Otherwise there are no snippets.
TMO: Got it. So it’s not that the functionality isn’t there. Instead, the data isn’t there.
Mr. Scown: Precisely. And then, of course, you can pull your snippets from your desktop TextExpander to your mobile device. And you can also push your snippets back to the desktop — or from one mobile device to another.
TMO: Interesting. And all done via Wi-Fi.
Mr. Scown: All via Wi-Fi.
TMO: Any hope of cloud syncing? I know you’re doing that on the desktop with both MobileMe and Dropbox.
Mr. Scown: Dropbox is a requested feature for the mobile product. And I would say that its kinda high on our list. But it’s also kind of involved.
Mr. Goward: There’s no library from Apple to do it, is there?
Mr. Scown: That’s correct. MobileMe is not an option. It wouldn’t shock me if the lead feature for iOS 5 were industrial grade sync. And cloud features. Because everybody needs it. Everybody’s writing them independently. And that’s not going to result in a long term good world for Apple.
It’s a question of: they have to do what they can in the time they have. Just like… we have the same pressure as a small developer. But I think that if I had to take out my crystal ball, I think that’s gonna be something they’re definitely going to address.
TMO: Sure. It all makes sense, now that you mention it because right now we have all these apps doing it independently. That’s not a good user experience and it’s not good for battery life. If you could do one sync and then hand it off…
Mr. Goward: Looking at my Palm, the sync feature is still its most compelling feature for mobile use — because I rely on it for my address book, my calendar. I love that aspect. It should just be there for everything else too.
TMO: So, we don’t need Apple’s iDisk anymore. At least until Apple forces us to use it as our document store on the iPhone. [Laughter all around.]
So what does Apple think about what you’re doing with TextExpander touch?
Mr. Goward: That’s a very good question. I think we’ve been fairly under the radar, but obviously Apple’s aware of TextExpander. We know a lot of people within Apple that use TextExpander.
Ms. MacDonald: It was a Staff Pick in the App Store. So they’re aware.
Mr. Goward: We’ve even produced beta for them to use on their phones too, in he past.
Mr. Scown: Yes, that’s right. We produced a promotional version for the App Store. We were one of many developers who did this. The did ask us explicitly to do that.
We have users who ask, “Why can’t Apple integrate T.E. into mail?” It’s not Apple’s habit to pick up static libraries from third parties. So I have a feeling that if they’re going to start, they’re probably not going to start with TextExpander.
TMO: For me, that’s the first one I’d recommend they start with…
Mr. Scown: I’m still amazed, talking to people, that they’re still not aware of TextExpander … despite that we all know it and we use it every single day.
TMO: When I knew I had crossed over was when I was leaving someone a voice mail, and I almost recited my snippet for my phone number. [Laughter.] That’s when I knew I was fully indoctrinated into the world of text expansion.
Mr. Goward: Then, if the phone were smart enough to expand it for you, then you’d know the market had improved!
TMO: Let’s talk about the Mac. Of course, you have TextExpander for the Mac, but what else is there?
Mr. Goward: The most popular product is PDFPen, which is a PDF editor. It’s focused on all the kinds of editing which you want to do to modify a document. You can, for example, fill out an order form and sign it. Even if it’s not originally a form designed to be filled. Even of it was scanned form a copier. So it becomes invaluable for that process whereby you used to print a file and write on it by hand. It takes away that process so you can work right on the computer and e-mail things off.
TMO: PDFPen is an interesting case because it does that, but it’s always had the ability to, say, rearrange pages or delete pages or add pages in, and then save that back out as a fresh new PDF. That functionality was then embedded into Preview in Leopard. Was there any thought, when you saw that, of an “oh crap” moment? Or was it, that’s fine, and we know we do all this other stuff, and our customers do to?
Mr. Goward: I think it’s really the latter. That’s fine. We do all this other stuff. I mean, if you want to do OCR on a scanned document — we learned many PDFs are scanned — and it’s just like having a photograph on a page, even though it looks like text, it’s not. PDFPen will do OCR for it, then you can copy and edit the text. You don’t get that sort of stuff in Preview.
TMO: So when you’re developing these products .. even on the iPhone, Apple does some kind of text expansion, actually, autocorrection, is there any thought of, “Gosh, I don’t know if we should do this because it’s the kind of thing everybody wants and Apple’s gonna do it anyway.”
Mr. Goward: We obviously consider that when we design a product.
Mr. Scown: Yeah, you try to stay away from the feet of the elephant, as much as you can, while you’re in the cage. At the same time, you have to do what’s right for your customers as well. I mean, we produced FAX software a long, long time ago, and we still ship PageSender. Apple has FAX software. But we have a different feature set: the product appeals to people who FAX a lot and need to manage their FAXes. It actually turns out that we get along just fine. I know the people who do the FAX software at Apple, we talk.
Mr. Goward and Scown at Macworld
So it’s a question of can [we] offer something compelling to our customers that’s complementary to Apple’s offerings as well. So even if your product comes on to the radar or the gunsights … look at text substitution. Apple added text substitution to Snow Leopard … and that feature we believe is highly underpowered, but it met Apple’s needs to allow Pages-like substitution outside Pages. People wanted it to work in Mail and other applications, and that’s understandable.
TMO: We’ve got some good stuff here. I’m wondering, is there anything we haven’t discussed that you want to talk about?
Ms. MacDonald: I don’t think so. We wanted to talk about our SDK primarily. That’s our focus at WWDC. Obviously, we have more products, product plans, but nothing that’s specific enough to talk about that’s coming anytime soon.
Mr. Scown: Also, the SDK is becoming a competitive feature of some of the iPhone applications — which is really interesting to learn — and that’s because it’s such a powerful feature.
TMO: What’s the most interesting use-case you’ve seen for TextExpander?
Mr. Scown: There’s somebody who’s doing a keyboard accessory on the iPhone that will work on Mac, Windows and Linux. [You use your iPhone as if it were a keyboard.] And he e-mailed us asking if he could add TextExpander support. Conceivably, he might have a keyboardy-thingy on the iPhone that actually has TextExpander support.
Mr. Goward: I suppose it would be useful if you had, say, an embedded Mac in some sort of video system, stuff in the wall or something like that.
TMO: Or if you’re using a Mac mini as a media center and you want to type on it remotely. Okay, we’re getting to the end of our time here … anything else?
Mr. Scown: To be fair to the use-cases of TextExpander, twitter clients, notes apps, getting things done apps — those are the ones that have already adopted TextExpander support because those are where you get the best bang for your buck. You asked ‘what’s the most interesting?’ In a way, those are the most interesting things. But the most unique? There’s that iPhone keyboard thingy. Also, there’s a Vietnamese text input app that added support for TextExpander. That came out of nowhere.
TMO: That is interesting. Very cool. Thanks so much for spending time with us!