Andrew Stone: App Developer’s Obi Wan

Andrew Stone started developing software for the NeXT computers back in the 1990s, moved on to the Mac and has had the Apple fever ever since. Perhaps no one has more experience working as an independent developer in the Apple world, and he has terrific perspective to offer. These days, he’s still writing great iOS software, like Twittelator, but he’s also mentoring younger developers. Andrew Stone has been a good friend for many years, so the interview at WWDC gets off to a fast start.

Dave Hamilton: So. Interesting times!

Andrew Stone: My god. This is probably the most excitement we’ve had since Apple rolled out the iPhone in 2007.

DH: Why do you think that?

AS: It’s a bitter-sweet time because Bertrand [Serlet], VP of Software Engineering, left this year. And so I’m all of a sudden looking around and thinking — all my peers — that we’ve spent the last 25 years working with — are walking away. But then, when I think about it, the sweet part of it is — because he brought the platform along with things like Grand Central Dispatch — so we can scale [our apps] as the computers have more and more cores. So what Apple did this year was ask themselves “What do users hate? And how can we make it so that each of our developers don’t have to fix it.”

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Xcode 4 is absolutely fantastic. I think the fantastic thing is that we’re finally able to everything there in one place without the friction of finding it. They tackled the major problem which is that process… “where’s that other thing?” For example, you’re in a file. You need to get to another file. Now, Xcode has eight different techniques. The navigation popups. But what’s really incredible is the GDB environment — the frames are just there. You pop ‘em up. You see the stack. Before, you had to kinda rifle around.

So what are they doing? They’re lowering the barrier to entry. Perhaps the biggest development is the new ARC. The automatic retain counting. [A compiler feature which inserts retain and release calls where needed so the developer doesn’t need to worry about it.] It’s going to save these people so much trouble.

DH: But it’s something an end user would never know about.

AS: Except for fewer crashes. They’re gonna be protected. Does that mean people can write incorrect code? Of course!

DH: But isn’t it the compilers job to protect you?

AS: It so is the compiler’s job. They made the right decision. My buddy, Bill Bumgarner, is geting so excited. He could barely wait. He says, “You will be so happy Andrew. You will not be sad by the new twists and turns Objective-C is taking.” That’s why it’s fine for Bertrand to walk on to the next part of his life. Because he left behind this legacy, all of our old tools, but really working well.

And this matters mostly to the newbies to the platform. That steep curve has just gotten to be a gentle ramp. What about designing your whole app with storyboarding… it’s fantastic.

DH: So you’ve had, changing gears just a little bit here, you’ve had an interesting path, and we talked about this a couple years ago, but since then, some things have changed. You’ve been developing on pretty much the same platform for 20 plus years. of course, that was from NeXT, jumping to the Mac, and then to the iPhone. But now you’ve all but abandoned the Mac and spent all your time on iOS apps.

AS: It’s so much fun.

DH: And it puts money on the table. But…now you’ve come back to the Mac App Store.

AS: Here is what is so cool about what’s really going on. Which is all the improvements that came from this incredible improvement in iOS by Apple are starting to find their way back into the Mac OS. And so I see convergence in a few years. Not that we’ll be touching our screens per se, because we’ll be using touch pads, but we’ll be doing everything with touch. That’s really become evident as we’ve seen iOS features going into the Mac — as opposed to the other way around. It’s all feeding one way.

So if you were a giant fruit company and you needed to maintain source, doesn’t it make sense to try and get total convergence on those?

DH: Of course.

AS: And then what about Loren Brichter of Twitter releasing his AB UIKit? He made an announcement that they are going to open source this really clever kit. And interestingly enough, the founder of another awesome Twitter client, Craig Hockenberry of Icon Factory and Twitterific, he started the Chameleon Project to do the same thing. This is great — I’m glad to see Twitter participating in the community that way

So as Twitter changes and maybe tries to get a little bit more dominant on the iOS by integrating it — so that people who have apps can quickly drop in Twitter. That’s sort of what’s going on there. And that makes sense. I’ll find out more tomorrow over at Twitter HQ. But I think it’s good for me. But people say, why? It seems like Twitter is trying to dominate the client market. But the cool thing about Mac and iOS users, besides there being so many of them, is that if Apple can deliver a few hundred million more Twitter users, thanks to this OS integration, because they’ve made it so easy, then they can also use my app. Maybe they’ll take some interest in it when they get tired of the standard fare.

So I don’t see that as bad. And it behooves Twitter to leave these little third party clients, carving out new territory and features in mash up space — so that they can take advantage of these ideas and let that fertilize. Because basically, if it starts to show up in Twittelator, they’ll be pressured to put the feature in theirs.

Also, a couple of years ago when Tweetie and Twitterific and I [Twittelator] were in a kind of nuclear arms race. Who’s going to dominate? And then we realized we had it wrong, totally wrong. Everybody who’s buying mine is also buying yours. They’re trying them out. So we are winning by doing this dance. This is good for all of us.

DH: That’s right! Nobody bought just one.

AS: Right, let’s face it, the rising tide is raising all the boats. This is what’s building community more than anything. There’s not this limited pile of money. There’s this seemingly endless, growing amount of wealth around the iOS venture. Whether it’s big corporations hiring every developer or whether its startups, it’s amazingly intense with no sign of abating. Even it it plateaus, it’s still tremendous!

DH: You released Videator on the Mac App Store almost as an experiment. How did that experiment go?

AS: That is exactly right. That was the most recent code base I had, so it was closest to conforming. Remember, Create is now 21 years old. It’s a lot of legacy stuff. It’s huge. It doesn’t really fit the App Store model of cheap apps…

DH: A single focus.

AS: Yeah. And then there’s the issue of quality support for a full on design package. I can’t do that, I’m kinda getting at the age where if I forget my family any more, they’ll disown me totally. So I need to scale back. I have to stop thinking I’m this super hero who can code anything…

DH: Well, you are!

AS: It’s about getting the right priorities. We see that as we get older and lose our parents. And then I have this whole other new role which is being the godfather of indy [development]. I’m super encouraging of all the younger developers, and I’m happy to help people get going. Every Thursday in Albuquerque we have a meeting in the morning, like 9 to 11, at a coffee shop. And we call it “Cocoa Conspiracy.” It started off with just a few buddies of mine, but now we have about 50 iOS devs in the Albuquerque area. And every week, 5 to 15 guys show up. And what happens is, people know me. So they send me work. Of course, I can’t do it all. So I set up my friends with work. It’s like — giving back to the community because it’s given me so much.

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And of course, there’s the coolest thing going: iOSDevCamp that Raven Zachary and dominique Sagolla co-founded. I’ve been to three of them. And when I started, I brought my son — who’s going to be 12 years old this year. Last year, he designed this app called PayKids. You basically create this sub-account of your parent’s PayPal account so that you parents can give you an allowance every week. And you could e-mail them if they forget, because, you know, parents are slackers. Then, we did a design shred on it and we finally realized, because it deals with money and transfers and bank accounts we were going to need too many lawyers. We didn’t ship it, but it was fun to mock it up.

This year, I’m bringing a team of Cocoa Conspiracy guys and my son back, but we’re going to flip it on its head, ask him, “What do you want to build?” We’re at your disposal. We’re his team.

DH: Ah, wow!

AS: It’s like…he’s Steve [Jobs] and we’re his team.

DH: What a great thing for you to do, but what a great opportunity for him!

AS: I’ve been encouraging some of the other dads with kids. For example, Bill Dudney of Apple, he’s the head of [Apple’s] frameworks. Close to the metal. His son is 15, and last year, his app took a prize. So it’s the next generation. So it’s been really neat getting back to the evangelizing that I was doing at the very beginning. I love this stuff. And as Apple makes it all easier to use … look at the number of apps in the store. Look at the number of indies. Look at the fact that this place sold out in just hours. If my contacts at Apple hadn’t texted me that morning… And they need the grandfathers here. It’s our legacy. By never giving up on NEXT and its technologies. And understanding back then that this was the future. And then there’s Steve’s amazing ability to bring the right talent. He’s not afraid to hire somebody who’s smarter than him.

That’s the hallmark of great leaders. They can discern the difference between those who say they can and those who can. There’s something magical about Apple, those inside and outside of Apple, that have gathered around this campfire that Steve ignited, you know? For those of us who were there are the beginning, we can see now, our life was not in vain. It feels really good.

Now, this is just the beginning again. That’s the thing I try to encourage young developers about. Sometimes they say, “Oh, I wish I had gotten into the App Store in 2008.” And I tell them, oh, it was hard to develop apps then! They listen and then react. There are so many companies that don’t even listen. So, I think there’s some level of honesty at Apple about what they call the Eating of the Dogfood. There’s a culture of engineering honesty, basically, the better idea wins. If it’s garbage, figure out a way to dump it. And that’s what’s made all this possible, I think.

Another thing that’s interesting about iOS development is that you have to have a team. You have to have a programmer. You have to have a UI guy. You have to have testers who know nothing about tech to make sure they get the app. It’s more than QA, it’s UX, user experience.

And finally, who is going to be your charismatic leader who goes around and impresses people that this is great! How do you get heard above the noise?

DH: That’s the trick. But that’s just the way the world works.

AS: That’s the way the world works. But don’t forget to have one of those people on your team too. Maybe it’s a funded start up, or maybe you’re a team at a corporation, but what it does is expand who is involved in the iOS revolution. It’s like the Katamari ball — it’s collecting people as it rolls and gathers momentum.

DH: What do you think of Android?

AS: Well, we’ve heard that Android has a lot deployed. But what is Android? Is it a platform? Is it a device? There are so many different manufacturers and so many different output sizes and there are so many different feature sets that are or aren’t available. It would be really hard for a small indy to work with them.

DH: Andrew, we are out of time. This has been a fabulous interview. Thanks for your amazing insights, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next year!