TMO Interviews The Omni Group: Working with Apple

At WWDC, TMO’s Bryan Chaffin sat down for lunch with Ken Case, CEO of The Omni Group, to chat about software development, working with Apple, the perspective on premium applications, things Apple is doing right and things it could do better for developers and the prospects of iOS merging with Mac OS X.

TMO: Tell us about The Omni Group and what you’re doing these days.

Mr. Case: The Omni Group is a company that’s focused on developing software for the Macintosh, the iPhone and now the iPad as well. We’ve been doing this for quite awhile now. We started doing it about eighteen years ago on the NeXT platform. As NeXTStep became the foundation for the Mac’s operating system, we transitioned along with it.

As Apple has introduced new platforms, we’ve started bringing our software out for those as well, like OmniFocus for the iPhone when Apple launched the App Store two years ago, then OmniGraffle and OmniGraphSketcher so far this year for the iPad. And three more on the way: OmniFocus, OmniOutliner and OmniPlan.

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Ken Case, CEO The Omni Group

TMO: Cool. Can you tell us a little about how you got involved with the company and what your role has been?

Mr. Case: Sure. I was one of the founders. There were three of us that started the company. At the time, we were all independent contractors for NeXT. We were involved in the consulting projects that were designed to help NeXT survive as a development platform … because we thought it was the best platform around. We also did a lot of enterprise consulting. I was, at that time, managing all our programming efforts, so I was the director of engineering. Then when we transitioned to being a Mac-oriented company, I became the CEO.

TMO: Let’s move on to WWDC. Why do you personally come to WWDC?

Mr. Case: [Laughs] Apple’s tag line is that it’s the center of the App universe. And there’s something to that. It is the gathering now, and really the only one that Apple attends, when you get a chance to meet with Apple’s engineers, meet with other developers. It’s sort of a community gathering, and it’s a great place to learn, sort of, what is Apple emphasizing. What things are they working on, what things do they want us to be working on? We are here in force — we have eighteen people here.

TMO: That was my next question, Okay, eighteen out of how many?

Mr. Case: Out of forty-five.

TMO: That’s huge! Congratulations.

Mr. Case: [Laughs]. It doesn’t seem huge compared to Adobe. But, sure, compared to where we started. Over the years, we’ve just hired one or two people each year. A few years ago, we moved into a larger space — we hired nine people that year.

TMO: You’re located where?

Mr. Case: In Seattle.

TMO: As I recall, you guys have been here at WWDC, along with Andrew Stone, since before it was Mac OS X. Looking at today, how does working with Apple Developer Relations compare to ten years ago or, say, NeXT from eighteen years ago?

Mr. Case: Better than ever from our point of view. The development cycles are better, more predictable. They’re really on their game now. The Developer Relations people themselves are great to work with, and that’s always been true. But they haven’t always been able to do the things they needed to do. I think it’s easier now for them to put you in touch with the right people. Also, it seems about ten years ago, they really didn’t get games; now they do. They really do now seem to get what’s important about the components of a mainstream platform.

TMO: Does that matter to you and The Omni Group?

Mr. Case: Not directly, but the success of the platform matters to us obviously. And a platform that has that appeal to kids all the way up to people my age, I like to play games, it’s one of the things we like to do with our computers, and if you can’t provide the full picture, then a lot of people are just not gonna solve all their needs.

So one of the things we actually did first on the Mac when we moved from NeXT was game ports. Just to bring Quake out — get that cycle coming faster.

TMO: Are you still doing that sort of thing?

Mr. Case: No, no, we have moved completely to doing just our own products.

TMO: Now, one thing I’ve always been curious about … Apple typically doesn’t like people scratching in their sandbox. But you make a browser, OmniWeb. A very popular browser. Has that ever had an impact on your relationship with Apple?

Mr. Case: Not a bad impact! We have a close relationship with the Webkit team — not as much now — because we haven’t been as actively developing it recently. But certainly, in the past, we were giving them a lot of feedback about what we wanted out of Webkit. So the relationship has been good.

TMO: Tell me, do you get from Apple what you need as a developer?

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Mr. Case: Absolutely. Well, I can’t say we get everything we’d like. We wish we had a richer text system at this point. There are all kinds of things we wish we had, but it’s not really Apple’s job to provide us with everything we wish we had. They need to provide what consumers need. And they have been driving things forward very quickly. And over time, we have received the things we’ve wished for, like iOS 4. It has a lot of the features we were asking for several years ago, like notifications that we schedule locally on the phone so that we don’t have to go out to the cloud and back.

Another thing is location services. We now have location based notification, so if the user has moved a significant amount, we can let them know if they’re near a grocery store. Apple has always wanted to make the best product possible, and they listen to a lot of sources. One of those sources is us. And other developers.

TMO: Fair enough. But let me ask this, and I’m asking everybody this. What are some of the things that Apple is not doing, that you wish they could to help you out?

Mr. Case: Sure. Right now, I wish there were a way to do more flexible pricing at the App Store. In particular, I wish we had a way to do upgrade pricing for people. For example, people who have OmniFocus on the iPhone and want to add it for the iPad as well. But right now, the App Store model is based off the music model. You buy a song, and then later you buy another song. You don’t get a discount along the way.

TMO: You’re not the first person I’ve heard that from. Is it also a problem staying on the same device, going from version to version, is that an issue for you?

Mr. Case: Obviously it’s an issue. We saw what happened with Tweetie, how upset everyone got, even though it was only three dollars. Not a big expense in the grand scheme of things, but I think the principle there is that people want to feel like, oh I bought something, I didn’t have to buy it, but now that I’ve invested in it, I want that investment to be preserved. And not just throw it away tomorrow.

TMO: Is that a realistic … or sustainable … user expectation?

Mr. Case: I think it depends. People don’t expect that for games. But for customers like ours where we expect people to get long lasting value from these products for months and years, and have a relationship with us as a company I think it’s nice if we can give them some of that investment. For example, OmniGraffle is fifty dollars on the iPad, and I think people are happy to pay fifty dollars for that value, but when we come out with OmniGraffle 2, people who own OmniGraffle 1 would wish there were some kind of discount available. Again, Apple is listening; they’re just really busy.

So I’m hopeful that by the time OmniGraffle 2 comes out, we’ll have some kind of a model program.

TMO: So, generally speaking, you’re at the top end of the pricing on apps. To be blunt. On the App Store. How has that worked?

Mr. Case: [Laughs] I think it’s worked well. We have plenty of customers. I don’t recall the exact number … it’s about 70,000 right now on the iPhone. So that’s a lot of people buying a twenty dollar app. And we have about 10,000 customers, in just the last couple months, who have bought OmniGraffle for the iPad. At fifty dollars. I think people have to evaluate it more seriously; it’s not a whim purchase. Part of it has to be what you perceive the value of the application to be.

I think that anyone who looks at the value of our applications and then looks at the price will say, “Wow, that’s a really great deal.” But the process is a little harder because they don’t have a way to try it before they buy it — the way they can on the Mac. Unless they go to an Apple store. We’ve been fortunate that Apple has put OmniGraffle on the iPads in the retail stores. So people can test it out.

TMO: So… with the App Store model, there was this huge, almost instantaneous rush to the bottom… everybody doing their damnedest to make sure they could make as little money as possible. That sort of thing always baffles me, you know, people not having pride in their product. So, again, you being at the high end of the pricing structure in the App Store, how did that thought process work for you? I mean, how did the decision process arise to go ahead and be proud of your product and actually charge a sustainable amount of money for it?

Mr. Case: I’m not sure there was a process. Rather, we said, that seems like a really good value. I mean a lot of our customers are going to goto, say, a David Allen seminar that’s going to cost hundreds of dollars for one day. And they come home, and they’re looking for tools, trying to figure out what to use, and they find OmniFocus on the App Store for twenty dollars, and it’s a no brainer. They may have paid more for their pen.

We build productivity apps for people who are productive. We think, in general, these apps are going to pay for themselves within weeks, and they’re apps that people are going to continue to use for months and years.

TMO: Very good. So talk to me about developing on the iPad. What do you do with the interface that the iPad offers?

Mr. Case: Developing for the iPad, on the first round, was really interesting because all we had to go from was that Apple video. We looked at it frame by frame, asking ourselves, “what did they do there?” We started building our own paper, plastic and wood prototypes. They were the right size, we tried to get the weight about right, so we could start carrying them around, bringing them to meetings. Drawing on them. Drawing versions of our interface on them. We asked, “Does this feel right in the hands?”

Also, now we see what the real performance constraints are… Before, we were just guessing how much memory it had, how fast it was going to run.

TMO: How did the reality compare to what you guessed at?

Mr. Case: We expected that there was going to be more memory [RAM]. I mean, the iPad has as much RAM [256 MB] as an iPhone 3GS, and that was a surprise to us. We knew that the CPU would be faster but we didn’t know that memory would be just as limited.

Even so, we learned a lot before we had actual devices in hour hands, especially about using our imagination. We were able to see how a sidebar for manipulating content got in the way of the user’s content, so we redesigned it. OmniGraffle feels more roomy on the iPad than it does on the Mac laptop version. Even a big laptop.

TMO: It sounds like the constraints of the device forced you to make your app better.

Mr. Case: Absolutely. That happened with the iPhone app too. As we thought about what things people are going to do most often, what are the things they want quick access to, and so on, what are the essential pieces of the app, what is this app all about … that sort of thinking made it a better product, then we brought those fixes back to the Mac product — in the case of OmniFocus. And we’ll be doing that as well with OmniGraffle.

We did not have that experience at all when we ported some apps to Windows a decade ago. [Laughter.] That was not a recipe for improving the quality of their products.

TMO: Okay, other than the fantastic products from The Omni Group, what’s you favorite iPad app?

Mr. Case: Plants vs. Zombies!

TMO: Why?

Mr. Case: I think one of the things it shows is just how multitouch is so much better than a mouse. One example I like to use is the whack-a-mole level in Plants vs. Zombies. Can you imagine how much harder that would be if you were trying to move a mouse around? Try to hit all these things that are racing to the edge? Tapping different locations on a touch screen is as easy as tapping different keys on a keyboard. I can’t believe the mouse has lasted as long as it has, So I think the mouse is going to be gone in five to ten years.

TMO: Did you see the movie Minority Report? With Tom Cruise doing the [on screen] aerobics. There is, shall we say, a little bit of impracticalness about having a touch interface writ large. Because [gesturing] you end up doing a bit of calisthenics.

Mr. Case: I think that just as we have to redesign our apps for a touch interface, you have to redesign the ergonomics for a large type of screen. You’re not going to play with a large screen touch interface, up here, vertically, like with your current desktops. You’re going to do it more like an artist’s canvas. People will lay it down at an angle. It’s not going to be flat either. It’s worked for architects for years.

TMO: So you think that iOS will eventually migrate into the desktop space? Sooner rather than later?

Mr. Case: I may be crazy. But, yes, I do.

TMO: [Gesturing like Tom Cruise did in the movie] Do you really want to do this on a 30-inch desktop display?

Mr. Case: Are you really going to have to do that? Maybe you don’t have to interact with the display all over the display. Just like you use the touch pad on a laptop, a small section… I think this is the direction that makes the most sense. A lost of mouse actions that are second nature to us are mysterious to a beginner. I’d rather reach out and touch the screen rather than move my mouse up to the corner of the screen. I can do it much faster with my fingers because I have that kinesthetic sense of where my hand is. With the mouse, I have to watch: did I overshoot, do I have to come back?

TMO: So let me finish up with this: is iOS going to supplant Mac OS X or are we going to see something along the lines of iOS coming back to Mac OS X?

Mr. Case: I think that Macs, or whatever the Mac replacements are, they’ll be running some aspects of iOS. But iOS is going to have to evolve all over again. I don’t think, if you have a 30-inch screen you want it devoted to your single focus app. Of course, there are examples of that. People work in Adobe apps that way all the time.

But I think the UI will still have to evolve before we see that happen.

TMO: Given that, can the desktop paradigm survive the closed nature of iOS as we know it today?

Mr. Case: Good question. I don’t have the answer. [Pauses] I don’t think a lot of mainstream people would care. I know my parents wouldn’t care. So long as the apps are successful, and they have the apps they need. They’re not going to care if it’s an open platform.

TMO: We’re out of time, Ken. This has been very interesting indeed. Thank you for meeting with TMO.