WWDC: Max Seelemann - If I’d Stayed in School, I’d Die

A decade ago, Max Seeleman was a youngster in school when he launched the Ulysses writer’s tool and The Soulmen. In this WWDC interview, he tells TMO’s Dave Hamilton how the OS X app has evolved. And how smart, technical changes led to the Daedalus editing app for the iPad and the new, rewritten Ulysses 3, coming soon.


Dave Hamilton: So, you’re with a company called “The Soulmen,” and you’ve been developing … interesting apps. Text editors, a kid’s music player, and that sort of thing. Tell me a little bit about where that started and how it all happened.

Max Seelemann: You know, we started ten years ago. Actually I got to know my partner eleven years ago, back when mailing lists [list servers] were so cool. And he went on there and asked, “Hey, I have an idea for an app — is there someone out there who can do it?” And I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we did this little note taking app, and we didn’t get in contact, and then we forgot about it. We had this NoteX app — that no one knows about.

Max Seelemann

And a year later, he came back to me and said,” Hey, I have an idea for a writing app, an app for writers — not a code editor and not for secretaries. No one does this. So let’s do it!” I said, “Yep. Sure. How long do you think it will take? A month? It’ll be quick.”

It took nine months.

TMO: Of course!

MS: And then we came out in July 2003 with Ulysses 1.0. And if you look at that time, this was shortly after Apple released the Safari beta. Mac OS X was at 10.2 and really new. There was no Spotlight. A lot of stuff was not yet there. So we did Ulysses 1.0, it was really cool, and we kept going on. Now, it’s nine years later.

Looking at it, Uysses hasn’t changed that much. However, back then we had full screen mode. I think we were one of the first to do full screen. And on the Mac we added this gorgeous console mode. That’s where the screen goes black, and you have orange text on it. It’s very focused on writing, and we had it back in 2003.

Max SeelemannTMO: That speaks to us UNIX geeks. It’s good!

MS: [laughs] And we had a feature, now it’s called resume, but if you quit the app, even in the first version, and then reopen, it would open you right at the place where you were when you stopped working, with the same selection and even with changes unsaved.

TMO: I remember that. It was a big deal.

MS: We even had backups of projects, so that you’d have a safe copy and not lose any data. Fast forward to now, and you see all of these three things are now on the system level. Now there’s a better resume than we did, there’s a better backup than we had, and of course, the full screen mode is now way more native than what we had.

When you develop and app for nine years, it gets quite cluttered. You think about, hmmm, what do they want? Let’s add this, let’s add that. And then you get to some point where you realize this is no longer a good concept.

TMO: You were saying earlier that, conceptually, things over time didn’t work anymore…

MS: Right. One good example, if you’re doing footnotes in the current Ulysses, you place a marker with a tag around it in the text and the same marker in the notes, then the footnote text in there. But actually, it’s a footnote in the notes panel, and the same goes for links and images. Why do you have to put images in the notes? And things like that. So the structure wasn’t all that flexible anymore. Not what we were wishing for.

Then we did Daedalus. It came out last year; it’s our text editor for iPad. And we did a couple of new things there as well. We skipped all these file metaphors. Even Apple still uses them, so we still have folders and files. But we scratched all of that and said, that’s not native. The iPad is supposed to be native stuff, and files are folders are not native. So Marcus [Fehn] came up with the idea of sheets in a stack which which is similar to a folder, with files in there, and it frees you from some of the [file] concepts. For example, you don’t have to have sanitized file names. You can’t have have newline and colon characters in file names, but why? But if it’s my title on the top of a sheet, I can do whatever I want.

TMO: Very interesting.

MS: It frees you from organizational structures — file names are sorted alphabetically. Why can’t I sort my text like I want? If I’m in a stack, I just pick the next page and turn it over, and I’m on the next sheet, and I can just look at the previous one and still go where I am. Switching to this concept allowed us to go to a more iPad-ish user experience by navigating by gestures. So you open by pinching and swipe to go to the next sheet, and if you’re at the last page in a stack, you just swipe again, and you go to the next page, just like in a real stack of paper. Similar to how, if you’re writing on the last page of a stack of paper, you just turn it over. There’s a new blank page, and you can write as you like.

TMO: And you’re good to go! The impressive part is that you as programmers came up with this because it’s so easy for us to get so deep down that we lose sight of things.

Max Seelemann

MS: Marcus is not a programmer, and that’s actually beneficial. He has no insight into how to do the simplest of apps. He can do HTML and CSS, but that’s it. It’s really great because he always challenges me with the perspective of a user, so he comes to me and says “This would be good.” And I say, “It would be utterly complicated.” And he says, “Yeah, but this would be good.” And I say, “Yeah, it would be awesome.” And he says, “So, let’s do it!” That’s the way you operate.

TMO: That’s so smart…

MS: If you take a close look at Daedalus, it’s utterly complicated to do, there’s so much text that needs to be rendered and displayed fluidly, but the user doesn’t notice any of the complications.

TMO: They shouldn’t notice!

MS: That’s the intention of all this complicated stuff we do. You don’t see it and you don’t feel it, so that’s good.

TMO: That’s smart. And it’s awesome.

Max SeelemannMS: Back to Ulysses. So we saw that Ulysses was dated, and we had some nice concepts in Dedalus, then said to ourselves, let’s just do it all over again. Let’s question everything we ever had and let’s stretch every code we have and let’s start from the ground up. So Ulysses 3 doesn’t share a single line of code with any of those two apps.

TMO: You guys don’t mind taking the hard way through!

MS: No. We’ve scratched everything. Like I said before, Ulysses 3 is still on the same foundation … like we do plain text editing, we do focus on content, we separate the presentation from your tags, but that’s it. But we questioned every concept we had in Ulysses 2, and we worked it. The overall goal we had was to do the best text editor ever. That’s our goal, and it’s very simple.

TMO: Keeps you focused.

MS: [laughs.] Yes, keeps you focused! In talking about a text editor, I think we both agreed that there’s no way around plain text. So rich text editing is not a great way to write. So you do plain text. And plain text has this intrinsic beauty. What you write is exactly what you get. You write a word, and this is the word. You write a paragraph, and this is the paragraph. There’s no second dimension like rich text where there’s extra formatting. It’s so clear. Everything you see is everything you get.

But then plain text is too simple. And then you want to give it a structure, you want to have headings, and make stuff important and so on. This is when you start using markups like Markdown or Textile. In Markdown, you use hashes to mark a paragraph as a heading. And you use asterisks to make things strong. It’s still very plain text-ish because it’s still very simple, it’s extremely simple to write a hash, it’s right there and you see what it is. And it you have a nice editor, it’s highlighted for you, so you can see what it is.

However, nowadays people tend to keep stuff in their text, like links and footnotes and images. It gets complicated at that point. So if you take a look at links in Markdown, you have to do these square/angular brackets, write the link text in there, then you do round brackets, and write the URL in there. Then you have the problem that the URL is in your text which you actually do not want because it clutters your text.

And what you do is, instead of, round brackets you use square/angular brackets to identify it in there, and write the square angular brackets with an identifier to someplace else, and write the URL there. And what you immediately realize that this is syntax, this is code, this is no longer very plain-text in terms of What You See is What You Get. It’s no longer simple. For us a programmers, it’s not a problem, but for users, it’s a syntax they have to learn, it’s a syntax they have to forget about and it’s a syntax where they can make errors.

And all of these are no good for a great user experience. It was a compromise, at the time Markdown was done, it was awesome, but Markdown is turning ten this year. Ulysses is nine. That’s a long time.

So for Ulysses 3, we asked ourselves, is it possible to have stuff like links and images and footnotes and whatever as easy and as straightforward as error-safe as plain text? So, the same editability, the same comfort, the same directness in conveying what it is, realizing, yes, this is my link. And no syntax at all. We think we succeeded. So that’s the story of Ulysses 3.

TMO: Cool. I’m looking forward to seeing it. So, to kind of wrap up the interview, you’ve been developing now for Mac and iOS for ten years. And clearly the Apple landscape has changed dramatically. You’ve seen it in some of the features that you’ve preempted out of your products. And Apple wasn’t the company they are today. How has that been for you? Has Apple’s growing market helped you, and has Apple’s growth impeeded anything that you’ve wanted to do — because everybody wants to do it?

MS: I’m 25 years old now. If you go back ten years when we started, I was 15 and still going to school. Then I had to do my civil service, and I had to study. When I was just finished with my studies, it was January last year, I got my diploma, like a Masters, and I started to work on a Ph.D. At the university, and this was exactly the time when Apple came out with the Mac App Store [MAS]. And we put Ulysses 2 on there, and in the first month we had revenue equal to the previous year.

Max Seelemann

TMO: That’s fantastic.

MS: I mean, it wasn’t going that well before, so, it was okay while I was studying, and it was paying for my cell phone contract, and I could go to WWDC every year, so that’s what I wanted. But where we come from, we can live quite cheap and so we had this amount of money, and I said, “Hmmm, damn, I’ve been doing this [studying] for so long now, and if I stay at the university, I’m probably going to die.

And Marcus didn’t have a concrete plan for what he would do for next the next year, so we said, let’s scratch that Ph.D — I’ll stop it for now. Let’s do a company. This is the answer to your question because Apple came out with the MAS and we were finally able to start working full time on all this stuff. We’ve always been doing it part time while studying, and Marcus has been writing for game magazines. And working as a graphics artist at an advertising company. This gave us a chance to start [our company], to get it running. And so now we’re a company.

TMO: Excellent. So, how have sales maintained for you since that initial surge that you saw in the first month of the MAS?

MS: The second and third month were really crappy. I mean, they weren’t as crappy as before… But we assumed it would be this way, and we didn’t expect the surge to continue like that. And then we came out with Daedalus, and Apple had a writing app promotion in May, so all the promos gave us a real boost, so that we could survive the next month. So… the business is not yet very stable. I want it to be more stable later, but for now it’s okay for short term planning.

When we started, it was just the two of us. But we always always had some students who were studying with me, doing student jobs. So as of September, the company has four. We are growing, with two full-time employees. Doing apps with four people is much more productive than doing it with two. We believe we can really get things going now.

TMO: Awesome. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap up the interview? Anything special that’s coming that you want to talk about?

MS: I can tell you that we’re currently working on Daedalus 1.4. It’s not as revolutionary as Ulysses 3, but …. [Laughter] We’re finally getting rid of MobileMe sync. We’re not replacing it with iCloud. iCloud is coming later. iCloud is a bit difficult. Technically, it’s not yet what I would call superb — as advertised. It has a lot of implications. But we’ll do an iPhone version of Daedalus. For now, we are just getting rid of MobileMe and adding massive sync support so we can do multiple WebDAV servers and multiple Dropbox accounts, and we are fine tuning the look. Daedalus 1.4 is around the corner. If you want a beta, I can get you one.

TMO: Yes indeed. All right, sir, thanks for taking the time to chat. It was great.


Interview by Dave Hamilton with his iPhone. Editing and transcription by John Martellaro with the Scrivener Transcription Tool.