Developer Communication vs. Abandonware

Third party blogs provide a valuable way to find out about new software and, in the same way, a developer’s own blog is crucial for staying informed about the development process of your favourite apps. It is arguably the same tool that we use to share, review, and use great Mac applications that has also driven the increased importance of communication between a developer and a user.

Successful software developers are fully aware of this relationship, but what happens when a developer fails to uphold this tried-and-true method of communication? My assertion: pay for independently developed software at your own risk.

The Relationship

Developers use blogs on their websites to keep the community of users who enjoy their software updated on development progress, new applications, or general news surrounding the product or company. Forums are implemented to involve users in discussion with each other. Innovative uses for the software in question get discussed and shared among the community, and on occasion the community is involved in the development process in open calls for feature requests.

A shot of Panic's excellent blog

A shot of Panic's excellent blog

Twitter, Facebook, email lists, and an ever expanding list of social media tools are being used as communication outlets between developers and users. Communication makes users happy; they feel like they’re being listened to and catered for. Maintaining this relationship is absolutely critical in the new, Web 2.0 setting of software development and distribution.

The Safe Bet

Investing your time and money in an application developed by an established development company is usually a safe bet. You can spot these companies and their awareness of the fundamental relationship between developer and user by their backlog of informative blog posts, development updates on Twitter, and/or active discussion forums.

Consumers who purchase and use software primarily from reputable development companies seem generally happier with the software support, communication, and ongoing development than people who invest in independently developed software. If you buy an application from an established company, you’re likely to encounter similar satisfaction.

The Risk

Conversely, there is always a risk involved when investing time and money into the product of an independent developer. Now don’t get me wrong. By no means am I attempting to discredit independent software developers. In fact, some of the best software comes from independent developers, as evidenced by Logan Collins, developer of the award winning Schoolhouse software.

The Hit List

The Hit List

That being said, examining the case of Andy Kim’s phenomenal productivity app The Hit List will demonstrate how investing yourself (particularly, your money) in the product of an independent developer is almost always riskier than in the software developed by an established company.

Andy Kim’s The Hit List has become a wildly popular application, arguably fueled by it’s inclusion in the renowned MacHeist 3 bundle. The application went on sale for pre-order during it’s beta phase, and unfortunately remains in this state, seemingly abandoned. The Hit List sold many pre-order beta copies and gained a community that has become quite vocal in the Google Groups forum dedicated to the application, in wake of Andy’s disappearance.

As a member of this community, I can vouch for their justification. Andy Kim’s last blog post on his website went up on September 17th, 2009, over a year ago at the time of this writing, and not so much as a tweet has been heard from him since. The only signal that users get that he’s still alive is updated downloads (not updates to the application itself), providing extended beta expirations. But users don’t want extended betas – they want a 1.0 release, and communication.

Again, as a user patiently awaiting my 1.0 copy of what is otherwise one of the greatest productivity apps I’ve used to date, I have a feeling that the community would likely be far less irate had Andy given some sort of indication he was abandoning the project, or attempted to return pre-order money to his customers.

And if he hasn’t abandoned the project? Well, some sort of assurance that his users will get what they’re waiting for would be nice.

Conclusion

I suppose this article could be interpreted as an open letter to Andy Kim, assuming he frequents the Internet enough to stumble across it. But I think the message is bigger. Web 2.0 has changed the way we distribute software, as well as the way we communicate about it.

Of course I’m not suggesting that you give up on independent developers. Home brew software is an important part of Mac app culture. I’m simply saying that it may be beneficial to examine the risk of an app becoming abandonware.

Current and aspiring (and particularly independent) developers need to be aware of the unspoken cruciality of the communicative bond between developer and user. Maintaining this relationship will keep users and customers happy, and keep them from jumping ship, as so many The Hit List refugees have done.


  • http://kimsokol.com Kim

    Although I didn’t pay full price for The Hit List, I did buy last year’s (or was it more than a year ago?) MacHeist bundle basically just for it. But although it works fine as is, with the lack of communication, I’ve got nervous about it. These days, I keep my To Do lists on a piece of paper – at least paper doesn’t risk having a beta expire and locking me out.

    It makes me sad, because for quite a while, The Hit List was basically my external brain. Ah well.

  • http://twitter.com/bucknutz Bucknutz

    Great article… about time someone calls Andy Kim and his scam “The Hit List” out.

  • http://nataliaventre.com Natalia Ventre

    Before buying I do consider if there is an updated blog and if there is an active Twitter account, but the main reason to buy are the features. I love The Hit List and I don’t care if it’s a beta because it’s fully functional.

    I agree, Scott, buying from independent developers is a risk. I think that in doubt, the best approach is to send them an email asking about the project and see what they respond. There are many great apps with outdated blogs, I think that web apps developers care more about communication than desktop developers.

  • David Mead

    I bought the MacHeist bundle and fell in love with The Hit List. It is simply a beautiful piece of software. But I have abandoned using it just as Andy has abandoned making it. I don’t like Things as much as I liked The Hit List, but at least it is supported and has an iPhone app to go along with it. At this point, even if The Hit List does make an official launch, I would never recommend buying it (unless it is developed by somebody else). There is just too much chance that when an inevitable update to Mac OS X comes out, it will no longer be compatible and everybody will have to scrap their data, and their money.

    Overall, I love indie software. I use Pixelmator far more than Photoshop and Sketch from Bohemian Coding is quickly becoming my goto for vector drawings. But this article is correct, buyer be ware.

  • http://twitter.com/warwraith Warwick

    I’m also a pre-purchaser of The Hit List. Do keep waiting for Andy? Do I consider my money “done” and buy Things instead? I like The Hit List, but I’ve ended up not using it very much because I don’t want to invest the time integrating it into my workflow if it’s going to be abandoned.

    Another topical example of silence in the face of user revolt is the most recent post on TapTapTap’s blog.

    Since Camera+ was removed from the iTunes store over the secret inclusion of a rejected feature, there’s been no apparent communication from the TapTapTap guys. For whatever reason John and the team have chosen to stay silent, I think that lack of communication is fuelling the subsequent histrionics in the comments on the blog.

    There may be a very good reason for the lack of communication in both cases, but from experience it leaves a void that if you as the developer don’t fill, it WILL be filled by the users, for better or worse.

  • Quine

    I think an interesting case of pseudo-abandonware are the products from Nullriver. Their support section has been down for years, emails are rarely answered, and they put out an update every 4-6 months with nothing but a little note on their home page.

    I’ve been using medialink for quite a while and i’m shocked at both the lack of customer communication from them and the fact that they are apparently still developing software, albeit very slowly.

  • http://www.thisisjeffwong.com jeffwong

    Why does software get abandoned?

    Why don’t developers treat it like a business that can be sold to someone whose time is worth it to maintain old software?

    It could be an interesting series of articles talking about the economics of independent software development and maintenance.

  • SC

    Safe bet ? There is no such thing. Just look at the blunder tap tap tap did with Camera+ and how they abandoned paying customers. Absolutely zero contact after Apple kicked them out of the App Store.

    I have only one thing to say – if you’re incompetent, it’s way better admitting it rather than lurking in the dark, which is shameful.

    • http://twitter.com/warwraith Warwick

      “Just look at the blunder tap tap tap did with Camera+ and how they abandoned paying customers.”

      How exactly have customers “been abandoned”? Camera+ still works. Convert still works. They haven’t communicated about the situation for two months but it’s not like the apps have ceased to function.

  • digital Monkey

    Just went over to see what the hype is about. THE HIT LIST looks “just” like Things. Why do you guys like it better. Just curious.

    • http://dougneiner.com Doug Neiner

      Its just lest specific on how you use it. It works much closer to a slightly structured piece of paper with extra features. Vs. Things (which I love as well) that is much more GTD specific.

  • Jeremy

    I have the app, love it, want to slap the developer for not communicating at all, I’m not even nearly as mad about not having an iphone app, or updates as I am with just the complete lack of communication at all.

    Looking at the road map http://static.potionfactory.com/files/thehitlist/beta/rn.html
    it’s been almost a year since he’s done any sort of actual update besides changing to sparkle and hot licenses are displayed…see… he’s doing great.

  • http://log.tuananh.ws Tuan Anh

    THL works just fine for me n i love it. I mean I would love an iPhone app for it but I can live without that.

  • DittoBox

    Wait…what? The last release was 7 days ago. I’m not sure what the big deal is…

    • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

      The problem is that we were promised a companion iPhone app long ago which hasn’t happened. Not a big deal for me anymore since I use THL in conjunction with iCal and 2do on the iPhone/iPad.

      But I’ve paid for the app and all I get are monthly extensions of the expiry date. I never know if I’m going to be locked out of the app at beginning of a new month or not. That’s just frustrating! The least Andy could do is remove the expiry limitation for paid customers so we don’t have to sweat over this again and again.

      I love THL and I rely heavily on it every day. It’s beautiful and funtional – perfect for someone like me who doesn’t want the stricter GTD approach of OF or Things. It just WORKS … and I wish I could have the peace of mind to know that it will continue working, even if Andy decides not to put any more work into it.

      @Andy: Please, please don’t abandon THL. It’s a beautiful and amazing piece of software.

    • Sebastian

      Look at the changelog: http://static.potionfactory.com/files/thehitlist/beta/rn.html

      Changes for last update: “Beta expiration extended to November 1st, 2010″

      Latest update with changes not related to beta expiration and auto updater: October 17, 2009

      The app is working just fine for me. I just don’t understand why customers that _paid_ for this app are affected by this beta expiration! When the developer decides do stop the periodic extensions of the expiration date, we can’t use the app we paid for.

      Sebastian

      • Winter

        At this point there should be NO expiration.

  • http://slightlyinsightful.com/ Ammon

    Sadly, plenty of devs abandon their work before it has a chance to move beyond the slick and into the realm of functional as well.

    Disco, for example was a poster child app for the so-called Delicious Generation. It looked great, I bought it, and it has languished in neglect for over two years.

  • http://charliemonroe.net Charlie

    As a developer myself, abandonning an app that’s already developed in this stage (almost ready to launch) really means an accident. Remember he’s just 1 guy that handles all. If he got run over a bus and died, I guess all of you ranting would be ashamed. I do not know if this is the case, I guess we’ll never know. But I don’t think this was a scam as I can imagine how much time went into developing the app – there are easier ways to make the money he might have made…

    • René

      Oh, he is very much alive. Beside the fact that he releases a new download with an extended beta expiration every now and then (usually on the day the beta is expiring) he has also released a game for iOS not long ago, despite the fact that he should be working on the iOS version of THL…

  • René

    I am also one of the poor folks who bought THL a while ago. It does work great, indeed. I would have no problem with it if he would just call the current version 1.0, remove the stupid beta expiration and stop developing it. That way I could use it without the feeling that my data might become inaccessible when the beta expiration runs out again. I already stopped hoping for the iPhone version – this thing will never be available.

    • Brandon

      This. Exactly. Just call it 1.0 now.

      • http://martin.cleaver.org Martin Cleaver

        +1 for calling it 1.0

  • Raky

    Good blog Scotty – I’m with you on this one. Also a THL user but for what it’s worth the software is great. http://hublistapp.com/ Probably time to move onto this!

    • http://hublistapp.com David

      Good post! As you mentioned indy developers are an important part of the software ecosystem and a great source of innovation. Despite the potential “risks” without the support of early adopters an individual developer may never have the chance to grow into an “established software company”. If you like something show your support and encourage your favorite indy dev to grow! Thanks for the Hub List recommendation @Raky!

  • James

    I think his biggest mistake was the fact that he didn’t communicate or do something to prevent paid customers from being left in the lurch.

    This kind of thing follows you around.

    But provided he did that, he doesn’t really owe you more than that. There are many reasons a small ISV may cease to develop a product, and having gone through such a process personally, I can understand.

    I had to take a corporate job again in 2009 due to bad timing for starting a new business while still trying to support a family. Sucked bad, and even worse because after a day’s brain dead slogging the last thing I wanted to do was sit down in front of a computer again and handle all the email from customers who had bought my app before the company kinda failed.

    So I basically let them know what the deal was. I would suggest Andy (if he’s still around) do the same, and at the very least, extend the expiration indefinitely, and just call it 1.0.

    People are pretty understanding if you give them background, and it really doesn’t reflect badly on you if you couldn’t make the business of it work.

  • Agos

    And what about TextMate? Allan may as well be on the moon right now for what we know.

    • Jaime

      Last thing he said was that Textmate 2 would be done when it’s done. Textmate as it is right now is the best overall text editor for mac, not taking into account users long time preference to VIM or Emacs (though I don’t now one Emacs user on a Mac). When you buy Textmate you paid for a product that although it’s not perfect, it the next best thing. Who cares if he never updates it, we got our moneys worth and he doesn’t bullshit anyone about it. “I’m busy, I’m working on it, and it will be done when it’s done.” Is a very good excuse (if you want to call that an excuse), regardless of what he said before regarding T2′s launch.

  • Stephane

    I also bought the MacHeist bundle partly for the HitList, since it’s never got to the 1.0 release, I stopped using it for fear or getting my data stuck for god in it. A couple of month ago, I saw the the developer has released a paid app for the iPhone so I tough I’d send him an email, and beleive me if you want but I actually received a reply.

    here my email :
    It looks like your the same person that did the Hit List app, love to hear if it’s dead or not. I wouldn’t recommend your app to anyone as it seem there is no support.

    And his reply:
    I am still working on The Hit List and it’s far from dead. I am not doing as much as I should be on support, but as it’s in beta, I’m spending more of my energy on actually finishing it up. I actually don’t mind if you don’t recommend it to others (yet!) since having to support so many users is one of the reasons why it’s taking me so long to finish it to begin with.

    As for Five Moku, I wanted to try releasing something on the App Store. Partly to get experience before doing it with The Hit List and partly because I liked the idea of getting something done real quick for a change.

    I know that I’m letting down a lot of people by taking so long with the iPhone version of The Hit List, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

    - Andy Kim

    To me, the argument about supporting user is crap as I never heard of anybody getting an answer from him before. It looks more like he’s just trying to get money from paid customer. I know that I’ll never pay for another app by Andy Kim but I do own a lot of small 1 developer app and will continue to buy them as I feel they deserve money for their work and do produce great apps.

    p.s. As other have said, I wouldn’t be pissed if the app just remove the beta expiration date, that way I could still use it without the fear of being stuck.

  • Entica

    Worst case scenario: it does expire and there’s no update from Andy, couldn’t you just set your system date back a day or week and retrieve your data?

    But I agree, I hate the beta date expiration thing… I’m looking for something else to use but just haven’t found anything that turns my crank like THL does.

  • http://www.thegraphicmac.com James

    I don’t mean this in a cruel or mean way, but anyone who pays for beta software deserves to be relieved of their cash. It’s just ridiculous to do it. And pre-ordering software (particularly shareware apps from indie developers) is also silly.

    I’m not talking about Apple, Microsoft or Adobe – we know they’re going to be around and actively develop. But outside of those companies and a small handful of others, you’re just asking to be let down by buying pre-release or beta software.

    It’s just too easy to write and release beta and version 1.0 software. It’s an entirely different thing to actively maintain it.

    As far as using updated blogs, Facebook pages and Tweets goes, I typically avoid “new” software when I see they’re blogging everywhere. It’s called over-hyping, and quite frankly, if I see them Tweeting 30 times a day and posting to FB and blogs several times a week it tells me they’re stretched too thin and aren’t dedicating enough time to the software.

    A great example: St.Clair Software makes Default Folder X. It’s a fantastic utility that’s been around since lMac OS 8/9 days. I’ve never seen a blog post from him, I don’t believe he tweets (and if he does, I never see it), no Facebook posts, no guest commentary articles, and no over-hyped garbage on all the regular Mac blogs about the utility. But the app has been around for decades, and is updated frequently.

    At the other end of the spectrum, you have HitList, and Disco apps. Sure they look cool, and out of the gate they look ok… but it sure did come out in the wash, didn’t it.

    • http://www.appforthat.de Julia Altermann

      I do have to respectfully disagree with the first part of your answer, James.

      If we do not support developers who are just starting out, how are they ever gonna find the time and money to fully develop and mature an app?

      By making an informed buying choice of Beta software, I can to some extend fund the developer to invest more time into development, thereby improving the app and getting it into a full v1.0 stadium.

      Of course, there can be setbacks and some devs don’t make it. But I’d rather take my chance – for example I got the Powerpack for Alfred – than not take advantage of some very promising apps out there.

    • Winter

      James I have to disagree with you because you have to consider the fact that ordinary people aren’t aware of the drawbacks of buying beta software. If you are an industry computer software insider you are but software end users may not be.

      When I bought the software I fell for a sale pitch especially in regards to a future iphone app. Any sales pitch is a promise to deliver plain and simple. I waited patiently because I was in love with The Hit List in every other way. However, I was burned for waiting and believing the hype. Andy in fact stated that I waited too long to ask for a refund which I’m sure is a lie at this point. Had I even asked for a refund in the first week after purchasing i’m sure he would have come up with some other lame excuse.

      Thank you Mac.AppStorm for this follow up article on the Hit List. It felt dismayed earlier to see your positive review on the software knowing full well that The Hit List software was abandoned long ago. Surely you are a valuable resource for all software reviews having caught wind of this issue.

      • Winter

        P. S. To all hit list users looking for an alternative.. I’m sure you are aware of Omnifocus already. I’m another switcher who is pretty happy with the app.

    • goochisan

      James, here’s St. Clair Software’s twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/stclairsoft

  • http://twitter.com/lprunk Leonardo Prunk

    When I read the title of the article I thought about The Hit List instantly. I tried to change to Things, Omnifocus and TaskPaper, but The Hit List works a lot better in my workflow… but I get tired of waiting and I really need something to sync between my Macs, iPad and iPhone so, sadly, I gave up using The Hit List two weeks ago…

    For what I’m reading in the users group, and as you said, if Andy had at least kept everybody posted, many users will still be using The Hit List and not pissed by the lack of communication.

    Andy! If you are reading this article, say something to the users! Anything!

    • http://blog.inkaudio.com David O.

      Leonardo, I was thinking similar thought. What if Andy could sell the Hit list to a reputable developer like Panic!, that’s worth considering.

  • http://www.loganscollins.com/ Logan Collins

    Thanks for the mention! BTW, you’re link to Schoolhouse’s website is wrong. :P Just FYI.

    • http://davidappleyard.net David Appleyard

      Sorry about that – Have updated it now!

  • http://twitter.com/brandonsadkins Brandon

    Is there any reason for the time-extension updates? How about releasing an update that keeps the beta from expiring for now? It’s very annoying to continuously update my application with a non-feature update. Just let me use the damn application without it nagging me so much.

    I really like the application, but I am disappointed. Macheist 3 was quite a while ago, and I’m just wondering if he got enough sales from it that he’s not really motivated to work on it as quickly. Nevertheless, I hope the The Hit List saga has a good ending. =/

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  • http://markBernstein.org Mark Bernstein

    Is _HIT LIST_ indeed “wildly popular”?

    In most cases, you’d think that if a $50 application were sufficiently popular that, say, 100,000 people wanted to use it, that revenue stream would support the staff needed to communicate regularly with users and produce satisfying updates.

    If, on the other hand, the popularity is chiefly amongst a subset of people who received a nearly-free copy in a MacHeist bundle, perhaps that popularity is not sufficient to support development.

  • Christiaan

    I’m one who paid full whack on the basis that I wanted to support someone who had written one of the best apps I’ve ever used and on the basis that an iPhone app was ‘just around the corner’.

    Well here I am over a year later and still no iPhone app. Yes I’m pissed off.

  • http://kernme.org MikeNGarrett

    Am I one of the few people that actually believes Andy Kim is working insanely hard on the next version?

    If you look at the hit list and what a success it was, it was because the attention to detail and the intuitive nature of the interactions was so well executed. I believe we’re going to see a bomb dropped within the next 6 months. Andy Kim isn’t about releasing minor updates, but making major interactions.

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  • Nancy Seeger

    1.0 is out – email received today for The Hit List!

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