Interview: CatPig Studios on the App Store, Internet Radio, and More

Two years ago, we had the chance to talk with the CatPig Studios team about Radium. They led us behind the scenes at the inspiration behind their popular menubar radio app for the Mac, and why they develop for the Mac in particular.

The world's changed a lot in the meantime, with seemingly countless music streaming services competing to be the only way you listen to music. And yet, the Radium team has pushed on, releasing a brand-new version of Radium this year that's nicer than ever.

We got the chance to interview Kirill Zorin from CatPig Studios again this week, so here's the latest info about their work, and how they're competing in 2013's online music landscape.

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It's been nearly 2 years since we interviewed you here on Mac.AppStorm. What's changed at CatPig Studios during that time?

Lots of stuff!

We bumped into Gordon Irving completely by accident, and before we knew it he took over the entire interaction and visual design of Radium. It turned out a million times better than anybody (except Gordon, presumably) expected. Most people who call themselves designers are just good at drawing gradients in Photoshop and taking orders. (It's like they're all related, or something.) It's much better when you can work with a person who takes over a task and takes it to a place you never expected, instead of just waiting for instructions and babysitting. Anybody who's ever worked with Gordon in the past and didn't let him make major/all design decisions missed the point entirely.

Alina Y. joined us around the same time and took over curating and maintaining our entire stations library. Thanks to her, we have more stations than ever, more worldwide coverage, more song information, and we've basically elevated our stations quality to a new level. She's sharp as a tack and always working on improving Radium's content. Users should expect some very clever things in this area further down the road.

Since you've first released Radium, the market for online music has changed. Do you think traditional internet radio still has a future in the world of Spotify, Rdio, and more?

Services like Spotify are great if you want to spend your time liking/unliking/adding/removing/sharing things — that is, essentially doing the actual curation work yourself. Doing everything except actually listening to music. (Hint: If you have to click "I don't like this" in response to a recommendation, then it's not much of a recommendation.)

The two dominant approaches to content recommendation — analysis and tagging by experts (Pandora) and crowdsourcing sentiment (Spotify, etc.) — are a drop in an enormous bathtub compared to what the human brain has to go through in order to recommend a book, a movie, or anything else, really. The same mechanism that's responsible for being able to hold a meaningful conversation with a human is what's responsible for recommending stuff, and it really shows. Consider the best program that allows a computer to have a conversation with a person… the results are the same as comparing the last conversation you had with your friend with the last conversation you had with your dog.

And let's also not forget the fact that current algorithms are "okay" at taking one song/genre/whatever and recommending similar things, which creates this sort of sad party where all your content has the same overall feel. Sometimes I like just one song of a particular genre, and that's it. And I don't know why. Sometimes I feel like listening to stuff because the weather outside makes me feel a bit melancholy, or because I've had a lot of sugar and I want to listen to some trash. Anybody who suggests that his algorithm will "give you something to match your tastes" should at least throw in some snake oil, because you should look forward to doing most of the work yourself. Humans are complicated and there's no chance that any machine we have today can be made to appreciate this and deliver results accordingly.

This is why professional, human-curated music services like Digitally Imported, SiriusXM, and so on, will have better content on average than "automated" services for the distant future, because the former employ hundreds of people who use their entire life experience to recommend and curate content (and they're also continuously learning and refining their skills), and there's no chance that in our lifetime any algorithm will even come close to that. The amount of processing the human brain does in order to make a recommendation is just not available to current computers, at least certainly not to any computer you or I could afford. And that's just the beginning, considering no actual insight has been made so far by the scientific community as to what drives the human brain's decision-making process.

The biggest crime committed by human society so far was to convince the average person that his time is worth less than his money, and this is precisely what allows "crowd-sourced" services to thrive. But in reality, the only people benefitting in the long term are those who own the services.

The bottom line is that in any radio-like music service made for humans, humans will have to curate content for best results — and if the humans who run the service aren't doing it, then the humans who use the service will have to.

Ideally, a music player should play great content from the start, and the greatest amount of interaction that should be demanded of users is to press "Play". That's why we made Radium.

2 years ago, the Mac App Store was brand new, and today, Radium is exclusively for sale on it. How has the Mac App Store worked out for you, and would you want to go back to a world without the App Store?

The Mac App Store allowed us to simplify our distribution channel and spend more time on making our app great, and less time on managing registration servers, licenses, refunds, and so forth. Ultimately it doesn't matter what developers think about the Mac App Store. It's clear that the vast majority of users find it to be a convenient, integrated one-stop-shop for all their apps, available right there in their OS menu. Do we want to go back to a world where users had to use Google to find apps? No, thank you. The most important component of this equation is the users, and whatever makes their lives easier is good for us.

From a developer's standpoint, there are certainly many things that could be improved about the Mac App Store. In the meantime, we take the Mac App Store's deficiencies as an opportunity to improve the way we interact with our customers and otherwise find creative solutions to the problems we face. We believe it's a much more productive attitude than to do nothing and whine about it on various forums.

We saw a number of complaints in the comments on our Radium 3 review about its price and lack of upgrade options. What are your thoughts on offering upgrade pricing, and do you wish Apple would implement upgrade pricing on the App Store?

It would certainly have been nice for the Mac App store to implement tiered pricing, but it is what it is. The reality is that most people understand that our hands are tied when it comes to Mac App Store policies, but people who are really upset are the ones that have the most incentive to comment. This gives the false impression that most people are super-duper upset about the tiered pricing thing. Of course, these people always have the option to email us about it, and we do try to reply to all comments made on various posts to make people's lives a little easier. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Even before I was an app developer, I'd never really get upset about the lack of upgrade pricing for various software I bought. It was always pretty obvious to me that good software takes a long time to develop, and if my paying full price (again!!!) meant that some developer could put a plate of soup in front of his child for another night, then so be it. Many people seem to forget that the best way to build our society is to cooperate with each other, instead of focussing on short-term selfishness like saving a few bucks on "principle".

I originally got Radium 2 through a Mac app bundle, as I'm sure many did. How do you feel about app bundles, as opposed to traditional discounts?

When they're done properly, app bundles can be a lot of fun and benefit everyone involved. But most bundles are run by amateurs who want to make a quick buck, but otherwise have no ideas, no skills, no resources, and no taste. So we generally avoid those. It usually takes five seconds of looking at a bundle proposal and website to tell if it's a joke or not. One time we had a gentleman who offered to run Radium in his bundle, and one of the "testimonials" on the bundle's website was written by him. Next!

What was the most difficult part of Radium 3 to develop?

The hardest part was the user interface and interaction design. We knew it would be suicide to make the app feel complicated, and it was very difficult to distill it to its essential components and remove any noise. Initially we had opted for a slightly more complex UI, but thankfully we had the good sense to slam on the breaks a couple of months before its original release date and rethink things. Anybody can write a computer program that basically works (as seen on the Mac App Store), but it's much harder to create an app that's intuitive and minimal and doesn't waste the user's time with problems that the designers were too lazy/incompetent to solve.

Writing the code to animate things, search for stations, and play audio is really pretty easy for anyone who takes programming seriously; we're not working on the Large Hadron Collider here. The key to developing a great app is to integrate a set of simple things into something that's greater than the sum of its individual parts, and to use the computer to deliver a new experience that wouldn't be possible without it.

Many app developers are content with taking a real-life metaphor and just copy-pasting it into their design, without using the computer's special abilities to deliver something truly new that wouldn't be possible otherwise. For example, it would be trivial to make a shopping list app that's virtually identical to keeping your shopping list on a piece of paper — give the user a list of items with checkboxes, maybe provide a way to organize them in groups or whatever. It's much harder to deliver a shopping list app that elevates your shopping experience to a new level that wouldn't be possible anymore with paper and pen.

Too many developers forget that our job is to use the computer to automate in a clever way things that the user would otherwise have to do manually. And at the same time, every day new apps come out that contribute nothing — the same manual experience, except it's happening on a computer screen. Booooo.

OS X 10.9 should be coming out this year. As a developer and Mac user, what features would you like to see most in the upgrade?

I rather like iOS' integrated audio stack, and I'd like to see that feature in OS X as well. Everybody's tired of writing Apple Script hacks to make their audio app respond to events that happen in other audio apps, and this is really something that should be handled with a nice integrated audio API. When you get a phone call on FaceTime, the OS should automatically pause/mute any audio you have playing, whether it's Radium, iTunes, YouTube, QuickTime, or anything else. When the phone call is over, the OS should just resume whatever was interrupted.

It's ridiculous that each developer has to try and implement this functionality separately, while on iOS it just happens automatically. Of course, there should be an option to turn off this behavior in System Preferences (for "power users"), but I believe it's something that should be on by default for the rest of us.

What Macs and apps do you use in your daily work?

I've basically given up on desktop machines and transitioned completely to a powerful laptop + nice monitor combo. So right now I'm running on a Retina Macbook Pro plugged into a nice big Thunderbolt Display, and I couldn't be happier with it, unless it simultaneously gave me a… massage.

As far as apps go, the must-have set that I'm running all the time is Emacs, Xcode, Kickoff, and (of course) Radium =)

It'd only seem natural that you'd use Radium daily for your own music, so what online radio stations to you listen to throughout the day in Radium?

I hate Radium. Just kidding. I love it. My musical tastes change over time, so right now I listen to a salad made up of Venice Classic Radio, DR P8 Jazz, Jet City Lounge, Nirvana Meditation, and the occasional splash of Paris Cafe when I'm feeling especially hipster.

I used to listen to news, but I find news cyclical and boring. Somebody outraged about something, somebody put horsemeat in somebody's burger… yawn. (I also don't understand what's wrong with horsemeat; sounds delicious!)

Does CatPig Studios plan to stay focused on only one app – Radium – or do you have plans for more apps in the future?

We've got the iPhone version to finish up, and after that we'll be concentrating on a yet-unnamed super secret project that's not related to audio at all! So the answer is yes and no.

CatPig's goal is to provide value first, and corporate growth second. We feel completely fine with shipping one or two really good apps, instead of having ten half-baked ones just for the sake of expanding our product line.

And That's a Wrap!

We'd like to extend a special Thank You to Kirill for taking the time to do another interview with us. I personally love Radium 3, and still use it regularly to listen to internet radio while I'm working. Be sure to check out our Radium 3 review, if you haven't already, and you can try out the latest version with a free trial from their site if you'd like.