Meet the Developers: Dustin MacDonald of Acrylic Software

Acrylic Software is known for their beautiful and useful apps for the Mac and iOS. We got a chance to speak with Dustin MacDonald, the company’s Founder, Designer & Engineer. In our interview, we touched on a number of topics ranging from the history of Acrylic Software to their view on the Mac App Store and the interoperability between Mac OS X and iOS.

Enjoy the interview!

How did you get started with the Mac and how did you make the jump into app development?

I’ve never owned a PC, so I’ve been using a Mac all the way back since System 7, or basically as long as I can remember.

Dustin MacDonald

Dustin MacDonald

I started out by messing around with very basic creation programs like Hypercard and another similar tool called GameMaker, making really simple utilities and adventure games. The appeal of being able to create your own interactive media with these kinds of easy to use tools, something that wasn’t all that common back then, was huge. As I became interested in working on more advanced projects, I moved on to writing simple apps with things like AppleScript and REALbasic, and eventually learning Cocoa & Objective-C.

Can you tell us a bit about Acrylic Software?

Pulp is one of Acrylic Software's most popular apps.

Pulp is one of Acrylic Software's most popular apps.

Acrylic was started in April of 2008, the same time of the launch of our first product, Times for Mac (now called Pulp), and was more or less a one man show. We’ve since grown to developing four products, hired additional help on the engineering and support side, and work out of a beautiful office in Vancouver, Canada.

How did Acrylic Software become your full-time job?

I started Acrylic right after finishing school. I had been working on Mac apps on the side for almost ten years during that time, and knew immediately it was something I wanted to pursue full time once I was done.

You run the show at Acrylic. How do you manage being in charge as well as being developer/designer?

We’re a very small company by design, so management right now isn’t as huge of a burden as it is for some other developers. When we start working on a new project I’m focused very much on the foundational design aspects, transitioning to the engineering side later on, and by the end I am usually switching between the two endlessly.

What are some of the other challenges you’ve faced as an independent app developer?

When you’re trying to compete with companies who take millions of dollars in funding and then give away their stuff for free without any real business model, it can be tough to convince users to pay for your app and support indie software. Eventually these companies have to start plastering ads all over their stuff or get acquired, but by then it can sometimes be too late to make an impact.

Your apps are incredibly beautiful, what inspires your design aesthetic?

It sounds obvious, but I’ve always been inspired by Apple and the simplicity, elegance, and attention to detail in their products. There aren’t many technology companies out there doing what they do, and I doubt I’d even be involved in this industry without them. The world would be a better place if more companies adopted those basic principles.

How do you differentiate your apps in the face of some pretty tough competition, like 1Password and Reeder?

Our focus has always been on innovation and great design. We steer clear of feature bloat and “do everything” kinds of products, aiming instead for simple, elegant and focused solutions.

We also make sure we’re always working on new and interesting ideas. Our projects are never designed to directly iterate upon existing apps. Both Pulp and Wallet stem from my personal desire for new products & features that simply didn’t exist before. Those ideas ultimately get copied by others, but by then we’re hopefully already moving onto the next thing.

How has the Mac App Store impacted your business?

We decided early on to start selling our apps on the Mac App Store exclusively, and the impact in terms of sales and overall growth has been huge. Having the weight off our shoulders of managing downloads and license keys for both us and our customers is a big deal, and I think the Mac App Store is just a great place in general to discover new apps.

Apps by Acrylic are among the App Store's most popular.

Apps by Acrylic are among the App Store's most popular.

At the same time, we get burned out with really lame things like long review times, unexpected rejections, and a lack of any feedback loop with our users before they go posting negative reviews. I also think the Mac App Store would really benefit from free demo versions of apps, and the ability to have paid updates for major new releases. It’s a love/hate relationship for us that will hopefully improve in the near future.

You develop apps for both the Mac and iOS, what’s it like working with both?

iOS is easily the most interesting and exciting platform in technology right now, so it’s always fun to see the kinds of things Apple is implementing there and figuring out how we can apply them to our own apps.

At the same time, we love the Mac and use OS X every day. The foundations of Mac and iOS are very similar, so taking some of the new ideas and technologies in iOS and applying them to Mac apps can be incredibly powerful. Sometimes we even share the same code between both platforms.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to break into the app development space?

Make sure you absolutely believe in what you’re working on and love doing it, because it can be really tough to see a project through to the end unless you do. If you’re not in it for the long haul, you won’t get very far.

What are some of your favorite apps not made by Acrylic Software?

On the Mac, I use Transmit, the world’s best FTP app, and Versions, a Subversion version control client, almost every day. I also recently discovered a simple little app called Degrees which is a well designed menubar widget for showing the weather. On iOS, I like Delivery Status Touch, a great app for package tracking.

What does your current desk setup look like? What computers do you use regularly?

"The new MacBook Air is finally powerful enough now to do just about anything"

"The new MacBook Air is finally powerful enough now to do just about anything"

I’ve actually recently migrated to solely using a 13″ MacBook Air with a 27″ Cinema Display set up at my desk. Having the sheer portability of the Air and a giant display at hand when I need to do some serious work is a great combination. The new MacBook Air is finally powerful enough now to do just about anything, although I’d really like to see a 15″ model.

Can you give us a peek at what’s next for Acrylic?

I can’t talk much about our next big project, but we do have some interesting updates coming soon for Wallet and Pulp, specifically if you use iCloud. Stay tuned!

Thanks, Dustin!

I’d like to say thank you to Dustin for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions, and offer a little insight into what goes on behind the scenes at Acrylic Software. If you haven’t already, head over to the Acrylic Software website to check out their latest Mac and iOS projects. I guarantee that you’ll like what you see.