The Prosaic, DIY Reality of Software Houses

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By Keith Blount

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First, a thank you to James Fallows for inviting me to act as a guest blogger this week. The reason he has asked me to take part is that he is using our software, Scrivener, to write his book, and he thought readers might be interested in the day-to-day runnings of a software house. The strange thing is, though, that despite Scrivener having sold tens of thousands into dozens of countries, I'm still surprised when I hear Literature & Latte described as a "software house" (even our company name sounds more like a coffee house) -- although we undeniably are a software house -- so I thought I might start by talking about why this is.

Why should you bother with software that might disappear were its creator to be run over by a bus?

A common misconception about software -- albeit one that is perhaps gradually changing -- is that it is generally the product and province of large companies: designed by focus groups, coded by black-clad, Star Trek-quoting ponytails who aren't allowed near the customers, and supported by people who often seem never to have used the software themselves. This idea of the software house as a large enterprise no doubt comes from the companies that most readily spring to mind whenever software is mentioned: Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, Google and their ilk. After all, many computer users -- who just want to get on and do stuff -- don't have the time or inclination to obsess over which software they should be using, or to explore much beyond what they use every day at the office or the programs that come bundled with their machines. They are thus (understandably) barely cognizant of the world of software beyond the major houses. It's an impression compounded by our relationship with technology in general -- our televisions, Blu-Ray players, fridge-freezers and toasters are all made by big, faceless companies, and if something goes wrong or is just badly designed or engineered, we have no real power to tell anyone who can do anything about it: We learn to live with the defects, the quirks, with the way our satellite TV box randomly and arbitrarily forgets to record Castle halfway through each series.

I'm reminded of this preconception of what a software house is almost daily in our interactions with customers and bloggers. Someone on our user forums will ask us if we can get one of our "programmers" (plural) to take a look at something; we will receive a "thank you" e-mail from a user who has been pleasantly surprised to have received a quick solution from someone intimately involved with creating the software, when they expected an automated response; or I will occasionally see, via the ever-vigilant Google Alerts, a comment on a blog or forum expressing amazement (or sometimes outrage) that we have been, until recently, so seemingly narrow-minded as only to produce a Mac version of our software (our Windows version is officially released next month).

And that's when I start to feel a little bit like a fraud. (More after the jump.)

Because all of this belies an underlying assumption that we have several programmers, a stable of investors ready to sink resources into versions for other platforms, and a customer services team. The reality is more prosaic: Literature & Latte is an Internet business run from a handful of spare rooms in different countries, staffed by people who still consider themselves enthusiastic amateurs. Up until two years ago, you could count the team on one finger -- me -- and even now that we have a team of five, we have no offices -- our registered office is the address of our accountant. I read Mark Bernstein's fascinating posts here a few weeks ago and his description of his drive in to his offices made me a little jealous. My journey to work consists of taking a coffee upstairs in our semi in Truro (putative capital of Cornwall); my office is a spare box room overlooking yellow construction machinery and piles of dirt that were, until a few weeks ago, fields and hedgerows. I sometimes wish for our own offices, a Literature & Latte headquarters, until I remember that I would be the only one driving there anyway -- while I'm in Truro, other team members are in Norwich (in the east of England), Portland, Oregon and Sydney, Australia.

And I don't think we are particularly unusual in any of this. Outside the big corporations, most software companies are run by a handful of people at most, and many have just a single individual behind them. In fact, there is a rich heritage of software created by one or two developers. Those games we were all addicted to back in the '80s such as Manic Miner and Tetris were the products of one-man, bedroom-based programmers; even WordStar, the precursor of Word and just about all other modern word processors, was originally developed by one programmer and one designer (Rob Barnaby and Seymour Rubenstein). Likewise Final Draft, which is now the de facto standard for scriptwriting throughout Hollywood and the film industry -- the equivalent of Word for screenwriters -- likewise began as just two guys who, fed up with manually formatting their screenplays, decided to put together software that would make the process easier.

Even so, 15 years ago setting up a software company would have involved start-up costs and working out how to distribute your wares -- whether by making your own CDs (or floppy disks) and trying to do everything through mail order, or by finding a distributor. The Internet has changed all of that: It's now not only possible but fairly trivial to set up a website and make your program available to download, incorporate a Web store (using a third-party service such as eSellerate or Kagi to process payments) and to market your program via social networking channels such as Twitter, all for practically nothing. Meanwhile, development tools, which were once prohibitively expensive, are now either cheap or free -- Apple, for instance, has long bundled everything you need to write your own Mac app along with the OS itself.

Since the advent of the App Store and Mac App Store, distribution, too, is getting easier for independent developers -- the Mac App Store will eventually be on the desktop of every Mac computer just as the App Store is on every iPad and iPhone, so if you are on there, almost all of your target users have a chance of finding you. With a bit of luck, this could mean that, for Mac users at least, even casual computer-users will begin to discover and use software made by the smaller houses -- the companies run from garages and bedrooms.

But why should you care? Why would you want to try independently-developed software when you can use a program that is backed by a team of dozens, by a company with millions of pounds at its disposal? Or, as one somewhat truculent novelist once challenged me: Why should you bother with software that might disappear were its creator to be run over by a bus? (My answer -- unappreciated -- to that question, by the way, was that I already had been, and by a big, red, bendy London one at that -- beer was, I'm afraid, involved.) This is a valid concern, and it's perhaps why many lone-gun or indie software houses don't shout too loudly about being a micro-operation -- we all want to look slick and professional and so the common misconception often serves us well.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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