January 15, 2006

Thinking, boxes, & what kittens can do to them.

Recently a fifteen-year-old developer wrote me:
Quite often I find myself outside lighting left over sulfer-powder mixes from the fireworks last 4th of July and thinking of product ideas. However I just can't think of a single unique idea that would actually turn out to be a hit. Everyone just tells me to think "outside of the box." Honestly, that never works for me.

Do you have any suggestions on how I might increase my developer creativity?

Delicious Library is what mostly sparked my mind, this is probably the most unique and yet still useful application released for Mac OS X.
Aw, I'm blushing. No, wait, I'm hungover. I get those two confused.

First off, left me discourage you from playing with homemade fireworks. My earlier advice notwithstanding, as a programmer you'll need your fingers and sight.

Second, my inclination is to tell you to think INSIDE the box. Because, honestly, when I think back to ideas that have changed the world, they aren't really that crazy. They're pretty normal when you think about it. It just took someone to put the pieces together and DO A GOOD JOB OF IT.

Let's take the canonical example, the iPod. Now, portable music players have existed for a long time. So that part was obvious. Digital music was completely taking off, led by iTunes. That part was obvious. Portable hard drives were very common. Obvious again.

So someone at Audible says: Gee, people like music to go, they have music on their computers, and we now have tiny hard drives that are portable... hmm, I could come up with a new device here. And Audible makes the first MP3 player. And the world yawns, because it's not that amazing and because it doesn't have a great user experience for downloading all the music you've stolen from the net. And Audible marketed it for audible book downloads (surprise!), which is frankly not nearly as exciting to our nearly illiterate, constantly gum-snapping country.

Then someone at Apple says, "Hey, we can deliver the whole experience, and make a device that's really beautiful, because we've got iTunes and we've got good engineers and we've got Jonathan Ives who is good at making things look sexy and is bizarrely muscular himself and was recently knighted but we don't have to call him sir."

So Apple makes the iPod, and everyone says, "Wow, they totally invented the MP3 market," which they totally didn't. They just did a good job of it. Hell, to this day Creative still sells some P.O.S. MP3 player called the Bedouin or some shit and nobody even acknowledges their existence. Creative is like that ugly guy who shows up to the party with bizarre, wispy, patchy facial hair and parks himself by the food table and everyone pretends not to notice him so they don't have to actually talk to him. (Note to ugly guy: sorry, man. Try shaving and eating right.)

THAT is the key. (No, not shaving.) The key is taking an idea that the world obviously wants and doing a GOOD job of it. This is how I've made my living.

I've only had like seven truly original ideas in my life. Three of them are in OmniGraffle 3 (see if you can find 'em!) and a couple more are in OmniWeb. (iSight barcode scanning is one, as well.)

All the others are just refinements of other people's ideas. I stand on the shoulders of giants, which weighs them down a ton, and frankly they probably resent it, but it works great for me.

Delicious Library was not an original idea. It was a new approach to an idea that's been around for as long as computers. Hell, longer. I think the first cavemen carved on rocks when they lent out their, uh, sticks to other cavemen. Which wasn't efficient, but still worked better than Microsoft Windows. There are many other shareware programs that do approximately the same thing as ours, in theory, they just kind of bite. We took the idea of a media cataloging app and we made the friendliest, most fun version of it we could. But the basic idea was NOT ours. We don't ever claim it was.

So, think inside the box. Look at what people are using right now. Can you do a better job? Is there any chance people will switch to yours, or is there a market leader that's so entrenched you're going to get killed? Or can you write a simple version of what is now a program only for professionals? Can you do the converse? Can you adapt an idea from one market to another, like making a word processor for screenwriters? (Don't really do this, it's been done.)

I mean, sure, don't write a generic word processor, even if you think you are a super-genius. Word is a de-facto standard, and you don't want to mess with that. And don't re-write Excel. But, for example, when the Excel product manager got up on stage at MacWorld several years ago and said, "We've found that 85% of our customers use Excel just to make lists and outlines," we (Omni) said, "Shoot, that'll be our next product. We can do a GOOD job of making lists and outlines, and sell it for a lot less." And OmniOutliner was a pretty decent success.

Use all kinds of software yourself. Play with Final Cut Pro even though you don't make movies, because there are metaphors in there you need to know. Talk to people about what they do with software. Watch everyone around you and what they are doing, and not doing, on their computers. If there's a solution out there to some problem, but it's so complicated that most people don't use it, then there effectively IS no solution; it's a wide-open market. In my experience, programs don't get simpler in subsequent versions. You can kill your competition if you come out of the gate with something simple and friendly and cheap, even if they have a head-start with a crappier program.

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Anonymous Koen Bok said...

I think Wil is right. The best pieces of software I know solve 'inside the box' problems with 'out of the box' ideas.

January 15, 2006 5:03 PM

Anonymous Chase Colman said...

Thanks a lot Wil!

That really helped me.

I will be sure never again to play with fire without adult supervision :P

I think that people have the approach that originality is better, as you pretty much stated. Thinking in the box but still not making a total rip off, nobody likes lawsuits, is still going to a tad bit hard.

January 15, 2006 5:06 PM

Anonymous alex deich said...

That totally sums up every great idea ever. Great post. (oh, and playing with fire is very fun, but I would like to be able to feel the tip of my right ring finger again)

January 15, 2006 5:11 PM

Anonymous Nuno Sousa said...

Aw man, don't leave us hanging! Tell us your other 6 great ideas!

January 15, 2006 5:17 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Creative is like that ugly guy who shows up to the party with bizarre, wispy, patchy facial hair and parks himself by the food table and everyone pretends not to notice him so they don't have to actually talk to him.

Actually, that's the CEO of Creative, not the company itself.

January 15, 2006 5:21 PM

Anonymous Chucky said...

Become a really good user of software.

Think about what other software does right, and what it does wrong.

Most new indie Mac software is lame because all of the little decisions are made with an eye towards coding, not towards the final user experience.

Take lots of steps back to think about how the decisions you are facing will make the actual user happy or frustrated. Think about how the typical user of your software will be using it and why they will be using it.

In short, while you look at a project as a coder with your left eye, look at your project as a pure user with your right eye. If you can see it both ways simultaneously, you've halfway home.

January 15, 2006 5:38 PM

Anonymous MJ said...

If you have the talent to be a programmer, (something I envy) then consider these two approaches.

1) pick one of your favourite apps and try and write it YOUR WAY. Is iTunes as good as it gets? Could you design a better Quicktime Player? Not thinking of these as commercial possibilities (because of the rip-off thing) but they'll get you thinking of better ways to do things. You might think of a better way to do things.

2) find someone who can't program, but who has ideas. That's kinda where we started. We have a stock of ideas to work through and we're working on them when the fancy takes us.

A third but less recommended way is to think of a really cool name....and then think of what app it could represent. Just grabbing a word out of a dictionary can help. For instance, Sponge - an app that tracks Spotlight updates! Or Tukro -a client for Orkut that keeps track of messages. How about Chaser - which uses an overlay on top of Google Maps to show where storms are currently....worldwide....and those I just thought of while chatting here.

And if you're still not sure, take Wil's advice and get working on Darwine. Those guys have a small team and in a year they'll score all the girls and have a pimp car....

January 15, 2006 5:45 PM

Blogger Trevor Fancher said...

I'm a 17 year old wanna be independent Mac developer and this post so applies to me that it is crazy. I don't know why I haven't emailed Wil before. :)

I love how guys like Wil Shipley, Gus Mueller, and Brent Simmons are always writing about their experiences with developing on the Mac and running a company. You guys are my heros.

If my future company takes off I will definitely be sending you all a big fat check. (maybe ;)

January 15, 2006 6:02 PM

Anonymous Geoff Pado said...

I agree with Trevor. I've tried to do my coding with a WWDMD mantra. (What would Delicious Monster do?). I watched the Evening at Adler video and immediately added most of those guy's blogs to NetNewsWire. I don't think you'd ever find this sort of mentorship mentality on the PC side. I certainly hope DB can arrange an EAA 2.0 or something, because these Mac guys rock!

January 15, 2006 6:50 PM

Anonymous Tomas Jogin said...

So true. It's all about thinking inside the box, and it's just as true, or even especially true, for web applications.

Take Flickr for instance, what's their idea? It's to "organize photos". That's about as "inside the box" as you can possibly get; the reason Flickr was a success is simply because they executed the idea well.

There are no limits to the applications (web based or not, doesn't matter) you can build with next to no resources today -- and it's not a matter of finding a super unique idea that nobody has ever thought of; it's about thinking of something that everybody has already thought of but that nobody does really well.

January 15, 2006 7:09 PM

Blogger Abhi Beckert said...

I couldn't agree more, my first app was for taking notes! can't get any more inside the box than that, but at the same time it's got a very unique user interface, and the people who use it are in love. Almost every review is 5 stars, and the ones that aren't are 4 stars.

It's a free app and doesn't make any money, but it's still a good example of "thinking inside the box".

January 15, 2006 10:21 PM

Anonymous oliver taylor said...

please god, someone make a FinalDraft killer!

January 15, 2006 11:53 PM

Anonymous Chucky said...

"please god, someone make a FinalDraft killer!"

Yeah. That's the thing about advice not to write a word processor. You might never achieve world dominance competing against Microsoft Word, but there's an OS X market for word processing things done better.

For example, if anyone ever bothers writing a clean 'n simple but powerful iTunes for text, they'd do some damage.

January 16, 2006 12:36 AM

Anonymous Malte said...

What about the kittens?! The title is "Thinking, boxes, & what kittens can do to them" and I kept waiting for the kittens to come in and save the world.

But alas, I now presume you meant what cats can do to their litterbox.. some nasty stuff.

January 16, 2006 2:53 AM

Anonymous Jose Alejandro Betancur said...

Excelente articulo, Wil considero que tienes toda la razon al respecto, es importante conocer a fondo las cosas para poder tener un contexto global a la hora de pensar dentro del molde.

Inclusive es buena la historia de la empresa Panic y su posibilidad de haber sido iTunes.

January 16, 2006 6:29 AM

Anonymous Dan Crosta said...

Another note I didn't see in the comments here (and apologies if I'm repeating someone)... when you write a program and you're thinking about feature X, don't be lame and take the shortcut to 0.85 * X. Go the full way, or better yet, make it 1.1 * X. That is, features are for users, not developers, so don't take the easy road if it ever means compromising usability or functionality. People will appreciate your work more if you put in the extra 50% of effort for the final 10% of functionality if it works, than they will for a quicker-to-market or slightly cheaper product, particularly in the Mac community, where people tend not to settle.

On the other hand, if you value your own sanity, maybe being such a maximizer isn't for you. I feel safe in assuming, however, that Wil is no satisficer, and I think most Mac users aren't, either.

January 16, 2006 8:11 AM

Anonymous Matt Craig said...

I have to agree with Wil entirely - my company has the mantra that all apps in our business have the same feature set (or will 6 months from now). So we decided to differentiate ourselves, from the outset, by workflow and speed. We're in 3D graphics and the fact is, any package can do any task. So we said what makes one better than the other? Well, if it takes one click in our app and 3 in someone elses to do the same task, then we win. So it all comes down to execution - we try to have the easiest learning curve, the fastest workflow, and of course, the best features. But our main goal is to allow artists to do the same task much faster than the competition.

January 16, 2006 9:38 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Play with Final Cut Pro even though you don't make movies

... er, you just lost me on the "advice for a 15-year-old programmer" front :-P

January 16, 2006 9:48 AM

Blogger random milk said...

As a non-developer, I would tentatively suggest you also go for something that interests you. I find everything easier if it interests me. I mean, don't write a Beer-Brewing app if you're not interested in beer....

January 16, 2006 5:02 PM

Blogger herestomwiththeweather said...

Speaking of back in the box, I highly recommend Rushkoff's latest book, Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out.

January 16, 2006 8:43 PM

Anonymous Toon Van Acker said...

As for ideas. This might not be exactly the post to comment this to, but I came up with it while reading this.

I'm sure you know Fast User Switching. I'm also sure you can imagine people installing Windows alongside OS X for various reasons... well... see where I'm going? Fast OS Switching! The "background OS" would have its RAM written to the HD and be "paused". No, seriously. I have no idea if this could be done at all, or if it's already been done, but that would rock.

January 17, 2006 6:57 AM

Blogger JasonGetsDown said...

Excellent post, really excellent.
You've made me wish I hadn't transfered from Comp. Sci. to Architecture. I was already feeling some pangs of regret after using Path Finder and Flickr and Wordpress and just looking at the Delicious Monster site, but you've driven the point home even further.
Its also really amazing to see the n00blets getting inspired by what they see. Did you ever think you'd be a role model when you started developing?

January 17, 2006 11:22 AM

Blogger JasonGetsDown said...

And one more thing, someone mentioned Final Draft...
Why the HELL do they have the writer of Point Break on their front page?! Are they trying to drive people away?

January 17, 2006 11:26 AM

Blogger Kirby said...

Maybe this will one day be a FinalDraft killer: http://www.celtx.com/

January 17, 2006 11:34 AM

Blogger Wil Shipley said...

GuOnTheLeft: I never thought it, but it has been my goal, yes. I've always said I got into this for the fame.

January 17, 2006 1:46 PM

Anonymous Chad said...

Toon Van Acker: At a past job, we had an IBM iSeries server which (supposedly) ran multiple operating systems all at the same time, so I entirely believe that we could get to the point some day to have Fast OS Switching. Whether or not we have the hardware to support this at this time might be the questionable part. But, hey, why not?

Dan Crosta: Dan, I think you pretty much wrapped up what makes the difference between a "good" product and a "great" product. Would you rather get an "A" on your report card, or would you settle for a "B" or "C"? I think a couple companies (Blizzard, Apple) often get this...it's done when it's done, and not until then.

Anybody & Anything Else: From what I've seen, even if you aren't just trying to create a direct alternative to another piece of software, sometimes it is good to diverge and create a more specific niche product. Recently I've been looking for a Mac program similar to the Windows's program KeyNote (not related or similar to Apple's Keynote), which allows a user to store a bunch of RTF files together, in a categorized mess. I've looked at a variety of programs, and nothing had quite been 100% right. OmniOutliner was good, StickyBrain also had some interesting ideas, DEVONThink was getting closer, but MacJournal was the closest thing I've needed. In some ways, it's more powerful than what I need right now, but perhaps its extra features will come in handy some day.

January 17, 2006 8:23 PM

Blogger Carl Johnson said...

If anyone ever is foolish enough to make another text editor, my advice is "saving is kruft. You shouldn't have to save a text document in the year 2006. It should be done for you."

January 19, 2006 5:27 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if shaving is the answer?

April 09, 2007 8:39 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post! You crack me up. Made my blue day sunny!

Keep up the great work!

June 05, 2007 3:51 PM

Anonymous Captain Fatty said...

I know it's a bit late but where can I get one of those boxes to think inside of? Then, when I've done that I'm going to try and think outside of it. Things are looking up...

June 30, 2007 6:17 AM


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