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.Aw, I'm blushing. No, wait, I'm hungover. I get those two confused.
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.
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.