inessential.com

Brent Simmons’s weblog.

The Developers Union 18 May 2018, 8:25 pm

Some of the press coverage about The Developers Union uses words like “angry” and “fed up.” These aren’t accurate characterizations at all. Nobody’s mad here!

But here‘s the deal: Apple controls the App Store and its economics. The system could be set up better to support high-quality apps, by indies, that last for years.

Apple doesn’t have to, of course. But we can ask! It’s totally okay to ask, so we are.

We think that an important first step would be a standardized, App-Store-supported way of offering free trials. (And where, once purchased, Family Sharing works.)

Trial versions have worked great for years for indie Mac developers, before the App Store, and we think it would benefit indies on the iOS and Mac App Stores.

And the platform would get better — and more sustainable — apps. Everyone wins!

If you agree, you can sign up. Add your name. Add your app.

I realize you might be worried about doing a thing that could upset powerful people inside Apple. I strongly doubt that that worry is actually well-founded — but, then again, that’s part of why this is a big list.

* * *

I should note that I’m not doing this as part of Omni. I’m not even doing it for my side projects — they’re all free, and it’s quite possible that none of them will ever appear on any App Store at all.

Instead, I’m thinking of my friends, of developers I admire, of up-and-coming developers I haven’t even heard of yet. I — quite selfishly! — want them to thrive. I want to see what great stuff they could make. I want everybody to have the opportunity I’ve had.

I’ve been lucky, and I’ve done well — and my experience should not be rare.

 2 May 2018, 9:12 pm

OmniFocus 3.0 for iOS ships in four weeks.

As Marketing Human, I’ve got work to do! But I’m totally psyched.

Making Apps Is Harder Than It Needs To Be 1 May 2018, 8:26 pm

With the recent talk about Electron and “Marzipan” — or maybe Amber or something, according to Mark Gurman — I’m reminded of a thing I think about kind of often: that making iOS and macOS apps is way harder than it needs to be.

For most apps (except games, I suppose), a huge percentage of the code might as well be written in a scripting language. We absolutely do not need to be writing everything in Swift, Objective-C, C++, or C.

“But Brent,” you say, “what about performance?”

Consider the case where you set up an animation and then run the animation. The system does that animation. Or consider Core Data — your choice of language doesn’t affect how fast it can read from SQLite. Or think of networking — it’s bound by the connection, not the speed of your code. Or think of pushing a view controller onto the current navigation view controller. Or setting up view constraints. And so on.

All this code might as well be Ruby — or, preferably, a scripting language designed for app making. (I would have liked an Objective-C-without-the-C.)

And the thing that would make it all so worthwhile is editing the code while the app is running. You could go all day without an explicit build step!

Sure, some of your code would still have to be written in Swift or whatever. The part that really does have to be fast. I’m a performance junkie myself, so I get this. (Evergreen’s RSS parser is fast, and I wouldn’t switch it to a scripting language.)

But most of most apps (again, probably besides games, about which I know nothing) could be written using a scripting language.

PS Yes, I’m quite aware that we used to have Fix & Continue. And WebScript.

Godot.framework 1 May 2018, 6:08 pm

I wouldn’t wait for “Marzipan” or XKit or whatever it is.

We don’t know what it is. But my guess — based on my 38 years of writing code for Apple computers — is that it’s something you can use along with UIKit and AppKit, and not a wholesale replacement.

Maybe it’s a declarative API that helps make some things easier, and maybe you can make a cross-platform button more easily. Maybe your table view code could be the same on iOS and macOS. Great!

But don’t expect Macs to turn into large iPads all of a sudden. Macs are gonna Mac. Apps are going to have multiple resizable windows and a menubar. Targets will still be sized and designed for mice and trackpads.

In other words, if you want to write a Mac app, you’re still going to have to deal with the things that are inherently different about Mac apps, regardless of the specific API.

Let’s say this thing ships in the fall of 2019, over a year from now. If past is a guide, we might imagine it would be fun to play with, but not more useful than, say, the original version of Swift. (Swift didn’t get really good for writing apps until Swift 3.)

So it might be 2020 before it’s something that accelerates Mac development in any real way.

You could write a few Mac apps between now and then.

* * *

I realize that documentation on writing Mac apps is hard to find these days. Books on the subject are rare, and any book you find may be out of date.

But…

One of the reasons I made Evergreen open source is so that people who want to write a Mac app have some examples.

And I just learned that there’s a big list of open source Mac apps. This is way more than than was available when I started writing apps for OS X.

I don’t have time to write a book on Mac app development. I wish I did. I might make the time to do a small article now and then, using Evergreen as example. Maybe.

But it’s not my job (as I have to keep reminding myself). It’s Apple’s job to document and evangelize the Mac platform.

(As an additional part of that, I’d like to see Apple update the Mac App Store, and maybe also deal with some of the issues with sandboxing. It would signal that the company cares about Mac apps. I know it does care, but a more public demonstration would be welcome.)

 30 Apr 2018, 5:42 pm

Check out Automation Orchard, a new site by Rosemary Orchard that is the “place to find resources to help you automate your life.”

I immediately thought of ScriptWeb — which, to my delight, is still up! Though its last update was 2009.

Evergreen/Frontier Status: ODB Work 26 Apr 2018, 8:20 pm

For the past few days I’ve been working on adding Frontier-like object database (ODB) support to my database framework.

It’s not finished yet — it doesn’t even build.

What it is (or, what it will be)

It’s hierarchical key-value storage. No schemas. Tables can contain tables, with no limit.

This implementation is the lowest level: the part that gets, sets, and deletes data from the database.

It’s application-agnostic, at this level — it doesn’t know about all of Frontier’s data types, for instance. A level on top of this will be needed for new-Frontier.

SQLite, my favorite hammer

I’m not actually writing a new database — I’m using SQLite. And that’s because I’ve been using SQLite for 15 years, and I love it and know it well, and I know how incredibly stable it is. I’m not willing to write my own thing, and I’m not willing to use a thing less mature and rock-solid than SQLite.

How it works:

The schema is pretty simple. There are tables and values.

Every table has an id. Every table (except the root table) has a parent_id that points to its parent table.

And every value has an odb_table_id that points to its parent table.

This way it’s easy to get a table’s children: it takes just two select statements.

(Both tables and values also have a name, since this is key-value storage.)

Tables and values will be cached in memory, so not every call will require a database read.

(Before you suggest I use something other than SQLite, know that I won’t change my mind on this.)

(Also, again: it’s not done yet. Doesn’t even build.)

Why I’m doing this now instead of something else

I’m using schema-less storage for feeds in Evergreen. (Articles and article status, on the other hand, are stored using a schema, in SQLite.)

Currently I’m writing a big binary plist with all the feed data, and it has to be rewritten every time a feed property changes. The writes are coalesced — but still, this isn’t great.

I’m using schema-less storage in part because of syncing systems: I don’t know, and can’t guess, what I’ll need to store. Different systems will have different requirements.

Also: I may add features later that require additional feed properties. I don’t know what those are.

I realized that what I really want for this is a feature from Frontier: hierarchical key-value storage.

Each system will gets its own database on the client. For each, I’ll create an odb table called feeds. Each feed will have its own subtable. The key will be its id (which may or may not be its URL, depending on the syncing system).

And inside each subtable I can put whatever I want, at any time, without having to change any schemas or implementations.

Example:

For the On My Mac account — not synced; reads feeds directly — we keep track of Etag headers in order to support conditional GET. So, for example, I’d want to get, set, and delete feeds.[feedID].etag.ifModifiedSince.

But with most syncing systems we get the feed content from the system itself — not by directly reading the feed. There might be some other data from the service to store: feeds.[feedID].syncToken, for instance.

You’re Practically a Mac Developer 25 Apr 2018, 8:27 pm

Say you write an iOS app, and now you want to write the Mac version.

Assuming there’s a data model, maybe a database, some networking code, that kind of thing, then you can use that exact same code in your Mac app, quite likely without any changes whatsoever.

That leaves the 20% or whatever that’s user interface. AppKit is not the same as UIKit, but it’s recognizable. Same patterns and concepts, and often similar names (UITableView/NSTableView).

Given that you’ve done the hard thing — learning UIKit, Xcode, and Swift and/or Objective-C — taking the next step and learning AppKit seems like a very small thing. You’ve climbed the mountain already, after all.

You might complain that AppKit has some weird stuff. True. Some of it, though, isn’t truly weird — it’s just weird to you if you’ve never dealt with things like a menubar and multiple, live-resizable windows.

People coming from AppKit to UIKit (few people these days; many people 10 years ago) might also complain about safe content area insets (or whatever the thing is these days) and size classes and all manner of strange stuff they like not having to deal with in Mac apps. UIKit’s weird too, to some people.

Ten years ago I thought that all the new iOS developers would translate to lots more Mac developers. That that didn’t happen is a huge surprise to me. Because if you’re an iOS developer you’re practically a Mac developer already.

(And — little-known secret — the economics of Mac apps appear to be more favorable than for iOS apps.)

 25 Apr 2018, 5:24 pm

The latest episode of The Omni Show is a special episode — we talk about OmniFocus 3 and flexible inspectors, enhanced repeating tasks, batch editing, and the interleaved Forecast view.

Regular interview shows are our bread and butter, but these roundtables are fun to do too. (And I can’t wait for The Omni Show Live next door to WWDC!)

 24 Apr 2018, 5:33 pm

There’s an unofficial Seattle Xcoders this Thursday at the Cyclops in Belltown. I plan to get there around 6 pm.

We’re always in back, next to the bar but technically in the restaurant section. Anyone is welcome — you don’t have to be a coder! We regularly have designers, testers, support people, product managers, and so on.

Heck, even if you’re a fan, you should come. Should be a beautiful night to hang out with some fine folks.

 23 Apr 2018, 5:59 pm

I was happy to read that Unread 1.9.3 now handles untitled posts better. Very cool.

 17 Apr 2018, 7:21 pm

On the Omni blog I wrote up how we do The Omni Show.

The post explains my approach to marketing, unchanged over the decades:

I don’t have some grand marketing philosophy, other than 1) make great apps, and 2) look out and let other people look in.

Now I’m in a Pickle with this Web Stuff 16 Apr 2018, 8:25 pm

To publish to this blog, I run a little web server on my Mac that implements the MetaWeblog API, which then renders this blog and rsyncs it to the server. (This way I can write using MarsEdit.)

What I’d rather do: run that little web server on the actual server, and do the static-site generation there. That way I can post from my iPhone and iPad, not just from my Mac.

But… here’s where web deployment gets tricky. I’m on an inexpensive shared host plan at DreamHost. The machine is running an older version of Ruby that’s incompatible with my scripts.

I could use RVM and Bundler, I guess, to use the version of Ruby I want to and to install the gems I need. (It’s just a few, but it’s more than zero.)

That is, if I could figure out how to use this stuff and get it installed on the server. Looks like something I could spend weeks doing (remember that my hobby coding is limited to nights and weekends).

Alternately, I could get an inexpensive VPS from one of the various providers and set things up there. That might be easier — maybe I could skip RVM and Bundler and just install the things I want to use in the old-fashioned way.

But then I have to deal with a bunch of other things myself, including setting up Apache or Nginx. All the things DreamHost does for me automatically I’ll have to handle myself. That doesn’t sound like fun at all.

I totally don’t know what to do. It’s not my plan to become a Ruby deployment expert or to be on the hook for running a server all the time. I’ve done way too much of that kind of thing for one lifetime already, and I’ve mostly been glad to be out of it.

What surprises me is that in 2018 it still requires so much work just to get a CGI script running on a server. It should be easier.

 16 Apr 2018, 8:05 pm

Laura Savino explains the difference between optimal compiling and compiling with optimizations — and which Swift flags mean what.

 16 Apr 2018, 6:54 pm

On the blues harp:

A diatonic harmonica is designed to ease playing in one diatonic scale…

Blues harp subverts the intention of this design with what is “perhaps the most striking example in all music of a thoroughly idiomatic technique that flatly contradicts everything that the instrument was designed for.”

 16 Apr 2018, 6:27 pm

Jason Kottke reminds us that blogging is most certainly not dead, and that there are great blogs out there.

My only objection is the use of the word “dead” to apply to things that aren’t alive. Even when you’re saying that something is not dead.

I’ve done it myself. It’s shorthand, yes, but it’s a broad binary take when something more nuanced and true would be warranted.

The View-Source Web 15 Apr 2018, 8:14 pm

A line in Frank Chimero’s article Everything Easy Is Hard Again, published a couple months ago, has stuck with me:

That breaks my heart, because so much of my start on the web came from being able to see and easily make sense of any site I’d visit. I had view source, but each year that goes by, it becomes less and less helpful as a way to investigate other people’s work.

One of the ironies of this is that HTML5 makes it easier than ever to make readable, simple HTML. I especially like two things:

  1. Quotes for attribute values are optional (when there are no spaces), and
  2. There are semantic tags for things where before you had to guess at the author’s intention. We have header, main, nav, article, and similar now.

I realized that this blog — since it doesn’t use cookies or JavaScript, since the layout is as straightforward as can be — would make a good personal test case. How easy-to-read can I make the HTML?

So I adopted the semantic HTML5 tags, simplified a few things, and now the source is as easy to read as any HTML I’ve ever written.

Lesson learned: the discoverable and understandable web is still do-able — it’s there waiting to be discovered. It just needs some commitment from the people who make websites.

 13 Apr 2018, 6:28 pm

Colin Devroe:

History belongs to those willing to hit publish.

 12 Apr 2018, 8:56 pm

Steven Aquino, in Giving Tweetbot a More Accessible Design, writes that Twitter’s official client for iOS does a good job with accessibility:

The UI design is much higher contrast — Twitter for iOS even acknowledges when you have the system’s Increase Contrast setting enabled, as I do. And, crucially, the official client natively supports alt-text, which allows users to append image descriptions for the blind and low vision before tweeting.

 12 Apr 2018, 6:17 pm

Micro.blog now supports podcasting. Wow. Manton is busy.

 11 Apr 2018, 4:16 pm

I interviewed Aaron Bendickson — Omni sysadmin, pinball wizard, Very Patient Man Who Loves His People and Isn’t Bothered At All Ever By All My Incessant Questions — for the latest episode of The Omni Show.

 9 Apr 2018, 10:39 pm

Pitas.com, an old blogging community, is being relaunched via Kickstarter.

Blast from the past, sure, but we can make new things by borrowing from the past.

 9 Apr 2018, 9:59 pm

I’ll be hosting The Omni Show Live at a conference right next to WWDC. Can’t wait!

Evergreen Status 9 Apr 2018, 8:22 pm

Things have slowed down for Evergreen — but only temporarily.

I had to spend some time turning 50 years old, which was ridiculously good fun. (One day I hope my 11-year-old nephew and I finish the cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” we were working on!)

And… my nine-year-old blogging system needed an update, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore, so I rewrote it. It’s nearly finished now — finished enough that I can post to my blog again, at least.

And then I realized that I had kind of a mess with Evergreen and Frontier frameworks. I was thinking about how I wanted Frontier’s hierarchical key-value database (which I haven’t written yet) in Evergreen — and so, obviously, they should share this framework. And, well, there are a bunch of frameworks they should share.

So I started work on converting over to Git submodules, so that they can share frameworks, and so the frameworks can live in their own separate repositories. Which of course also meant learning how Git submodules work in the first place.

And it turns out that Frontier doesn’t build right now, and needs to be updated for Swift 4. But it needs to build before I can tell if I’ve got frameworks-as-submodules set up there correctly.

Anyway — long story short — there’s finishing the blogging system and then doing a bunch of housekeeping stuff.

In other words: it’s infrastructure week! (And will be for a few more weeks, I expect.)

And then I’ll be back to Evergreen. It should be just one more push of a few months to get it to 1.0.

RSS Readers and Posts Without Titles 9 Apr 2018, 8:02 pm

I’m quite aware that my recent blog posts without titles look weird in some RSS readers.

Here’s the thing, though: the RSS title attribute was always optional. It’s just that RSS readers were written with the expectation that it was mandatory.

If you write an RSS reader with a timeline and detail view, here’s what you could do:

  • Use the first part of the description in the timeline, after stripping HTML.
  • Show the post in its entirety in the detail view — but minus a title. No “Untitled,” no synthesized title. Just no title at all.

If you want to see an example, subscribe to this blog in Evergreen. Sure, it’s not 1.0 (or even beta) yet, but it handles title-less posts the way I’ve described above.

It’s the future

Here’s why this is important:

We’re already seeing more and more microblogs, and we’re seeing blogs like this one that have some long posts and some microblog posts. (When you see the word “microblog,” think tweet-like, but with HTML.)

This is an important part of the future of blogging. It’s the movement away from posting to Twitter first — instead, you post to your blog (or microblog) and then, optionally, echo the post to Twitter.

 9 Apr 2018, 4:21 pm

One of the things I love about Omni is how seriously the company takes its privacy policy.

 9 Apr 2018, 4:22 am

Maybe you haven’t played Maelstrom since the ’90s. Maybe you haven’t even thought about it since then.

But here’s the thing: you can still play it today.

Why I Use Micro.blog 9 Apr 2018, 2:06 am

I wrote last February on why Micro.blog is not another App.net.

Though that article had a bunch of good reasons to use Micro.blog, I didn’t really say why I use it.

Winter

This vile season, run by crime families, shot through with bad faith and giddy injustice, with the highest frauds and the lowest characters, has me looking everywhere for the exit.

But there is no exit. There are only choices: each of us can choose to do things, usually small, that will help make things better.

We could continue to flock to Twitter and Facebook — we could keep paying those who have and will rip off democracy for a stock price — or we could turn our backs and help the open web instead.

We could say goodbye to the creepy targeted ads and the algorithms, to the Nazis and bots and propagandists, to the harassers and the people selling hate. We could stop being spied-on for profit.

But only if we make the choice, and then work at it.

Spring

We could dine out forever on our knowing that it was all doomed — that we were too smart to try, too wise to risk even the smallest lift. We knew it all along.

Or we can make the moral choice of renewal, of planting new bulbs and helping this old tree, a little bigger now, flower again.

Our hearts may end up broken. Again.

So?

Blogging System Rewrite 8 Apr 2018, 6:37 pm

I realized that I want my blog to be me on the web. This used to be true, but then along came Twitter, and then my presence got split up between two places.

To make this work, I needed two things that my old system from 2009 didn’t provide:

  1. Title-less posts, and
  2. The ability to run the site generator on my server, not just on my Mac.

In other words, I needed to be able to write tweet-like posts with no title — while on the go, on my iPhone or iPad.

I’ve done #1 and part of #2 — now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to deploy the system to my server (which is a shared host on Dreamhost, but where I can run CGI scripts).

The code’s up on GitHub. I don’t really expect other people to use it, but you can, if you want to. I apologize in advance for not having time to write extensive documentation or provide support.

The system’s pretty fast: it rebuilds this almost 20-year-old blog in about three seconds on a five-year-old iMac. The code is, I hope, understandable and hackable, and I welcome you to fork it if it interests you.

* * *

Another part of this: I’ll stop using micro.inessential.com. This blog will be my blog and my microblog. I want just one place that’s me.

I don’t know if I’ll have my posts here automatically echoed to my Twitter account. Maybe. They do already appear on Micro.blog.

PS Titles were always optional for RSS, but most feed readers don’t handle this well. Evergreen was written with this in mind. (It’s not 1.0 yet, though. Working on it!)

 8 Apr 2018, 5:32 am

I’ve been rewriting my blogging system — more on why later — and this is a post just to prove to myself that title-less posts now work.

Update a few minutes later: And now I’m proving to myself that editing still works.

The Omni Show #10: Dave Lonning, Documentation Wrangler 14 Mar 2018, 7:09 pm

In this episode we talk with Dave Lonning, who writes documentation for Omni apps. Dave’s a long-time fan of role-playing games — running them and creating them — and he lived for years in Japan before making his way to Omni.

Among Dave’s hobbies is painting miniatures:

Dave, it should be noted, is a cat person — but, importantly, he’s learned to love the Omni dogs. They’re good dogs, Dove.

Marketing Human 10 Mar 2018, 12:50 am

I’ve got some career-change news that might sound weird at first but that I promise will make sense in a minute: I’m quite happily still at Omni, but I’m switching from engineering over to marketing.

I am the new Marketing Human, a new member of the Design department.

If you think of me as an engineer, you’re not wrong — but the secret, hidden in plain sight, is that throughout my career I’ve done a whole bunch of design and things that could be called marketing.

Blogging could be called marketing, after all, and today I wrote my first post for the Omni blog.

(For whatever freakish reason, writing has never been a chore to me — I love it. Sometimes I think I only make apps just to have something to write about.)

But the new job isn’t just blogging — I’m also doing a podcast. I’ll help figure out the marketing points behind the release of OmniFocus 3. I’ll write some ads. I’ll create new websites. I don’t even know what all the different things are yet.

I’ll also help with defining future versions of our apps, which is super-exciting for me. This keeps me close to the process of app-making — at a different level, sure, but at a place where I’m quite happy, since I’ve done this kind of work with Frontier, NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, Glassboard, Vesper, and now with Evergreen and back to Frontier.

In other words, I’m using the skills I’ve learned as an indie and sort-of-indie over decades — just not the skills I write about here that often.

Make sense? Cool. :)

* * *

For now, until OmniFocus 3 ships, I’m splitting my time: doing this and continuing to work directly on the Mac app. After that I’ll be a full-time Marketing Human.

If you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at marketing at The Omni Group’s domain name.

* * *

One interesting part of this — at least for me — is that, for the first time in decades, I’ll be back to writing code purely for fun. I’ll continue to work on Evergreen and other apps on nights and weekends, for sure. And I’ll keep writing about code on this blog.

But engineering will just be my hobby. I love that.

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