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Tumbleweeds and Used Car Lots

[NB: I want to talk about a subject raised at Drunkenbatman's C4[1] panel, but it's not the one that you might think it is. The "racism" issue is currently being done to death in other venues, and is, to me, not part of the larger picture.]

During the recent C4[1] conference, blogger Drunkenbatman moderated a panel composed entirely of C4[1] presenters, composed primarily of a cross-section of indie Mac developers. Drunkenbatman led off with an introduction to Pzizz, a product which, as demonstrated by his slides, is marketed with dubious claims backed up by even more dubious pseudo-science. (He used the phrase snake oil.) He then made mention of the MacHeist software promotion and the controversy surrounding it, and then handed the metaphorical floor over to the panel, with the question, "Is this the legacy we want to leave behind us?"

At that point, the whole conversation veered, in my opinion, wildly off course. A handheld mic circulated around the room, and various audience members registered their opinions with varying degrees of emphasis. One panelist opined that this industry is brand new — we are in the Wild West, eventually things will settle down, and law and order will prevail; in the meantime, we shouldn't complain about the tumbleweeds. Words and phrases like haters and paternalistic and Delicious Generation flew through the air with the greatest of ease. There were arguments about the nature of promoting software. Nothing really got resolved.

As happy as I was to see the topic aired, I think the discussion got started off in the wrong direction and, as a result, failed to address the core issue that I think Drunkenbatman was getting at. The question isn't, "What legacy do we want to leave for future generations?", nor is the question even one of, "How can we clean up these damn tumbleweeds?" The real question, as I see it, is one that needs some care in framing.

What's Old is New

I don't take literally the notion that the industry we're in is brand-new — after all, the Mac software industry was born back in 1984 with the introduction of the Mac itself. However, beginning roughly with the release of Mac OS X 10.4, all of the right factors converged to enable the development, release, delivery, and marketing of Mac desktop applications without requiring the enormous input of resources (capital and otherwise) that were once necessary to build and ship a successful Mac product. As a result, the pace at which new Mac products appear on the market has rapidly increased, and continues to do so. At the same time, large numbers of new customers are coming to the Mac, either as initial computer purchasers or as switchers from Windows or Linux. The visible result of these changes is a software market which is noticeably more vibrant than it was ten, or even five years ago.

However, despite the rapid influx of new customers, new developers, new ideas, and new technologies, the Mac retains an enormous number of customers and developers who were using and/or developing Mac software well before Mac OS X was released. In the Before Time, customers had very high standards for Mac products (as contrasted with products for other platforms). It was inevitable, since Macs and Mac software were very expensive relative to PCs and DOS/Windows software, and if you laid down that kind of coin for your gear, you expected very high quality in return. In this respect, the Mac industry was largely self-adjusting: Users were well informed by the sources available to them at the time (the Mac trade press), and the sources were themselves tough on crappy products. Developers who produced junk — or who marketed snake oil — never gained credence, and in all substantive ways, ended up in the fringes.

What's New is Old

There's one thing that even the Mac software industry hasn't been able to escape completely — schlock marketing. It's a constant in the universe. "Low Miles!" "Real Sea Monkeys!" "Buy Ten Albums for One Penny!" Such marketing used to be confined to the fringes: junk mail, spam, the used-car lot in the seedy part of town.

Today, thanks to the many-to-many communications that are possible in this Web 2.0 world of blogs and social networking, it's very easy for schlock marketing — and as such, the products it pushes — to gain an air of legitimacy. How? Easy: Just start a discussion. By engaging in the debate on a particular subject, both sides in the debate implicitly acknowledge that the subject is worthy of debate; and when one side of a controversy is the side that might ordinarily live on the fringes, the debate works to the advantage of that side regardless of the outcome. That's because all of a sudden, the fringe side of the debate — the voices and positions that had once rightly been relegated to the periphery — gain mainstream recognition. (This particular condition has been observed in the case of the whole "Intelligent Design vs. Evolution" matter, where evolutionary scientists are concerned that engaging in scientific debate with creationists dignifies the creationist position as something worthy of being argued about.)

Further, it's very easy for the purveyors of schlock-marketed products to change the character of the discussion for the worse. Instead of a reasoned back-and-forth which brings out the best of what our socially networked world offers, there frequently results a shouting match, in which he who yells the loudest wins, and in which anyone with a viewpoint at odds with that most loudly expressed is branded a hater, or is labeled as having an agenda, or both.

Q: How can you reasonably argue that water runs uphill?

A: How can you even ask that? Why do you hate America? What's your agenda?

And thus, those tumbleweeds, which once used to blow through and be forgotten, can (and do) become a longer-lasting part of the landscape. The cheap used-car lot replaces the reputable auto dealer. The fringes start to edge out the mainstream, and the consumer, who once could depend on good advice from informed sources, faces only a sea of noise, and no longer knows whom to trust. ("Was it really owned by a little old lady from Pasadena? The salesman says so, and his boss backed him up, so it must be true, right?")

The Real Question

Here it is, then: As Mac developers, what do we want the Mac software landscape to look like in five years? Do we want the industry to continue in its best traditions, combined with the innovation made possible by improvements to the platform and the world at large? Or do we want to stand back and let the Mac software landscape become a mirror of the Windows software landscape: populated by used-car lots, and decorated with tumbleweeds?

What's the Answer?

One of the reasons I conflate fly-by-night software and schlock marketing is because schlock marketing is pretty much a requirement if you want to generate buzz for a sub-par product. On the other hand, really good products don't need schlock marketing. If you've written something that you honestly think is good, market it with honesty and integrity. Don't cheapen yourself, your marketing message, or your product just to generate buzz. Act respectably, and the respect will come. And with it will come the customers.

And the schlockmeisters? Ignore them and eventually they'll blow out of town.


Well said, Rich. I think this was way more interesting of a point tha DB raised, and it's unfortunate that his "handgrenade" second topic has received all the attention.

I think part of db's point that got missed in the discussion was that this particular application had been 'reviewed' by several places, and it appeared that none of the reviewers had done any investigation into the applications claims.

Responsible and respectable media can do better.

Of course, application developers aren't generally also secretly running media empires, so it probably wasn't the best forum for that discussion either (which is perhaps why it was ignored).

I wouldn't blame the influx of users and developers who are new to the Mac.

Instead I think the blame resides in the lack of in-depth reviews. Reviewing a set of competing tools requires using them for a while. Unfortunately, that means the review is "old-news" and is ignored.

The net result is very low signal to noise ratios, and a need for gimmicks to stand out.

Serious journalism also suffers from this: we get "I'm standing in Iraq in front of a tank", rather than the more interesting "Mustard Gas was first used by the RAF against the Kurds in 1920, with the approval of Sir Winston Churchill".

Excellent article, and it applies to far more than just Mac software. Have a look at the audiophile industry...

I am surprised no one got down to the real nitty gritty here. There will continue to be badly written reviews for as long as the publications and sites publishing those reviews favor ad revenue over honest journalism. Every software producer and hardware manufacturer is already an advertiser or could become one. Publishers fear offending them. That is a major factor driving tech coverage both online and off. As a result, much, if not most, tech coverage barely deserves the description.

Daniel Jalkut, owner of Red Sweater Software and all-around nice guy, has an excellent followup: http://www.red-sweater.com/blog/384/were-in-this-together.

That is a really good reframing of the question (I came here from red-sweater blog).

I do have one real complaint: you linked to the "DL" controversy, but only to blogs/responses from one side of the issue. Given that this topic involves a discussion of journalistic integrity, I find it really disappointing that you call it a controversy yet link only to posts from one side of that particular debate.

You had me until you claimed that Intelligent Design is psuedo-science. Origin-evolutions has quite a few holes, which include wildly different age estimates when using fluoride and Carbon-14 dating, Gould's "stairstep evolution", irreducible complexity, and the dearth of positive mutations, to name but a few. Science itself is a constructed social reality in which power, money, and popularity play a large part in which ideas are accepted and then promulgated, and this ranges from the peer-review process all the way up to the chair selection process. In short, writing an article about integrity requires some on behalf of the writer.