The Brent Simmons Interview

July 21st, 2008

Brent Simmons is the creator of NetNewsWire, the best feed reader for the Mac, and an application I use every day.

Brent has developed NetNewsWire for the iPhone, and made an interesting design decision. Rather than attempt to implement all features, or even a large subset, of the desktop version, he built it to be used quickly when its user has a few minutes to spare. This becomes immediately clear when you first open the application, and it illuminates what iPhone applications will be.

Brent and I traded emails over the course of last week.

The Interview

KYLE: In a discussion with Macworld’s Jason Snell, you said that when designing NetNewsWire for the iPhone, you started off simple, but realized even that was too complicated, and pared it down. Did you start the design process with assumptions about how the application should be structured or what features should be in it that you realized were wrong?

BRENT: The main difference with the initial design and the 1.0 release was the amount of information displayed. I packed a bunch of stuff into those table cells — dates, excerpts, etc. Each item in the Feeds list even had the title and time of the most recent unread post.

But once I implemented all that, it was way too cluttered. So I kept paring back until I got to a more minimal look, which felt right.

I might still add some of this back (excerpts in the News Items list, for instance, have been heavily requested). But I’ll do so very, very carefully, since it’s so easy to make a mess.

Clarity is more valuable than density.

KYLE: The iPhone’s size and touchscreen require a simplicity and intentional design that desktop applications do not. It requires finding an application’s core functionality and re-focusing on it. What does this mean for the iPhone as a platform going into the future?

BRENT: One thing it means is that apps should stay lean and focused, because you don’t really have much choice. It also means that where a developer might write one desktop app, it might make sense to have multiple iPhone apps, each doing different things.

I like this, a lot, by the way. It appeals to my temperament as a minimalist.

KYLE: This also fits nicely into Apple’s “small apps for individual tasks, which integrate together” philosophy, such as Mail, iCal, and Address Book, though Apple has moved away from this with iTunes (for some good reasons). Does this also reflect the iPhone’s intention as a complementary device to the PC, rather than a standalone device?

BRENT: Yes. Or, at least, it makes sense to me that everybody will want a different set of features on their phones, and allowing them to customize that by choosing different small apps is a great way to go.

KYLE: How has developing for the iPhone affected your design philosophy for the desktop?

BRENT: It’s made me wish even more strongly that I could delete features at will — at whim, even.

I do delete features, by the way, from the desktop version. But I can’t just go nuts deleting stuff without having a revolt on my hands. ;)

KYLE: Does this lower price point relative to Mac applications discourage thorough application development for the iPhone, or does the App Store’s huge sales potential actually encourage the opposite?

BRENT: I think people think the App Store will sell them lots of copies — so, yes, developers don’t mind the lower price that much. (Or Apple’s cut.)

KYLE: How many copies of NetNewsWire have been downloaded?

BRENT: I don’t know. The App Store gave us download counts at first, but all the counts are now displayed as zero. It was around 7500 in the first 12 hours on the first Thursday. But that’s all I know.

KYLE: The Mac’s developer community is a large part of why I love the Mac so much. It tends to be very community oriented, and open to new developers. It requires little more than a great application, a nice website, and willingness to be involved in the community for Mac users to embrace a new developer. The App Store certainly is beneficial both for developers and consumers, but does the App Store’s exclusivity change this communal and egalitarian feel at all? Or could it increase it by giving new exposure for new developers that they would have a hard time getting exposure when selling an application for the Mac?

BRENT: I think the App Store will be fine for the community. The biggest issue right now is the NDA — the fact that we can’t really talk about iPhone programming. We can’t post code on the web. There are no mailing lists where we can discuss things.

It makes it harder to develop apps — Mac developers have always been a collegial lot. (Which is one of the top three reasons I’m a Mac developer.)

KYLE: Many developers have been frustrated by the NDA, including Craig Hockenberry, who has made a bit of a refrain out of “Fucking NDA,” but another complaint he made on his weblog is the current inability to easily send out updates to beta testers, and to collect logging information from end users with malfunctioning apps. These factors seem to leave developers in the dark both about how to fix certain problems with their apps, and how other developers are solving similar issues. Does this threaten the iPhone platform, and has Apple made any indication that these issues will be fixed?

BRENT: I wouldn’t say it threatens the platform. We’re a long way from it being actually threatened by anything. But Craig does make great points that ought to be addressed.

All software takes time. If Apple doesn’t have answers for certain things yet, that doesn’t mean they won’t ever. For instance, I’d love to get crash logs from my users. Will they add that? Maybe. Just because they haven’t doesn’t mean they won’t. I’m sure they know that we developers would love that feature, and that it would help us make our iPhone software better, which is in Apple’s interests.

KYLE: One of the most exciting parts of the iPhone, and certainly the one with the most potential, is the built in location service. OmniGroup is using location-support in an innovative way in OmniFocus for the iPhone by showing to-dos that are relevant to your location. For example, if a current to-do of yours is to buy groceries and you are running errands, OmniFocus will show you that, say, a Trader Joe’s is only half a mile away. What other ways do you envision using location services? Are you planning to use it in any future applications?

BRENT: One way I’ve thought about using location services is showing blogs and news feeds near you. Otherwise, I’m mostly happy to be surprised by what other developers come up with. I’ve thought of the obvious things, of course (like finding nearby restaurants and Twitter/Facebook/Flickr friends).

KYLE: I like that idea a lot — it would be great to add a location-based aspect to the already existing weblog community, which is a complaint I have — I simply don’t know many people around me involved in it. Do you intend on integrating this into NetNewsWire?

BRENT: I’d like to — but I have not looked into the technical side at all. I don’t have any idea how feasible it is. Right now I’m concentrating on fixing bugs and adding the more commonly-requested features. Later on I can look at some potentially interesting stuff like this.