(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Sunday, November 14, 2004
  Sharecropping in the Orchard

This is a story of two companies "sharecropping" in the Apple Orchard. Like most companies that chose to till the landlord's fields, they thrived as long as the landlord considered their fields beneath his notice. But once they achieved a measure of success...


I'm wildly enthusiastic about Konfabulator. Konfabulator puts beautiful translucent widgets on your computer. Konfabulator is probably popular because the widgets are so appealing and because they're so easy to make: widgets are built out of webbish pieces like XHTML, JavaScript, XML, and PNG. Visit the Widget Gallery for examples of third party widgets you can download for free.

Konfabulator's origins are classic passionate development:

Some time in early 2000 Arlo Rose came up with an idea for a cool little application. It would use XML to structure images, and a scriptable language, like Perl, in such a way that someone who knew the basics of Perl could put together cool little mini-applications. The goal was that these mini-applications would just sit around on your desktop looking pretty, while providing useful feedback.

All he ever really wanted was to have a cool looking battery monitor and something that told him the weather, but he knew the possibilities for something like this could potentially be limitless.

Fast forward a couple of years when Arlo began working with Perry Clarke at Sun Microsystems. Over lunch one afternoon Arlo gave Perry the basics of this dream app. Perry suggested that JavaScript would be far easier for people to digest. He was right. It's the basis for Flash's ActionScript, and Adobe's scripting engine for Photoshop. Of all the choices, JavaScript made the most sense. Shortly after that lunch, the two began to spend their nights and weekends making this thing a reality.

A half year later Konfabulator is ready for download, and now it's up to you to see if they were right about how cool this thing can be!
A happy story. A couple of guys, a great idea, and thousands of people paying $25 each because they love using Konfabulator. Flash forward. Apple announces Tiger, the next of its OS versions. They demonstrate something called Dashboard:

One of the coolest new features in Tiger is the Dashboard, a new way for Mac users to get fast access to information and functionality they use frequently. The Dashboard is home to Widgets, mini-applications that provide a very simple, tightly focused interface for common tasks. They're lightweight (launch instantly), very simple, and very easy to use. Widgets can stand alone, complement the functionality of a larger and more powerful application, display information from the Internet, and a lot more...

Widgets are based on the Web Kit. Anyone who can weave HTML markup with CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and JavaScript can write a Widget.
Surprise, surprise. The Konfabulator guys took it with a certain amount of sang froid: their web site boldly proclaimed: "Cupertino, start your photocopiers," poking fun at Steve Jobs, who said the same thing to Microsoft when he unveiled Tiger.

If that's all that happened, this would be one of a million stories about a Landlord squeezing his Sharecroppers off the land. As Tim Bray puts it:

Are you a Sharecropper? If you’re developing software for the Windows platform, yes. Or for the Apple platform, or the Oracle platform, or the SAP platform, or, well, any platform that is owned and operated by a company. They own the ground you’re building on, and if they decide they don’t like you, or they can do something better with the ground, you’re toast. They can ship their own product and give it away till you go bust, then start charging for it; and use secret APIs you can’t see; and they can break the published APIs you use. All of these things have historically been done by platform vendors.

I made the same point to a friend, who pointed me to John Gruber's "Dashboard vs. Konfabulator," an essay which made a number of interesting points. For me, the essay seemed to say: "The orchard belongs to Apple and your tenancy is Apple's to extend or withdraw without notice or compensation. Too bad for you." Please read the entire essay, I can't possibly do the tone of the essay justice with an excerpt.

I took the whole thing as a serious warning: if you become a sharecropper, and the landlord evicts you, don't expect universal sympathy from the masses. If anything, many will actually cheer the landlord on, especially if the landlord is taking the land you used to farm and turning it into a commons of a sort.

In Konfabulator's case, plenty of people took Apple to task for not compensating Arlo and Perry. Notice that such people aren't fundamentally opposed to the landlord evicting the sharecropper, just opposed to doing so without giving the sharecropper a few bucks to eat while he wanders through the wilderness.

John Gruber followed "Dashboard vs. Konfabulator" up with "Konfab Confab," a kindler, gentler essay, where he made it clear that he wasn't opposed to the Konfabulator guys sharecropping, he just doesn't think they're entitled to compensation from Apple for being elbowed out of the way, especially if their former fields are going to be nicer under the landlord's management. Read that essay too, John is meticulous in his analysis of why everyone except the Konfabulator guys benefit from Apple steamrolling them.

Either way, the point is clear: tilling the landlord's fields is just a way of marking time until you're evicted. If you want forty acres and a mule of your own, you have to stake out a bit of wilderness of your own.

All this happened a while ago, and I decided not to write anything specific about Arlo and Perry's situation. But last night I came across another story about a sharecropper's eviction. Surprise, surprise, I read about it on John's weblog.


In Cabel's own words:

"Well. Huh. Wow."

That's pretty much the distilled, non-profane version of our reaction to seeing iTunes. Steven, myself, and my friend Alexis Croft sat close together during the MacWorld Expo in January, 2001, truly on tenterhooks — we had heard the rumors, and we were almost afraid at what was about to unfold.

When it was time to show iTunes, I sunk a little bit lower in my chair. When the interface was shown, I quickly studied every pixel. When Steve Jobs made it seem a bit like they invented visualizers—"We thought, wouldn't it be cool if you could SEE your MUSIC? Well, we did just that"—we chuckled a little bit. And as each feature was revealed, we looked at each other, trying to fully grasp what we were up against. On one hand, it was far, far simpler than Audion—no MP3 editing, no faces, no playcount, no rating, no hierarchical playlists.

But on the other hand, it's really not that bad — that interface is awfully smart—and, oh crap, it's free. Of course it had to be free.

Please, please, please read his entire story. It's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Do yourself a favour and click on absolutely every link in the story: most of them pop up images and movies that are amusing and sometimes downright hilarious.

For me, the most telling quote from his story is his encounter with Steve Jobs at MacWorld:

"Hi Steve, it's Cabel, from Panic."

"Oh, hey Cabel! Nice to meet you. So tell me, what'd you think of iTunes?"

"Well, I think it looks great! You guys have done a great job with it. But, you know, I still feel we'll do all-right with Audion."

"Oh, really? That's interesting, because honestly? I don't think you guys have a chance."

Steve probably doesn't wish Cabel any ill-will: Apple may have been interested in buying Audion from Panic instead of buying SoundJam. But, as things turned out, Apple took another road and bought SoundJam's head programmer Jeff Robbin as well as the code itself.

The Sharecropper analogy holds true. In this case, there were two Sharecroppers struggling with each other for a corner of the orchard. The landlord came out of his keep, annointed one, and cast the other into the wilderness.

(In my parent's time there was a very unpleasant expression for someone who collaborated with "The Man" for favours. If the phrase were around today, it would be pronounced "Hizzle Nizzle." I don't think this applies to most people who sell out: the term is really most applicable to those who shill for The Man and help to keep the other Sharecroppers down. For example, the people who criticize software developers who don't "drink the kool-aid" and bind their applications tightly to some landlord's proprietary API.)

The thing about giving up your mean existence as a Sharecropper and becoming part of the landlord's retinue is that you have the power to do so much more than when you were marginally independent. The downside, of course, is that you lose the authority to follow your own dreams exactly the way you want. Just ask Steve Gedikian if you don't believe me.

(Of course, some people set up shop as Sharecroppers expressly for the purpose of currying favour with the landlord and getting invited into the keep. Typically, these are senior managers who stand to gain from a buy-out and can move on to another venture. The rank-and-file employees face a different future when a company is acquired by the landlord.)

Panic's founders faced the same dilemma:

So, this is the point in the story where I'm supposed to tell you that we agonized for months; that we'd been given an opportunity to join the very team that inspires us, to be a part of the machine that makes the machines we love, and that we were so tempted and confused at what to do that we didn't sleep, became alcoholics, rolled around on the ground, etc.

Weirdly, though, it didn't work out that way.

In fact, I'd say that almost 5 minutes after the meeting Steve and I knew in our hearts that it wasn't time—that we didn't want to join Apple (yet). We maybe went through the motions of "deciding" on the flight back home, but I think we knew the truth. And the truth went something like this:

"This is our only chance to do Panic. We don't have kids, we're not married, we don't have huge obligations. We didn't invest our life savings into it, just a few hundred dollars. We don't even have life savings. We probably won't get this opportunity again in our lifetime—the full chance to take a complete risk, to experiment, quit our day jobs, start a business that certainly may fail, put our hearts into the soul of it, and try to make it fly — making the best possible Macintosh software we can without the threat of mortgages or the cost of braces or kids wondering why we're never home. And while there may be a time in our life where we crave some stability, or there may be a time in our life when things don't work out with Panic and we return to be a player in a larger, awesome team like Apple, that time is certainly not now. Panic's time is."

If that isn't passionate software development, I don't know what is.

So where are they today?

The Konfabulator guys have released Konfabulator for Windows. That's a well-tried strategy: set up shop on the border between two fiefdoms. Now they have access to millions of new prospects for their product. They're also up against competitors like Stardock's Desktop X and their new landlord is Evil Incarnate.

Panic retired Audion outright and are busy selling other applications. Essentially, they've shrugged their shoulders and moved along to another part of the orchard. Ironically, one of the applications they're selling puts little translucent widgets on your Macintosh desktop.

Good luck to them both.


Comments on “Sharecropping in the Orchard:
I came to this delightful article via your latest post in HN. Not only is it well written, it hasn't "aged" at all and is very relevant today.

Good writing, reg!

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Reg Braithwaite

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