Continuing today with Mr. Brent Simmons, the Real Life series contends with developing tools for the modern writer, pursuing passions, the value of the written word, and the state of the publishing industry.
The Real Life series is an ongoing discussion between friends. A conversation built upon the tenets of introspection, reflection, and the thoughtful consideration of the past, present, and future.
MA: Brent, as a highly regarded developer, writer, and industry commentator, how has technology — regardless of type — made an impact upon your life?
BS: My eyesight is bad enough that something as simple as pouring a glass of water in my own kitchen is time-consuming and spill-prone without my contact lenses. I take this technology for granted, but it's still amazing, and it allows me and so many people to live a normal life without (hardly) ever thinking about what it would have been like.
When people say “technology,” they often mean “everything invented after I was 12 years old.” But if you take “technology” to mean all of it, you have to include the wheel, steam engines, breakfast cereal, electric light, nose jobs, and pants.
So, to think about the impact of technology on my life, I have to imagine a life without technology. But that’s inconceivable — even were I raised by wolves, at some point I’d bang a rock against another rock to make something sharp. I'd throw a stone at a bird hoping I could snag dinner.
Maybe I can narrow things down, though. My personal technological heritage is the line that starts with the invention of language and proceeds through writing, papyrus, Homer, poetry and drama, the printing press, Shakespeare, the novel, and newspapers and magazines.
Words and stories are my passion, and I’m lucky to live in this era when words and stories are ridiculously abundant and where worldwide distribution is nearly free. People who love to read and write have never had it this good.
Not all software developers come to it the same way. Some would trace their history through math and engineering, from Democritus to Turing. Others through the history of art, from Lascaux to Atari.
I don’t flatter myself that I’m like Gutenberg or Tim Berners-Lee: I’m one of those many very small contributors who will go unremembered by history. But it makes me proud anyway to be part of that technological lineage. It makes me happy to work on that same path.
But… all that may be a bit pretentious. Back on earth, my favorite piece of technology is my hot-air popcorn popper. I really, really like popcorn!
MA: Several years ago, despite the fact that I was an English Literature and History student, I decided to take Computer Science as a minor. I ignored the arguments that someone with my background had no place writing code, and, against the odds, actually found I was rather well-suited to it.
For me, writing code was a lot like writing prose. The same thoughtful consideration of logic, diction, and spacing was required, and the overarching goal of providing something of use and enjoyment for someone remained constant.
So, hearing you attribute your passion for technology to the written word truly resonates with me. But, in your situation, I find it fascinating that this passion has resulted not only in writing software, but also in software revolving around the written word. Be it NetNewsWire, MarsEdit, or even Glassboard, so much of your work has been dedicated to building better ways to convey and consume written thoughts.
Has it always been your outset goal to build around this passion — to appropriate the written word not only as a construction tool, but also as the object of much of your work? Or was it just a natural path for you?
BS: My career started with the web — I immediately saw it as a publishing platform where nobody could say no. I could publish whatever I wanted and it could be read around the world.
And if I could do that, other people could too.
In 1996 I went to work for Dave Winer at UserLand Software, because I believed strongly in the company’s mission: to make web publishing easy. I helped write one of the earliest blogging systems — Manila — among a bunch of other things.
And I was privileged to be a part of the company that functioned as an R&D department for the web. I was there for RSS, OPML, XML-RPC, and blogs. It was a massively exciting time.
I left in 2002, and continued to focus on reading and writing on the web.
I never had a choice of focus: it’s just how I am. I admire people who can write games, image editors, and classic productivity software — but I’m not one of them. (Though I enjoy working on developer tools, too. There isn’t much space separating developer tools and publishing tools. Sometimes none.)
The web is cultural magic. The biggest change in my lifetime. My mom has told me that, were it not for the web, I would have had to become a criminal mastermind instead.
But the web as publishing platform — as a place for words and sentences and stories written by anybody who wants to write — hit me like a lit match to gasoline, and the fire hasn’t gone out.
MA: What do you think is next for publishing online?
Some digital-only publications seem to be courting print, others are experimenting with digital magazines, and so on. No one quite seems to know precisely what an effective and sustainable business model looks like in this environment.
Do you think we'll continue to see this level of experimentation, or do you think we're heading toward something more concrete?
BS: When I was working on TapLynx a few years ago, we talked to a number of different publishers that we hoped would be launch partners for different versions. (We did ship TapLynx apps for Variety and All Things Digital, though I think they’re no longer TapLynx apps.)
We found two things: publishers have no money, and they’re obsessed with analytics.
I wasn’t surprised about the money, but the obsession with analytics stunned me. Maybe it’s because I don't have that same instinct — I like to avoid measuring anything but the most important things. (I profile my apps like crazy because I care deeply about performance. And revenue is always worth counting. But otherwise I’m not a measurer — I prefer good stories over good numbers.)
The thing is, we were there to talk about the future of publishing. Maybe our software would be part of it, and maybe not, but we believed that the future had to focus on mobile devices. But what we learned is that people are just trying to keep their jobs, and their jobs depend on analytics (or so they think; they may be right). Nothing else, not even the very future of their trade, mattered.
My illusions about the noble practice of publishing were scribbled all over. It was probably overdue. But I no longer believe that the current set of publishers will embrace the future, whatever it is, and I believe they’ll be replaced by new publications.
Some of those new publications may exist already. All Things Digital should continue to do well, since they started as digital-only and they’re committed to the future and smart. We’ll see more and more small publications (small in terms of number of writers) like Daring Fireball: John has developed a good model. And of course The Magazine may point to an interesting future. Even The Daily, for all its warts and wobbles, is a step in an interesting direction.
I don’t know all the details of the future, but a few things are clear: design will be less constrictive; it will focus more on readability and speed; it will appear not in print at all but on phones, tablets, and computers; and publications will face the same challenges as ever — which is, how do we make enough money to pay great reporters and writers.
One of the details about The Magazine that I like can stand in for an entire attitude: writers can re-publish whatever they’ve written after just one month. Writers own their writing. This is a step away from the traditional Publishers Are Gods Who Live in Manhattan and Control Everything.
With The Magazine, it’s lowercase: publishers are folks who live in Brooklyn and Seattle and who wouldn’t even want to try to control everything. Marco, like many smart people, understands how the ecosystem has changed, and he’s willing to take risks. As always, the future will be made by people who take risks.
There is plenty more experimentation to do. It’s early days for the future — but it’s the last days for print. Which makes all this terrifically exciting, since there’s nothing solid to stand on.
MA: Following years of courting with developers, publishers, and writers, do you expect to ever try your hand at building a new form of publication?
It seems to me that, in all of your years of writing and development, you've focused upon enabling the "great reporters and writers" that others work so tirelessly to support. In essence, you've dabbled with creating the modern writer's toolset.
Now, as we watch publications like The Magazine sprout, do you have any inclination to dabble even further? Insofar as the publishing landscape is characterized by a state of instability, do you have any interest in contributing something altogether new, different, or refined?
BS: I’ve fantasized about it, at least. I’d love to be an editor.
If I did a new publication, it would probably be on the web first — not only because I’d want to reach the widest audience possible but because I can’t deny the virtues of our friend the rendered-in-browser web. Links out and in. I’d want my publication to inspire more writing, to be part of the fabric of the network, and that’s way easier to do with a website that people can link to and visit without downloading something first.
(I might also make a Newsstand version, since writing native apps is my wheelhouse, but it wouldn’t be the first thing.)
The design and technical issues would be fun. How do I make a site that looks good, is easy-to-read, and is easy for me to publish? I’ve worked on CMSes and websites plenty of times before (though not for some years) and it’s fun. I’d love to revisit that topic with modern technology and design.
But the real achievement would be on the business side. How do I make money at this? How do I make enough money to have the resources to create something great?
I’m not sure I’m passionate enough about the business side to do a good job there. And I’d need to be sure.
That’s what it looks like to me today, anyway. It could change tomorrow.
I mean no disrespect to Marco, by the way — just because I would have done HTML first and Newsstand second doesn’t mean I think other approaches are wrong. There’s room for all kinds. We should try all kinds.
I think The Magazine is awesome, and I hope it succeeds wildly — because I love reading it. When it comes to what other people make, my sole criteria is: have you given me something I want to read?
MA: Considering your obvious passion for writing, I suspect you'd quickly find your way toward a business model. And, given your interest in building something new for the publishing world, I imagine it wouldn't be particularly painful to sustain.
Looking at Glassboard, for instance, you've written in the past that its business model would follow as a result of the pursuance of developing a good idea into an actual product. Now, over a year later, do you stand by this philosophy?
More specifically, the technology industry seems to be divided between those who wish to build something good and hurry toward that end, and those who slow down and attempt to pre-define all elements of the business before even building the product. Although the latter method is often perceived as engendering more "sustainable" business models, I question whether it might stifle the potential for acting upon your passions and building something great.
BS: I believe in creating great things. Business is just a means — it allows us to continue creating great things.
And running a profitable business is ever so much easier if you make something great that people like.
Whenever I see a company that’s more about the business plan than the product, I feel a sense of loss at the waste of effort by smart, creative people. But, on the flip side, I’m nearly heart-broken when I see a great product that can’t sustain itself because the business side wasn’t handled well.
The product and the business aren’t truly binary, separable things. And every situation is concrete rather than theoretical. Nevertheless, I suggest concentrating on the product first. If you’re not passionate about the product, then nothing else matters — and, probably, nothing else will help, either.
MA: As someone who obviously has a vested interest and plenty of experience in an economy of impassioned ideas and innovation, do you feel that such unabated experimentation is sustainable, or do you feel that the pace of the industry must eventually slow?
BS: I’ve been wondering since 1995, when we first started seeing URLs on TV, if the industry will slow down. I haven’t seen any signs of it yet. (I feel personally like I’ve been running flat-out since 1995. Happily, that suits me.)
Everything slows down eventually, right? Or, at least, some areas get settled, and the location of activity moves.
An example: in the late ’90s and early 2000s there was an active technological debate over using templates and scripted websites over hand-created. It sounds unimaginable now — who wouldn’t use Wordpress over hand-creating their blog?
Templates and scripts won — rightly, and the issue was settled — and the activity moved to people creating different systems. And there’s still a lot of activity there, but it’s mature: we don’t hear about new systems all that often, and changes to Wordpress, Drupal, and similar tend to be incremental.
Then the question became: what can we do with these systems? What cool things can we make, and how do we make enough money to keep making cool things?
And then some of those issues get settled. The Daring Fireball business model for blogs is at least provisionally settled, for instance.
MA: For instance, would you act upon your vision of being an editor for the sake of exploration, or would you avoid it for the sake of caution?
BS: I like to tell myself that I’m a cautious, objective, clear-eyed person.
But this is prescriptive rather than descriptive. In truth I delight in shooting at stars — those bright targets so far away and unhittable. So, if becoming an editor and publisher was what I wanted more than anything else, I’d do it.
And justify it later.
To be clear: that’s a character flaw. Luckily there’s no cure in sight.
MA: Well, from someone who thinks in a very similar way, I certainly hope we might see something new from you in the very near future. From what you've said, you clearly have plenty more to build and provide for the community. And, given the calibre of your current and past projects, that's a very exciting thing to consider.
Thank you very much for joining me for the interview. It's been an honor to chat with you.
BS: Thanks, Matt! It’s been fun.
This article is the fifth iteration of OneThirtySeven's recurring interview series, Real Life.