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MacStories Interviews: Mike Rundle

[MacStories Interviews is a new series of email interviews and conversations with with well-known developers, designers, bloggers, journalists, geeks.]

Please welcome Mike Rundle, designer and web, iOS and Mac developer. You can follow him on Twitter as @flyosity. The interview was conducted from October 12th to December 10th.

- Tell me a little about yourself: who are you, what do you do, etc…?

Hey there! I’m Mike Rundle and I do a number of different things. First, I’m a designer. I’ve been designing websites, applications, blogs and icons for many years. Second, I’m a web developer and have been writing HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP for a long, long time as well. Third, I’m a Mac, iPhone and iPad developer and have been learning and using Objective-C and the Cocoa APIs since around 2008. I’m the author of Beak, a Mac Twitter app that’s no longer in development, and am also the author of Digital Post, an iPad newspaper app. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of writing and am the author of a chapter on mobile interface design that’s part of the next book from Smashing Magazine. I’ve also been busy reviewing and editing iPhone and iPad books for some of the larger tech publishers.

At the moment I’m working on a project I’ve been looking forward to for awhile: a series of highly-detailed guides that will teach designers how to actually code the interfaces for iPhone and iPad apps. So many designers out there have such great visual design talent but can’t actually put an app together due to a lack of programming knowledge. I’m fortunate to have both design and programming skills so I really want to reach out to my fellow pixel pushers out there and get them in Xcode building cool apps. These guides will also be useful for developers because I go through every step of the design process as well so I hope they’ll also pick up a thing or two. Oh, and after these guides are done I’ll start in on the myriad iPhone and iPad app ideas I have, starting with a really unique puzzle game that’s been in my head for 2 years. Never a dull moment!

- What’s your current setup?

I have a 24″ aluminum iMac (bought it right when they came out), a 15″ 2.53Ghz MacBook Pro, an iPad, a first-gen iPhone and an iPhone 4. On my desk at work is a 27″ Core 2 Duo iMac which is the best computer I’ve ever owned. I’ve got a Logitech MX Revolution mouse which is fantastic, and under that is an XTracPads HAMMER mousepad which is gigantic and totally awesome. I highly recommend it. I also own a Rain Design mStand laptop stand which is built as if Apple made it. It’s the best laptop stand out there, hands down.

- I’ve recently bought a 21.5-inch iMac and it’s quickly becoming the best computer I’ve ever owned. I’m happy with my MacBook Pro, but that thing is just incredible. Too bad a 27-inch model was jut too much for my desk.

The vertical resolution is what makes it so great, especially when working on iPad apps or with big code files so you can see more lines at once.

- About Beak: I tried the app a few times when it was still in development, but never really sticked with it. Then I saw you started posting screenshots of a new version for Mac and, later, an iPhone counterpart. Then you dropped Beak’s development.

What did exactly happen? Did the release of Twitter’s official client for iPhone and iPad influence your decision?

Ha, well the sad thing is that I’m right there with you, I only used it a few times too. I was working on an app that I never actually used, or wanted to use. What happened had nothing to do with Twitter buying Tweetie, it was just a ceasing of interest and a realization that I had too much of the app’s development in front of me and it was a constant, uphill battle.

I work on apps because I really love doing it, it’s my hobby. I never hoped or expected to make much money from Beak, if any at all. It’s not my job, it’s my passion, so when my passion starts to feel like a bore or an obligation then my mind jumps to the next thing that catches my interest. I started working on Beak because I wanted to the challenge of building a complex user interface for a service that I use all the time. I got pretty far, and I developed most of the hard parts of the interface, but when developing a Twitter app there are 20 or 30 features you absolutely have to implement to have a half-viable product. Favorites, DMs, search, RTs, follower lists, etc. Dealing with the Twitter API, handling errors, memory leaks, caching code just wasn’t fun for me so I hung up my hat.

I’m planning to turn the best parts of the app into blog entries and tutorials, perhaps even open-sourcing some parts like my backend engine.

- That’s great, Mike. Hopefully other young developers will be inspired by your tutorials and we’ll see other great Twitter clients come our way.

You said you jumped to the “next thing” that caught your mind. I assume that’s Digital Post for iPad? I personally bought the app and love it, what can you tell us about the development and the “behind the scenes” stuff? How has the app performed so far?

Yeah, Digital Post took over my time once I stopped working diligently on Beak. Glad you like it! The development was a whirlwind and took about 40 hours from idea to a finished 1.0. After Steve Jobs announced the iPad I knew I wanted to have an app in the App Store on Day 1 but I was lacking an idea so I pushed the thought to the back of my mind. A few months went by and I had some ideas for an “interesting story” aggregator based on a previous iPhone app I was messing around with in 2009. It’d use some algorithms and RSS magic to identify what were the hottest tech stories at the moment and then have them show in the app with some kind of fancy, custom user interface. As I thought more about that application it occurred to me that just having tech stories limited the audience, so why not have interesting stories from all kinds of topics? I liked that idea a lot better, and while I was thinking about potential interface designs the concept of a newspaper popped into my head and then the whole “digital newspaper” design came with it.

Digital Post did really well at the start and then has trickled off over time. I was selling nearly 100 copies per day and was in the Top 10 paid apps in the News category, but then, for some reason, Apple completely reorganized the iPad App Store app and how they listed and sorted apps in each category. In the category view, they used to show a side-by-side list of the top 10 free and paid apps. Digital Post was hovering between #5 and #10, and was also in the coverflow-style featured section at the top, so I had a lot of visibility.

Then, on one fateful morning I checked my previous day’s sales and they had fallen like a rock. I immediately fired up iTunes and checked to see what position I was at within my category and I was still in the Top 10. Perplexed, I grabbed my iPad and went to the News category only to discover that they completely changed the layout and the Top 10 apps in a category were no longer featured or listed at all. Instead, they had a list that was sorted by Release Date, Name, and Popularity, but the Popularity sort merged free and paid apps together so I was drowned out by New York Times, USA Today, Bloomberg, and all the other huge players with free apps. My sales never recovered. I have no idea why Apple did this (who the hell wants to see apps sorted by Name?) but that small thing killed a lot of my interest in the iPad as an app developer. Some business or marketing guy snapped his fingers and my sales dropped 90% instantly. I’ve spoken in private to a few people at Apple about this and apart from agreeing that it sucks, there’s really nothing that can be done.

I had a ton of ideas for Digital Post features (many that I had already started working on) but my enthusiasm has waned a lot. I’m pretty turned off on the concept of building more iPad apps because it’s a really tricky market, and a tiny, tiny market compared to the number of iPhone and iPod touch owners out there. In general, I think my time is better spent teaching others how to design and build iOS apps and then working on the dozen iPhone app ideas I’ve had kicking around since 2007.

- Apple changed the App Store navigation for the worse. You’re right, it sucks but there’s nothing that can be done. I wonder who’s actually taking care of this.

The overly-featured promotion of free apps hurts independent developers like you who have great ideas, but can’t rely on enormous budgets such as Bloomberg or the NYT.

Yup, it really does. I don’t see the allure of lumping paid & free apps together. If users want to download a free app then they’ll be looking for only free apps, not free with paid mixed in. Combining both types really doesn’t help anyone at all.

- What about iAds, though? Do you see it as a way for developers to sell free apps, and get a decent income? Have you ever thought about it?

Absolutely, I’m pretty excited about iAds. I have a bunch of iPhone app ideas that are better suited towards the larger masses of iPhone users that I’d rather release for free to get a larger download count. I have a friend who released a free version of a simple, 99-cent app and now he’s making a bit more per day with the iAds-supported version than with the regular, paid version. It’s really an untapped market. Even though the fill rates are pretty low at the moment, the amounts that developers make per click are fantastic compared to other mobile ad solutions. The ads are really high-quality and since users don’t exit the app when they tap to show an ad, the user’s overall experience isn’t that bad. I’m looking forward to using iAds in apps I build in the future.

- The “Back to the Mac” event Apple held earlier this week. Your thoughts about Lion, the Mac App Store?

I think the App Store for Mac is a huge, huge deal.

Lion is really exciting to me because the engineers and designers working on OS X have been overshadowed recently by the advancements in iOS and I knew they were cooking up cool stuff. Not much was really discussed about Lion at the event so we had to read in between the lines a bit to pluck out the good bits of new information. For one, Apple’s bringing a decent chunk of the design language present in iOS back to OS X. Lots of little things: the updated scrollbars, master-detail controllers, monochromatic icons, tab bars, paged controls, etc.

As a developer, I’m intrigued about how Apple engineers implemented these iOS-like controls and if they’ll expose the APIs for third-party developers to use. Or perhaps they brought over the entire iOS UIKit framework wholesale? I don’t know, but I imagine we’ll find out at WWDC 2011.

I agree about the Mac App Store, I think it’s going to be pretty great, for a number of reasons. One, it’ll pull some iOS developers and app development houses over to Mac OS X since they can distribute apps in a way they’re familiar with. Two, as an independent Mac developer, I can’t tell you how much of a pain it is to sell software with licensing schemes. Generating the licenses, implementing piracy-avoidance code, setting up an e-commerce system, these are all things that I don’t want to spend any time doing. Fortunately, if I write apps and sell them through the Mac App Store, Apple will take care of all that just like they do for iPhone and iPad apps.

It’s a huge win.

- What about the “simple, micro-apps” Vs. “real, complex applications” debate, though? Do you think we’ll see a proliferation of iOS-like lightweight and “focused” apps on the Mac?

I can’t see many huge, complex applications coming to the Mac App Store but maybe I’ll be wrong. My guess is because the companies that make those apps already have dedicated sales and marketing channels (not to mention free trials and paid upgrades that don’t exist in the App Store) and it won’t make financial sense for them. I think a lot of cheaper, new apps will be developed just for the Mac App Store. Apps that cost less than $10.

As for pricing, many current indie Mac developers are talking about how the prices for Mac App Store apps cannot be a race to the bottom like it is in the iPhone App Store. Some companies like Omni Group have consistently priced their iPhone and iPad apps at the top end of the price spectrum, bucking the trend of “ringtone app” pricing at 99-cents to $3, but this is a rarity. Companies that are pricing apps and games at a buck and hoping to make it up on volume might bring that same pricing strategy to the Mac App Store and that’ll undermine other developers’ efforts.

- So shall we look forward to see you coming “back to the Mac” within a few months? Like you said, the Mac App Store has huge pros for an indie developer.

Yeah I definitely want to. I’ve had mockups & plans for Digital Post 2.0 for a few months just sitting around and I’ve been thinking about not building 2.0 for the iPad but instead for the Mac. In the version of Beak for Mac that never shipped I had a lot of custom AppKit UI work so I’m really familiar with doing totally custom interfaces for Mac apps. It’d be a lot of fun. At a minimum, I’m planning a design & development tutorial for building a Mac app that’ll introduce people to custom AppKit development, so that’ll get me there either way.

- I read your blog is entirely built on top of the new HTML5 tags. Without getting into the technical details, have you ever considered leveraging iOS’ support for web standards to develop a rich webapp for iPhone or iPad? Steve Streza did an excellent job with Swearch.

Steve did an awesome job with Swearch but I don’t have any plans to build web apps for iOS. I’m just not that excited by the web anymore; I like building native applications because they’re challenging to work on and much faster for the user. I’ve been working on websites and web apps for over 14 years so the newness of Objective-C and the Cocoa frameworks is what draws me to use them. Building mobile applications using web technologies is good if you need to support multiple platforms and you don’t have the skills (or the money to pay someone who has the skills) to use native code. A lot of web designers and developers don’t want to feel like the mobile revolution is passing them by so mobile web apps are an option to keep their skills relevant.

There’s actually a rift forming between people who really, really love the web and those who think native apps are best. Peter-Paul Koch has been pretty negative when it comes to iOS development and its benefits over web apps. He’s been working in the mobile space his entire career so it makes sense he’d prefer web development over native development, but it’s confusing to me how militant he’s been towards iOS developers. I respected him a lot for many years for his work in the JavaScript community but his recent attitudes towards iOS apps made me lose a lot of respect for him.

- Speaking of web and native apps: Gmail web UI or Mail.app?

Gmail, for sure. I haven’t opened Mail on Mac OS X in years since I started getting messages showing up twice in my inbox after integrating Gmail with it. It was slow and always seemed to have trouble remembering passwords so I gave it up. On my iPhone and iPad I use Mail because I may not always have an internet connection to access the Gmail website, plus I think the user experience of Mail for iOS is far superior to Gmail’s mobile website. I honestly don’t know why Google keeps working hard on Gmail.com for mobile devices: Android has Gmail baked in and Mail for iOS will always be snappier and faster than Gmail on the web. There are probably people out there who use Gmail’s mobile website instead of Mail for iOS but I’m certainly not one of them.

- The latest Gmail update is very nice, though: they rewrote scrolling from the ground up and the webapp now feels a lot snappier. What’s really annoying is that the keyboard has a delay when composing messages in the webapp.

Now that you mention Android: have you ever used an Android device? Ever considered developing something for it – to test the platform?

I’ve used my friends’ Android phones but only for a few moments, never for a prolonged period. My favorite is the Samsung Galaxy S because it’s so incredibly thin, then after that is the Nexus One. I’ve played with the new, larger-screened Droid but the screen’s size seemed too large and I couldn’t comfortably tap all areas of the screen with my thumb without having to readjust the position or use another finger.

I’ve thought about it, but that’s about it. I haven’t written Java in years so there’d be a bit of a learning curve to get my knowledge back, but beyond that, I’m not super interested. When I have an idea for a mobile app that I think will rock it’s always an iPhone or iPad app, never for Android. I don’t know anyone right now that’s putting out apps for Android and making any kind of real money from sales. The entire Android app economy is shifted towards ads for a variety of reasons, but primarily it’s because Android does a poor job of introducing users to the concept of purchasing apps from a dedicated store or marketplace. On the iPhone the App Store is a central part of the overall experience whereas on Android the Marketplace is tucked away, as if Google doesn’t want users to download or purchase new apps and that they should be happy with the dozens that come pre-loaded on their phones. It’s an entirely different philosophy, one that, as a developer, doesn’t give me much confidence in the platform as a potential revenue source. Rovio made a splash recently because Angry Birds was downloaded over a million times the first day it was available on Android, but the real headline is that it was released as a free app so no wonder it had over a million downloads. Rovio was quoted as saying that “paid apps have not done well on Android” so they pretty much had no choice other than to release it for free and try to make some money from lame mobile ads.

Overall, the Android Marketplace is a cesspool. If you scan through the categories, nearly every app looks absolutely terrible. Lots and lots of scammy junk, “ringtone” apps with no purpose, a dozen versions of the same app with one slightly tweaked feature differentiating them. Even the top-rated apps have incredibly ugly interfaces and icons. Nothing about Android or the Marketplace makes me want to go out and build an Android app, it’s just not enticing. It’s a sea of mediocrity and poor visual design.

- So where’s the right balance between “a beautiful interface” and usability, in your opinion?

I don’t think it’s a balance, that is, you sacrifice usability for great visual design, or sacrifice great visual design for enhanced usability. Websites and software can be incredibly usable and intuitive but have a simple look and feel. Simple does not mean ugly, it simply means clean and sparse. Well-planned, but lacking intricate visual details. A site that comes to mind is Khoi Vinh’s blog Subtraction. A very well-executed, grid-based design, but obviously pretty sparse visually. Compare this to Rogie King’s site Komodo Media that’s full of complex, finely-textured visual details. Both sites have very usable interfaces, but are at either ends of the spectrum as far as visual details are concerned.

In the app world, apps from Tapbots are incredibly detailed and they’re also very intuitive and easy to use. Contrast this with Tweetie for iPhone when it first came out: it used nearly all built-in user interface components, and where it strayed, the custom components were made to look just like the built-in ones. A very simple, but good-looking, usable interface. I think my issue is that the built-in components for Android just don’t look like someone sweated over every pixel. Also, there are way more built-in UI components in iOS for developers to use, and these all look good enough to where you could build a totally stock-standard user interface and have it look really nice. In Android, there are some apps with some nice, totally-custom interfaces (DoubleTwist comes to mind) but generally the apps with full custom interfaces just don’t look very good. Perhaps it’s because the Android built-in components don’t look that great so developers don’t have a high bar as a standard? No excellent visual details to strive to eclipse in their own work? I’ve always been a proponent of the mantra that, as an iOS developer, if you can’t build something better than Apple then you should just use Apple’s version of it. In the Android world, perhaps the built-in components are so plain and lame that no developers really strive to take the leap to build a great interface.

- Design and usability: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the “magazine apps” for iPad. Project Mag by Virgin Media came out this morning, and it doesn’t seem to reinvent the wheel.

Do you think that what’s killing innovation and usability on these magazine apps is the starting point — the printed magazine?

I’m not especially impressed with Project, it seems too faux-digital. Lots of weird angles and clunky text in the interface marred what could have been something pretty sweet. I think they tried to be too edgy and didn’t pull it off. I like Wired’s iPad app, they did a really nice job with most of it, especially the navigational system. They seemed to understand the possibilities of the platform a lot better than Virgin Media did. I think Project just didn’t have the right team designing or building it; it feels a little sloppy, a little too over-thought but under-executed.

In my opinion, GQ has the best magazine iPad app. Without question. They didn’t “over-digitize” it, they simply took the excellent print design of the magazine and dropped it into the iPad app wholesale. In one mode you can flip through the pages exactly as they’re laid out in the magazine (and you can zoom in on photos!), and in other mode they do the iPad-optimized thing with much larger photos and some interactive portions. They didn’t over-think it, they just let the content speak for itself. Nice layouts for text which are highly readable, then gigantic, high resolution photos. That’s really what you need. Overburdening the interface with too much forced interactivity, too many widgets and animations and swipes and movies — I think that’s how you fail. GQ has great content and art direction and they brought that over to the iPad in its original form, then did some extra tweaks to make things more readable on a table device. It’s a winning combination in my mind. Project is trying to be edgy from the start and has poor art direction so it looks like a failure. Maybe it’s too early to tell, but I’d say Project is an example of how NOT to start a magazine on the iPad.

I think magazine apps can innovate by being highly readable, and, highly interactive but not in a forced way and only if the user initiates the action. I like interactive ads; a lot of people buy magazines just for the ads. In high-end magazines like Robb Report and WatchTime the ads have nicer photography and are sometimes more interesting than the magazine. Wired did a really nice job with their interactive ads, especially the “Lego Lamborghini” ad in the first issue they launched with. A lot of the stuff that Apple is doing with iAds could be brought over to iPad magazines and it’d feel right at home.

Now there’s another subset of these infotainment apps which are the news-focused apps like Flipboard, Pulse, Acrylic’s Pulp, Early Edition, and my app, Digital Post, among many others. Readability is paramount. Easy scanning across various articles at once is also really important. I don’t think these are qualities that only news apps should possess: magazine apps should pay the same amount of attention to the design of their content. There’s nothing wrong with a light background behind highly readable, dark, nicely laid-out text, and magazine apps could learn a thing or two from how the news-focused apps are designed. Clean design doesn’t have to be boring.

- What’s the iOS app you need but no one wants to develop?

I’d really like a Logitech Harmony iPhone app. They just came out with one, but it only works with the Google TV appliance. I wish it would magically talk to a receiver somewhere and work perfectly without any kind of appliance or middleware. Another app I’d love is the ability to quickly take my work from a Mac and freeze the current application state and open documents onto an iPhone, then plug the iPhone into another computer and it “unfreezes” it onto the new computer if both were setup properly. That’d be a huge pain in the ass so it’s more like an iOS feature than an app. I wish, too, that instead of needing a Square reader plugged in at the top, it could just use the camera to take a picture of the card, parse the code, and make it work that way. Obviously there are issues regarding storage/privacy of CC numbers but if that were all trustworthy and safe it’d be killer. That’s all I can think of!

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