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360iDev: Brent Simmons on NetNewsWire for iPad and iPhone OS 4.0


The iPhone is home to a lot of great new developers, but it's also the new home for a lot of old-school Mac guys as well; Brent Simmons is of the second kind. His NetNewsWire is a classic Mac app that's been remade for the iPhone, and now the iPad, with the clean, quick simplicity that Simmons' work is known for.

We caught up with him right after his "Best Practices for Content Apps" talk here at 360iDev in San Jose, CA this week, and had a quick chat about how the iPad version of NetNewsWire is doing. Jenny Blumberg of NewsGator's developer support team also joined us. Simmons told us both how the iPad version of his app has made more money than you'd expect, and what he's most excited about from Apple's iPhone OS 4.0 announcement last week. Read on for more.

TUAW: How has the iPad release been?

Brent Simmons: It's been fantastic.

Jenny Blumberg: It's been really good. We had a great first weekend. It was just awesome that we could have it ready for the launch of the iPad.

Did you get a device before? Could you tell us if you got a device before?

BS: If I could talk about something like that, I would. But I can't talk about things like that.

Really? Oh you can't.


BS: I can't.

In terms of downloads, the user base is not nearly as big as the iPhone, obviously, but would you say the time and effort you've put into it compares to the response that you've seen? It seems like there's a lot of excitement around iPad apps, but when you look at the response, sales don't compare to the iPhone.

BS: We're not giving out the actual numbers, but I will tell you this, and I think this is very cool. The iPad app, within five days, made us more money than the iPhone app has in its existence over the last six months or something. And it's only priced double, $9.99 versus $4.99. So, that says a few things. One, I think it's a better app, our app on the iPad. And being there on day one is huge, since everyone's looking for apps. But, yeah, even with a much smaller user base so far, it's just done so well.

And to a certain extent, you've got the recognition. There's some people on the iPad who didn't have iPhone apps, and there's some people on iPhone who didn't have Mac apps in the first place, and you've got the recognition there as well. In terms of effort put into the app, we don't really know yet, because not a lot of people have talked about how much work it takes to make an iPad app, even compared to an iPhone app. In terms of effort, is that equivalent?

BS: There's a lot more effort that goes into it. The bigger screen is more than just size, it's design. In some ways, I think iPad may even be the most expensive to develop for, out of iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

JB: And didn't you just build NetNewsWire pretty much from the ground up for the iPad? It was a complete rewrite.

BS: Yeah. So, the iPad, the app size is almost as big as a Mac, and people expect a lot of what you might get from a desktop app. But the design has to be really top notch, really excellent, because you're expecting that in these cool devices. So, in a way, it's like all the effort of the Mac plus all the effort of the iPhone, all thrown into one.

And the pricing is equivalent, I guess, then. What was your thinking behind the pricing?

BS: Well initially, on the announcement, the iWork apps were priced at $9.99, and we thought well, that sounds like a reasonable line in the sand, so we went with $9.99 for an introductory price, and we'll go up to $14.99. My hope is that people will, and so far my hope is born out, that people will pay the bigger price on the iPad because they're getting a bigger, better thing than the iPhone. That said, there's always that race to the bottom, and it can happen here, too. I hope that we, and other developers, stand our ground, and I hope that we're successful with these prices.

JB: That's what I hope, too. I hope other developers realize that with all the work, it's inevitable that the iPad apps will be priced higher. But my impression was that when the iPad came out and people go to the App Store, and they go OK, I just spent hundreds of dollars on this device, I don't want to spend money on apps now. That's ridiculous! I think the pendulum will swing back, though, once people realize that the really high quality apps are going to cost more money, to take care of that rich environment.

BS: Yeah. And if you have an iPad, that's a high quality device. You want the best stuff on it.

Do you think it's dependent only on developers? Is there anything that, other than buying apps, I guess, that consumers should do, or even Apple -- do you think Apple should go so far as to say, enforce those types of prices?

BS: Well, I think anytime that Apple moves to do something like that, that's almost like manipulating the market too much. I'd be afraid of the unintended side effects of that. The more agnostic Apple is, the more it's a free market.

JB: Yeah, it really shouldn't be driven by Apple. It should be driven by the developers.

So you've had the iPad for about a week now. What do you see in terms of the future of the app?

BS: There's so much we want to do. We had two months, basically, so we were cutting features until the very last minute. Our designer, Brad Ellis from Rogue Sheep, great designer, and he's just full of really fantastic ideas. In designer lingo, they call them sexy ideas. He says yeah, we're going to sex this bitch up, and I'm like yeah, hell yeah.

Anything you can share with us that we can look for?

BS: No, not yet. We'll just have to wait and see.

All right. And what about the iPhone app? Anything specific with iPad that you want to bring back to iPhone?

BS: Just about everything, yeah. The under-the-hood parts were totally rewritten for the iPad. In fact, that had started as a rewrite for the iPhone version, but it ended up running on iPad first. Get that in there, it's going to make performance a hell of a lot better, and fix a lot of bugs. And then step 2 would be to bring a design similar to the iPad design into the iPhone version. So it's kind of two stages. And then to there, we go on to the futuristic stuff.

Any idea of a timetable?

BS: Yeah, let's see -- October of 2009. I'm late.

Well there you go. So, soon, I would assume.

BS: Yeah.

And speaking of updating iPhone apps, 4.0 was announced last week. What was the most exciting thing you saw in that presentation?

BS: The stuff about notifications was really, really cool. The stuff about advertising was very interesting for our TapLynx side of the business.

I was going to ask, because yeah, obviously NetNewsWire's not an app that lends itself, necessarily, to advertising, but does the fact that it's an official solution entice you any more at all?

BS: Well, the free version of NetNewsWire runs ads from The Deck, which you've seen on Daring Fireball and so on, and that's not an official API, just code that I wrote. And I like those ads. I think The Deck is a really great ad network because they really vet every ad before it runs and who's a member of the network and stuff. But, that said, people don't really like ads all that much. Publishers, however, like to make money. So for Taplynx, everybody who's considering making an iPhone app that has some type of application, the first thing they ask is, "How are we going to make money?" And their answer will usually be ads, so it's very interesting.

There's one more thing I was going to ask, and this is just my weird thought from nowhere. Were you ever at any point worried about, with all of the content publisher talk about the iPad, that maybe people wouldn't need RSS content readers any more. If New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and Marvel are all jumping in on making their own apps, does that threaten syndication at all? Or did that not even cross your mind?

BS: No, it didn't, because there's still value to having one app where a whole bunch of your stuff comes in. Maybe you use one or two of those specific apps, but it didn't occur to me that people would stop using an RSS reader. We have some customers with 2,000 feeds -- they're not going to find each one of those feeds as a separate app on the App Store. So I wasn't worried about that. But the TapLynx side of our business is all about building the equivalence of the New York Times and making that easy for people, so I totally want that to happen, too. I think there's room for all of that.

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The iPhone is home to a lot of great new developers, but it's also the new home for a lot of old-school Mac guys as well; Brent Simmons...