App: The Human Story - My Story

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There is a Kickstarter project that was started recently for a film titled App: The Human Story. It “is the story of the cultural phenomenon that touches all our lives.” It is about the people who make apps. Many of them are people I follow on blogs, and listen to on podcasts, and look up to. I simply had to back the project, and I did.

The producers of the film, on their blog, have asked that others involved in apps write about their own stories. This is my story.

Even though the popular term “apps” has only been in widespread use since 2007, in some way, apps have been a part of my life for over 35 years. For me, it started in 1977, when my Dad bought an Apple ][+ and brought it home. Almost immediately, I found the BASIC manual that came with it and started going through it page by page. I finished it in two days. Back then apps were simply called “programs”.

Your first programs are always very simple. In BASIC, it was probably something like this:

1
2
10 PRINT "HELLO"
20 GOTO 10

Which would print HELLO forever until you typed Ctrl-C, causing the program to be aborted. Back then there was no lowercase available. That came later with the Apple //e and an 80-column card that extended the width of the screen from 40 to 80 characters.

I don’t know what it is about that simple program, but when you type it in and then type RUN, something magical happens when you do it for the first time. You realize that you are in control. You can make the computer do whatever you want. It opens up a whole new world.

That was the start of my story. From there, I probably spent most of my time learning Applesoft BASIC. I would read Nibble magazine and type in the listings of programs I was interested in. Listings were the source code of a program in BASIC. They were pages and pages long. It would take hours or days to type them in. Many times, you have a typo, or other error and you would have to track them down. That was my first experience with debugging. Sometimes the listings would have 6502 assembly programs. So I learned a little of that too.

I advanced and wrote my own programs or apps. One of my first was a program to keep track of all my little league baseball stats. For each game I played, I would enter my at bats, hits, as well as fielding chances and errors. I could then see what my batting average and fielding percentage was for the year so far. It was a menu driven app, which was the fashion back then. All your commands were executed by navigating through a set of menus.

In 1984, the Macintosh came out and shook up the world. Now programs were called “applications” and they had graphical user interfaces, or GUIs. A little later you could buy a mouse for the Apple //e. You could write programs that could use the mouse. I started to implement a menu bar on the Apple // in 6502 assembly. I got it partially working but never completed it.

In college, I bought myself a Macintosh SE with a 20MB hard drive. I used it to remotely dial into the University of Utah’s computer systems to do assignments and, of course, write my own applications. I had learned Pascal back in high school and used it to write a tennis ranking system for college tennis. I took the Artificial Intelligence series of classes and used Lisp for a whole year. I came in 4th in the rover competition. We wrote AI programs to control simulated rovers. I think this was the beginning of NASA researching how they might control a rover on Mars. This was about 1990.

Always, my dream was to start my own software company and make a living selling applications. I wrote a Numerology program for the Mac using THINK C and the THINK Class Library (TCL). I never tried to sell it though. Back then you had to go through a publisher and get it in the store. I really had no idea how to do that.

This was the 90s and Apple wasn’t doing so well. I couldn’t get a job writing Mac applications so I moved to the Windows world. I still followed Apple, and, of course, I followed NeXT, the company that Steve Jobs started when he left Apple.

The first time I saw a demo of Interface Builder, I was amazed. I had to get it and use it to write applications. Interface Builder was NeXT’s tool for creating GUIs. You simply dragged buttons and other components onto the screen and set their properties. You could even create instances of non-GUI objects and then connect GUI objects to non-GUI objects to actually do something. One of the demos even showed how to do something useful without writing any code. You could connect a text field to a slider and then as you moved the slider, the text field would get updated with the value of the slider. If you entered a value in the text field, the slider’s position would update.

I believe the term “app”, originated with NeXT. NeXT applications were actually folders, called bundles, that had an extension of .app. This told the operating system to treat this folder as an application. Long before “app” became a household word, the Apple and NeXT communities used the term “apps” or “app” as a shortcut for “application”.

I dove into learning all I could about NeXTSTEP, NeXT’s application framework or software for writing apps, and learning Objective-C, which was an object-oriented language that was used to write NeXT applications. In 1993, I went to NeXT World, and I get a free copy of NeXTSTEP for 386. It would run on PCs, but you had to have just the right configuration. Mine didn’t meet it. Before then NeXTSTEP only ran on very expensive NeXT machines that I couldn’t afford. So all I could do with NeXT development was read about it. I did however implement a simple version of the Objective-C runtime at my job. I recreated as much as I of the THINK Class Library and used it to write object-oriented programs at work in C. I even had others using it. It worked pretty well.

Finally, Apple bought NeXT, and Steve Jobs came back to Apple. When OS X came out for the Mac in 2000, I knew my time had come to finally get to develop using NeXTSTEP, or Cocoa as it was now called. I bought a Mac Powerbook and started to learn Cocoa development.

In 2003, I started infiniteNIL Software. I began writing Cocoa software full-time, writing my own apps and doing contract work.

The first Mac Cocoa app I wrote and sold was PhoneWord. With PhoneWord, you entered a telephone number and it would tell you all the phrases that you could make with that number. For example, the number 555-3865 could be turned into 555-DUNK. Each digit in a number has letters associated with it and you substitute a letter for a number and see if you can make a word.

Another app I wrote was Packrat, a desktop client for 37signals’ (now called Basecamp) Backpack web app. Backpack was a personal information system.

These apps I tried to sell on my website. I would upload them to MacUpdate and other download sites.

Apple became more and more popular again with the release of the iPod and people switching to Macs either because they liked the iPod and they wanted more products from Apple or because they were tired of all the problems with Microsoft Windows. More and more software developers, like myself, “went indie” to write their own software and sell it on the internet.

Then in 2007, everything changed again. Apple announced the iPhone. I bought it right away because I wanted to write apps for it and it was a very cool device. I remember be crazily excited during the announcement. It was pretty much everything once could imagine in a device. In 2008, when Apple announced Cocoa Touch, the SDK for the iPhone, we all were very excited. We could finally use the great Cocoa frameworks to write iPhone apps.

My first app, Numerology, was released when the App store opened for the first time. Earlier, I had written it for the Mac, and this time I brought it up to date for the iPhone. Over the years, Numerology has done way better than I ever expected. It started slow and at one point it got to the point where I completed lived off my Numerology earnings. That lasted until 2012. Since then it has decreased, but it still pays my mortgage.

Other apps I have released are:

  • PhoneWord, the iPhone version of the Mac app I wrote earlier
  • Numerology: Baby Namer, an app that used numerology to help you name your new baby.
  • Favors, an app that lets you give IOUs to people that they can add to their Passbook. Apple rejected this app, saying my IOUs didn’t meet the definition of coupons that could be added to the Passbook.
  • Pitching Radar, an app that tells you how fast a baseball pitch is and lets you record pitches, keep track of the average speed and pitch count, and generate a report. Pitching Radar is written with RubyMotion.

PhoneWord, Favors, and Baby Namer have all been discontinued. Favors was rejected by Apple, and the others just haven’t sold well. Pitching Radar shows promise, and Numerology is my best seller.

Even though I haven’t been a great success at selling apps, the dream lives on. I do more contracting work now and there is a thriving job market for iOS developers. I still have ideas for apps and hope to find that one app that will let me go completely “indie”, and forge my own destiny. It has always been my dream and probably always will be.

A New Start

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If you haven’t noticed, my weblog has a new design and new content. I have switched from WordPress to Octopress and have used a new theme. So far, I like it. It’s nice to be able to use Markdown instead of some slow web tool to write my posts.

My old blog was mostly political commentary and I’ve decided to remove that. Some of my most popular posts were the posts about my sabbatical that I took in the summer of 2002. Those, I have preserved and ported over to the new system. I enjoyed reading them myself. You can find them in the sabbatical category.

Going forward, I would like to focus more on technical articles. Occasionally, I might talk about some personal interests. I will avoid political commentary. There’s enough of that on the web and it really doesn’t accomplish anything or help anyone.

Rod

The Sabbatical Is Over

Today is officially the last day of my sabbatical. Friday was my birthday and Monday is the day to begin anew. I had hoped that my sabbatical would bring spectacular changes to my world, but it did not. However I still think it was a good thing. It gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I want to do with my life and it helped me come to peace with how things are. I believe I’ve grown spiritually and am more at peace with myself. I am increasingly interested in Zen Buddhism, which seems to suit me particularly well.

I’ve come to accept my fate as a bachelor, but I am confident that in due time that Fate will choose for me when that is finished. From the people I’ve talked to that is how it works for most people, especially when it works well. You can’t choose or control Love. It chooses you. Zen and the Art of Nothing is my plan. For some reason Fate has left me alone later than most people. I think I understand why and when Fate makes it move, I’m sure I will no longer think I understand, but will just know.

I’ve decided to stay in Salt Lake City because wherever you go there you are. As my experience showed in Texas, things are pretty much the same everywhere. In Salt Lake, I have a lot of friends and am well placed in the career and the recreational activities I enjoy. Plus I enjoy a high standard of living. No need to upset that. I’m going to start my own business and Salt Lake is the best place for me to do it. There is actually a highly placed Zen Master in Salt Lake (www.zencenterutah.org). I’m thinking of checking it out.

I’ve decided that I no longer want to be held prisoner by the whims and desire of an employer. I want to build my own company and my own products according to my own vision. I envision a company whose primary mission is to produce useful products for people. A company whose secondary objective is to have fun and to make its employees better people. Sure money is important, but its role is a supporting one. It allows us to produce products that make people’s lives easier and it allows us to enjoy life and become better people. We will not be a company that chases money at the expense of everything else and we will not be held accountable to other’s who want nothing more but to make money. We will not be going public.

This is my vision and it will take a lot of effort and time to realize it. I’ve decided to name my company infiniteNIL. Another Zen idea where to fully understand something you must first completely empty your mind of any preconceptions you have of it. Then you just experience it. Only then will you truly understand it. Plus it has a technical flavor to it, with NIL being a programming term for a nil pointer, which is a pointer to nothing or an empty pointer. My first step will be to find contract work and make enough money to pay the bills and support my vision. If you ever come across someone who needs some programming done or just some technical advice, please keep me in mind. You can always reach me personally and at the company web site (www.infinitenil.com). The site isn’t much yet, but keeping watching it. It will certainly be growing.

I want to thank my friends and everybody who has supported me along the way. From people who let me stay with them like Dez and Julie, Ron and Roe, Arthur and his family, Patricia, Robert, and Christine, to friends who were just there when I needed a friend, like Jo, who’s genuine concern for everybody is just amazing. Last but not least, is my parents, who’s continuing support, no matter what I do, continues to surprise me. Thank you all. I hope you all come to Salt Lake some time so I can return the favor.

Rod

Texas Tour - Lubbock Again

Wednesday, August 14th, 2002

Wednesday morning I got back in the Jeep and started my trip home. My plan was to stay the night in Lubbock, then Albuquerque for a day with my folks and then back home. I got to Lubbock in the afternoon, but Patricia and Robert weren’t there. Instead, I was greeted by their 16 year old daughter, Christine. On my previous visit, Christine had been in Vietnam, where she had been for the last 6 weeks. Her parents had told me a lot about her as most parents do. Patricia had described her as “16 going on 25”.

It was a little awkward at first, but gradually we got used to each other. Christine informed me that her mother had told her that it was her job to entertain me. My first thought was “this will be interesting”. I will respect her privacy, but suffice to say Christine has had a lot more experience on the more “wild” side of life, shall we say than me. Which in and of itself is pretty strange since I’m 33 years old and she is 16. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I even thought that I might find myself in some circumstances I wasn’t comfortable with.

We went to dinner at an Italian place. Afterwards we decided to go shoot some pool and then go to a movie afterwards. We only had time for one pool game and then headed off to the movies. On the way, Christine explained that she wasn’t really into movies and she would rather do something else. To my surprise, she suggested going home and talking. By the time we got home it was probably close to 10pm. We walked out to the lake and plopped down by the steel house. It was a beautiful night and the stars were out. We proceeded to talk about life and how we both felt about our respective situations and had a wonderful conversation. We finally came in after midnight. It was a wonderful experience and something I look back at with amusement and wonderment. I had just spent the evening talking to a 16 year old about life and what it meant and the amazing thing was that she actually got it and that we actually were able to have this great conversation despite the differences in our ages and life experiences.

The next morning I had breakfast with the whole family and Robert was on a roll. Making jokes and causing us all to laugh. This continued at lunch where I went to the local deli with them. I was having such a great time and Patricia was persuasive, so I just had to stay for lunch.

Looking back at the summer, my time with the Bruno’s, just outside of Lubbock was the highlight of it all. To you, the reader on the outside it might not seem worthy of that. But to me and what I was looking for and feeling, it most definitely was.

Rod

Texas Tour - JFK

Sunday, August 11th, 2002

Sunday morning I decided to go downtown and check out the JFK museum. John F. Kennedy was assasinated in Dallas on November 3rd, 1963. I wasn’t alive then, but I can imagine and I believe that it was a day that affected America even more than September 11th. Here was a president that many people admired and looked up to. Shortly after he was assasinated the decade of the 60’s went into full swing and changed America forever. Vietnam, the assasination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, race riots, the drug culture. All these things occurred and much more. America was never the same.

I parked downtown and one of the first things I came across was the JFK Memorial. You wouldn’t know it if it didn’t say John F. Kennedy on it. A rather bland and strange memorial for such a popular figure and major event in American history.

The JFK Memorial

Next was Dealy Plaza, the place of the actual event. I walked the Grassy Knoll and the area behind the fence, where rumors persist there was another shooter. On the road where the fatal shot occured is an X to mark the spot. There is also a round plague next to the sidewalk across the street from the spot that marks it as an American historical spot. However, it says nothing about the historical event it marks. Very strange. Crowds gather around speakers still arguing and selling books that say there was a conspiracy. The whole area has a little ominous feeling that something is not quite right.

The Grassy Knoll

Next, was the JFK museum, which is in the old Texas book repository where Oswald supposedly fired the shots. It tells the history of the president, of his administration, of the fateful day, and of the world’s reaction after the event. For not being alive at the time, it still had an emotional effect on me. Personally, I believe JFK was assasinated to stop him from doing something that the establishment didn’t want him to do. I feel that when he was killed America suffered a near fatal blow to her founding ideals. It was the beginning of where we are now.

There was also a section that showed Pulitzer Prize winning photographs of important events around the world including September 11th. Also very emotional. It brings home the point of how fortunate we are here in America. In a lot of places around the world, life is a lot more difficult.

Even though it did affect me emotionally, it was also a little disgusting in a way. Here was a little industry set up around the death of a man. It seems like we should just move on and stop dwelling on an event that happened over 40 years ago.

Rod

Texas Tour - Arlington

Wednesday, August 13th, 2002

The Ballpark at Arlington

I met my friend Marc at his house and we headed off to the game. This game is kind of a milestone in my quest to visit every major league ball park. It will be my 20th team. Just ten more to go (barring expansion or contraction).

The Ranger’s stadium has the rather ordinary name of The Ballpark At Arlington. Arlington is a town just outside of Dallas/Ft. Worth. We parked in the parking lot and walked to the stadium. From the parking lot is a great view of this brand new stadium. It is another of the trend to create new stadium with all the modern conveniences, but with that classic traditional baseball feeling.

Nolan Ryan

The stadium was pretty nice. We walked the grounds. One of the most interesting attractions to me was the Nolan Ryan statue in stands behind center field. Nolan Ryan is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and his stats engraved in a circle around the statue drove home the point. He is the all-time leader in strikeouts, no-hitters ( 7! ) and a couple of other stats. Opposing players would take the day off so they wouldn’t have to face him at the plate. He also holds the record for the fastest pitch ever at 104 MPH.

The game wasn’t particularly interesting. The Rangers were getting blown out by the Chicago White Sox. Marc and I had a good time reminiscing about our high school days and I enjoyed some catfish and chips for dinner. All in all a good time, but I was very much looking forward to heading home the next day.

Rod

Dallas

August 8th – August 14th, 2002

Thurday morning I drove up to Dallas. It took about 4 hours and I checked into another extended stay motel. Originally I had planned to stay in Dallas for a week, just like in Austin, but my Austin experience changed my plans. I was going to leave on the 14th, after the baseball game.

Again, the idea was the same. To just be there and experience Dallas. However, there were a few things I wanted to do. There’s an Apple Store in Plano, a town just north of Dallas. Apple has been opening stores all over the country, but none yet in Utah, so I had to go check it out. Also, I wanted to check out downtown and see some JFK stuff, and of course the Texas Rangers are in nearby Arlington.

The Apple Store

Also, I have an old high school friend who now lives in Dallas. Marc moved to Georgia after he graduated from college and then to Dallas, where he works for Texas Instruments. I got in touch with him and had lunch with him on Friday. It didn’t take long for us to get back in the swing. Didn’t feel like we had been apart much at all. He took me to see TI’s digital projector demos where we watched the Star Wars: Episode II trailer on a big movie size HDTV screen with a digital projector. He invited me to his place on Sunday for dinner, where I met his family and ate a delicious meal. Marc and his wife, Christy, have 4 kids. 3 girls and 1 boy. The oldest is nine, so they have there hands full. It was nice to see everybody and to see how things are going.

Rod

Austin

August 4th – August 8th, 2002

I spend Sunday through Thursday morning in Austin. Austin was the main reason I came to Texas. I wanted to get a feel for it and see if I might want to live here. Austin has a lot of high technology companies and has a lot of culture and art. Basically a lot of creative people. Fortune has ranked it in the top 10 for the best cities for singles.

But I was disappointed. Sure, it’s a nice city and all, but I didn’t feel any different, the people didn’t seem any different, and the city itself didn’t feel any different to me than any other city I’ve spent time in. I spend the time driving around, going to the shops, checking out companies I was interested in, going to restaurants, etc. I went to a AA baseball team in a city just north called Round Rock. They have a baseball team called the Round Rock Express that is owned by Nolan Ryan and his son. Nice operation. Very similar to the Stingers in Salt Lake. Nice stadium too. Just as nice as Franklin Quest Field, except they don’t have the spectacular mountain view.

The Texas Capital

I also went downtown and saw the Texas capital. It was modeled after the nation’s capital and I think it is one of the biggest capitals in the country. Texas has a certain attraction too me and I think it has to do with it legendary origins. Similiar in stature to how the United States came to be. I love to see the United States and Texas flags together. I took lots of pictures of those and other Texas symbols.

The best pair of flags in the country

I actually left Austin sooner than I had planned. I planned to stay there a week, but I had had enough. At this point, my enthusiasm for the Texas trip had waned and I was ready to move on.

Rod

Texas Tour - San Antonio

Monday, August 5th, 2002

Today was my first full day in Austin. I decided to take a drive down to San Antonio, which was just about an hour and half south. I wanted to see the Alamo, and my friend Laury had told me about the cool river walk there. So off I went.

The Alamo

For those of you who are not familiar with the Alamo (miss a little school, did we?), here’s the deal. The Alamo was a fort in Texas when Texas declared their independence from Mexico. Santa Ana brought his troops into Texas and the Alamo was the first line of defense for Texas. Texas was not ready to fight Santa Ana yet and the Alamo had to slow down Santa Ana enough so Texas could get ready. Some legendary figures were at the Alamo, including my boyhood favorite, Davy Crockett. Every last man who fight at the Alamo died there, but they slowed Santa Ana down enough and they inspired the rest of Texas, who cried “Remember the Alamo”! Eventually Texas won her independence from Mexico and became an independent nation and of course joined the United States not long after. Some say Texas never officially joined the U.S. and is still an independent nation, but it is not recognized as such.

Alright, enough history. The Alamo was interesting enough and certainly inspiring, but not quite what I pictured. Very little is left of the original place and much of it is now a museum and a place for tourists to visit. The statues are cool, the grounds are nice, and the story itself is enough to inspire you.

Part of San Antonio's River Walk

After that I went to the river walk and probably walked about five miles. It is a pretty cool thing and is pretty unique in all the cities I have every visited.

Rod

Texas Tour - Lubbock

Saturday, August 3rd

From Albuquerque, I decided to go half way to Austin, and stay the night with a recent friend of the family and her family. I had just met her when I had been up to Montana this summer and she had offered to let me stay with her and her family when I went to Texas. In the directions she gave me to get to her house she mentioned that there was a steel house that I couldn’t miss. She was right. However, she didn’t mention that it was their house that her husband had been building for 27 years!

The Steel House

I it probably the most interesting house I have ever seen. From some angles it looks like a spaceship. From the outside it looks like the villian’s submersible fortess in the Spy Who Loved Me. Inside, it is flowing stairs, curved walls and big windows. A very cool house.

For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant, very similar to Macaroni Grill. After dinner, we saw a video. It was The Sheltering Sky with John Malkovich and Debra Winger. By the time that was over, it was 2 in the morning. And then we went for a walk!

Inside

I had planned to leave right away in the morning, but I was having a lot of fun and Patricia was pretty persuasive. Once I woke up, we went for another walk. I ended leaving for Austin about 11 am. All in all it was a lot of fun and Patricia and her husband, Robert are an interesting couple and easy to get along with. Patrica is very outgoing and Robert and I seem to have a similiar philosophy about life and our respective crafts (he’s an architect).

Rod