Once upon a time, there was no GitHub, no iPhone, no AWS, no Android, no Google App Engine, no Stack Overflow, no Docker, no Kubernetes, no Rust, no Go, no Swift, no Kotlin, no Git, actually Subversion was barely starting to appear in the radar. Most importantly, there were no App Store yet.
– Yes, there were no App Stores. No iPhone, no Android, no touchscreen smartphones.
– But were there smartphones?
– Oh, well, yes, but they were not as nearly as popular as cellphones. And they had plastic keyboards, you know.
– Wait, but, how did people get apps back then?
Well, there were several distributions channels, some of them going back to the eighties and seventies, like buying shrink-wrappped software in retail stores, and others relatively newer, like downloading from the web and paying for it using a credit card. The introduction of the concept of a curated app store, one of the last contributions from Steve Jobs to our industry, was clearly a revolutionary concept, and it worked particularly well for mobile applications, at least from Apple’s stock price point of view. Although many desktop software developers consider that it did not work so well, like in the case of Mac software, for example.
In any case, the App Store is the third evolution in a long series of efforts for software vendors to be rewarded for their efforts of bringing software to us. And Eric Sink, in a book written in 2006, explained exactly just how to sell software in a world before the App Store.
Eric Sink is a seasoned software developer and entrepreneur, who worked in different projects mostly in the Microsoft Galaxy. He contributed to the Spyglass browser (whose engine was the original rendering engine of the first editions of Microsoft Internet Explorer,) AbiWord (yes, it used to be a commercial word processor before being open source) and the Vault version control system (remember kids, this was way before Git or even Subversion existed.) Eric Sink not only did develop those products, he helped commercialize them, with various degrees of success.
And his book is precisely a series of interesting essays about blunders, mistakes, common misconceptions, hard truths, and fun anecdotes, all taken directly from his personal experience. Not only that, but he has absolutely no trouble in giving the actual figures and saying exactly how much did it cost to run his software business.
Eric Sink provides answers to many questions that still today are more relevant than ever for “small ISVs” or independent software vendors. Questions like what programming language should I use? What operating system should I write my application for? How to advertise my application? What trade shows should I attend? What kind of people should I hire? How should I keep accounting in my company? These questions are as valid today as they were sixteen years ago, even if the relevant answers are not the same.
While I was running my admiteddly small own business, this book was one of my secret weapons. I remember with intensity the parts where he recommends to always keep an eye on the amount of cash in hand; paying attention to that single variable helped me a lot to manage my activities, to stay out of debt, and to be able to invest and grow.
In an age and time where software developers are debating the relative merits of App Store versus website distribution, where the 30% cut of platform vendors really hurts, and where users are more than ever aware of the privacy issues brought by advertising, it is refreshing to go ten years back in time and remember how things used to be.
Maybe the answers for the future of our industry will require a bit of adjustment, the abandonment of some romantic views and the creation of new paradigms. Maybe it is time to find a mechanism that protects the privacy of users, that provides sustainable cash flows to businesses, and that will be profitable for platform vendors as well.
Maybe it is finally time for antitrust regulation. Maybe.
A final word about form: this book was born out of a blog, as a conglomerate of posts the author had published in the “The Business of Software” column of the Microsoft Software Developer Network (MSDN) website. Most of those articles are still available at the author’s blog. The idea of creating a book out of a blog is not new; other famous examples of this style are for example Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, Joel on Software by Joel Spolsky, Being Geek by Michael Lopp, and many, many others. The morale of the story is that if you have a good blog, you might as well have the germ of a good book in between those posts.
Cover photo by the author.