Hey and launching your product at the end of the world

Posted by Nick Jones July 6, 2020

I thought for a long time that my personal interest was in design and software. To an extent that's true, but what really what fascinates me are the challenges of making things. There are so many paths from idea to finished product, and so many reasons to stop, that it would be impossible to catalog them all in a flat list. Some people undertake the act of creation without giving it any real thought; they want something that doesn't exist, and so they make it. It's simple. Others see what exists and think I could do that, and flame out fantastically as they are crushed by their own hubris.

I write all this to indicate that I understand the time and effort that goes into making a thing, and even this is dramatically simplified; it says nothing about making things with a team, which is several orders of magnitude more challenging than doing it alone. Let's just agree it's tough. And then you throw a global pandemic into this mix. Now all your timelines and your labor are thrown into question, not to mention the optics of using social channels for self-promotion instead of glib, supportive messages. Even with all of this in my head, this preparedness to forgive and equivocate, the Hey launch seems particularly grotesque.

Once there was a company called 37signals. Their big product was an opinionated project management platform called Basecamp which I liked very much. In fact as a consultant I used to offer classes in how to use it. It was simple and good. I liked its parent company, too. Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (usually styled as DHH) were idiosyncratic startup founders, for sure. They cut their own trail and rejected venture capital. Every product they released was viewed as a way to advance Ruby on Rails, a programming framework 37signals was responsible for and that I also liked very much—which runs this website, in fact. Since those days 37signals has, in recognition of its most successful product, renamed itself to Basecamp.

Fried and Hansson have also become self-styled business gurus. Both write extensively about the deleterious effects that modern work has on people. Work, they assert, is too fast; there's too much of it, and it steals our humanity and basic curiosity away; there isn't enough accountability, and most companies are run by accountants and VC groups seeking get rich quick schemes. I agree wholeheartedly with a lot of what they've written. But there was also a feeling that Basecamp, the company, was now a clearing house for the sort of thought leadership that was being peddled by a lot of consultancies at the time. 37signals had itself been a custom software consultancy, but began to sell its own products and thoughts when that former model stopped making financial sense. There was a blog, followed by two books, a podcast, and more. There were a lot of places to go to hear or read Fried and Hansson's thoughts on just about anything. Hey was announced in a sort of whisper campaign about a year ago. It was billed as reinvention of email, something Basecamp also claims to be. Although I had moved away from Basecamp years before I was interested to see what would come out.

In the intervening time, the Trump administration parked us all in the middle of a pandemic and then left us in the car without the keys. Things have been weird for businesses ever since. It's hard to promote your work for fear of seeming callous, and hard to plan labor objectives for the same reason. People are terrified, and even the most basic response to a viral pandemic—like mask wearing—have been rendered political. Somehow Basecamp was moving ahead with Hey, and it would launch on time.

Fried and Hansson began setting the stage for the Hey launch by ratcheting up their weekly snipes at Apple for it's unfair business practices. Basecamp are the vanguard of a small but loud contingent of developers who feel that Apple uses its market position to bully and manipulate companies, forcing them to do business on its App Stores and either providing no alternative or squashing any that exist. There is a lot to unpack in this argument, probably enough for its own essay. People are right to wonder and to get answers, and developers are also entitled to better arrangements.

Launching a product at the end of world is an unimaginable challenge.

But then Hey launched, and it was invitation only—like a product beamed here from 2007. You needed to be in a special club to even see it. It was $100 a year and just looked sort of like one feature from Basecamp, plucked out and given its own domain name. And then there was the back-and-forth with Apple, who approved the Hey client app for the App Store, then didn't, then did again. All the while Basecamp is posing as ersatz liberators, working to free us all from the Apple gulag.

Again, making a product is hard. The backdrop of the pandemic made it even harder. Hey could have been a great product. Using it, I have instead been massively underwhelmed. I was already aware it would not, as its advertising suggested, change my life; after using it I couldn't be bothered to even change my email address. The final nail has likely been watching Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, two millionaires, pick a fight with Apple Inc., a group of billionaires. They've ridden this fresh wave of anti-Apple sentiment into a product launch that by their metrics, has been very successful—despite what, just two weeks ago, were Apple's crippling and draconian terms.

Basecamp, the company, can't pretend to speak for millions of developers who sell their software in Apple's stores. Doing so, and doing so for the advertising benefit it provides—is akin to forcing companies to buy ads on its own Google search result pages, something Basecamp has also decried, rightly. Launching a product at the end of world is an unimaginable challenge. Personally I would not do it by pretending to be a martyr, inventing a revolution, and picking a fight that—to spectators walking by—looks like two rich guys fighting over a parking space. The right way to do a launch in 2020 is probably lots of things, none of which is this gross display.

Just start, example #8,467

Posted by Nick Jones June 23, 2020

You can't be Apple's size and win all the time. It's just not possible to keep that many customers and developers happy every minute of every day. Even when you make good calls 99% of the time, eventually you'll run afoul of someone, and then it's 'Katie bar the door'.

In the midst of the usual controversies Apple today announced a slew of massive changes to its ecosystem, not the least of which is an intention to move away from Intel chips to its own house-brand ones. This is not new territory, exactly; in fact this is the third such transition Apple has made. There are also new releases of every single operating system Apple makes in the pipeline and due this fall. But some of the larger changes are to macOS, specifically in its look and feel.

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As a product macOS has been largely visually unchanged for almost a decade. Its new coat of paint seeks to address that staleness, certainly, but also to pull cues from iOS and watchOS; watchOS, for example, is lending watch-style complications to iOS 14, which in turn is giving them to macOS. But the new look is not without its critics (even now, at the ripe old age of six hours.)

Here's the thing: sometimes you just have to start. I've been saying this for years to my teams and clients. Making a product is, in more ways than one, like having a child; you can wait forever to make sure you're ready—which no one ever really is—or you can move ahead with an adventurous spirit, an open heart, and the knowledge that you'll make mistakes but learn from them. Apple could spend ten years in research mode, slowly growing paralyzed with fear Copland-style. Or they could start where they are, give themselves space to experiment and maybe even alienate a few old heads in the process.

At least in this case is seems the motivations are noble. When iOS 7 was released it contained a divisive overhaul of the UI that lots of users never warmed up to. That overhaul happened in large part because of a boardroom falling out between Jony Ive and Scott Forstall, a shitty reason to force sweeping changes into the hands of users. Here, macOS should be getting quantifiably better, not just conforming to Ive's need to shit on Scott Forstall post-dismissal. And thanks to the Intel to ARM transition, macOS will also pick up the entire library of iOS software in the deal.

In the fall, there may be a totally different story to tell with regard to the success of these products. But for now, I'm content to applaud Apple's willingness to just start—anywhere. Next on the list is clarity around those App Store policies.

The other side of the valley

Posted by Nick Jones June 19, 2020

I don’t think of myself as someone who plays video games. I have owned consoles, and piddled around with a game or two. My general pattern seems to be to pick one and play it for years before swearing it off—basically serial monogamy for gaming. I am not, and likely never will be, a dedicated gamer in the modern sense. I don’t own a chair that came out of a car that I use to sit and game for hours. I don’t record myself playing games, or play a wide variety of games. I don’t own a gaming PC that looks like a spaceship and a low rider had a baby.

Back in 2013 (I don’t remember how) I heard of a game called The Last Of Us. It was being made by the same studio that was responsible for, among other things, the Uncharted games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a PS3 launch title—a great looking game with excellent voice acting that borrowed broadly from movies like National Treasure, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others. If you’re a gamer, you know this already; you know that Naughty Dog, the creator of the Uncharted series, is now well-known for being a story first game maker. You also know that The Last Of Us was one of the of most widely praised games ever published. That praise even extended outside of the gaming community, forcing more mainstream entertainment media to come to terms with unexpected (and massive) improvements in video game writing.

For the uninitiated, what’s so interesting about The Last of Us is how it does so much with a premise that was tired even back in 2013. Suffice it to say that between Night of the Living Dead and The Road, there was lots of fertile ground for zombie tales—ground that was well-trodden when Naughty Dog came along. It’s just that their take on the material—which is mostly about interpersonal relationships and other very big topics—was done with so much care, probably more than was given to any number of big budget films or TV shows.

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The Last of Us has a harrowing first fifteen minutes, in which a little girl is gunned down as she flees the chaos of a virus outbreak with her father (our central character) and uncle. From there the action flashes forward; the post outbreak world is dirty and dangerous, home to gangs and units of unsupervised and cruel militia constantly at war with one another. Joel (Troy Baker) is now older, colder, and unrecovered from the death of his child. As a smuggler he's manipulated into carrying one last piece of cargo—the teenaged Ellie (Ashley Johnson), who's apparent immunity to the virus could save humanity. Told in this way, The Last of Us could be any zombie genre movie released in the last fifteen years. It manages to put itself in stark contrast to so many others, though, by treating genre as a storytelling framework rather than an ironclad set of binding rules; in The Last of Us it's rare that you'll hear or see a lot of the tropes that come with genre fiction of this type. And once you're comfortable with that, something really magical happens.

I did purchase and play The Last of Us, but maybe the best way to enjoy it is to watch as someone else plays it. Early in my obsession with The Last of Us, I discovered YouTube user RadBrad, whose let's play videos included a few dozen TLOU installments. My wife and I watched each one, becoming more and more engrossed as time went on. We were astounded at the depth of these characters, but also in the trust that was being extended by the artists to their audience. Imagine making a zombie killing video game aimed mostly at boys and men in their teens and twenties, which contains not only the aforementioned zombie slaying but a deep exploration of fatherhood and parental sacrifice. I can only imagine the fear in doing something like that, like the English teacher just waiting for the kids to laugh in all the wrong places in Romeo and Juliet—laughs that probably hide vulnerability or misunderstanding.

By the end of RadBrad's play through of the game, I had decided that what I'd seen wasn't really a game at all. The Last of Us is basically a visual choose your own adventure novel that in its dozen hour runtime deftly tackles LGBTQ issues, black/white race relations, human loneliness, mortal dread, and loyalty. I know you think I'm exaggerating, and you are terribly mistaken. Until you watch The Last of Us you will not know the bizarre feeling of being choked up by a video game. The combination of its haunted and lonely setting, masterful world-building, and wonderful voice acting and motion capture make it the perfect way to announce that this medium has grown up and is moving out of the proverbial basement.

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A sequel to the game (simply The Last of Us II) has been hotly anticipated since it was announced in 2018. But things have changed since the release of the original. The real world, already cruel, has only grown crueler. Led by a president who delights in the discomfort and pain of others, half the country has swerved drunkenly into the far right lane. Trust in science, a desire to preserve and extend rights to the oppressed—all these are evidence of weakness to be presented to the hordes on 4chan along with your home address. Even those who don't publicly declare their fealty to the current administration insist on bad faith arguments, assuming that having thoughts on a podcast is the same as having given something serious thought. Given that climate it's easy to see why any sequel with a dramatically expanded role for Ellie and her female love interest, would go over like a Black Lives Matter pin at a Jeff Sessions antebellum mint julep party.

By the end of RadBrad's play through of the game, I had decided that what I'd seen wasn't really a game at all.

When the plot of The Last of Us II was leaked by a disgruntled former employee, men's rights groups poured out of the woodwork to vow its destruction just as they did the recent female-led Star Wars films before it. And so it goes in the world now. Luckily, these campaigns can't prevent the truth: The Last of Us II is every bit as affecting and vital as its predecessor and more so. (Visually, it's hard to believe parts of the game are not just a motion picture. A noteworthy parallel between modern film and video games is that both look graphically better and better as technology bounds ahead, although it's video games that somehow get more interesting while films, by and large, do not.) The sequel introduces a handful of new characters which, while they exist largely to pull a narrative thread and move the story along, are also lavishly and thoroughly fleshed out.

Again I've been watching other gamers play the game for me. That fact alone would seem to suggest whole new lines of inquiry into what films are, and where a Director leaves off and a director takes over. Still I know there are legions of hardcore film buffs who will likely never try it, which is really too bad; though it sounds like a truism, some great fiction is coming from games (though it isn't all as good as this.)

So I can tell you we're in a golden age for video games, one where game-makers happen to be tackling larger and larger ideas at the precise moment when graphical realism, reverence for old-school cinematic knowhow, and processing power are at high water marks. We have finally crossed the uncanny valley, and we're finally looking for a shady spot to have a picnic. And while all that is true, it would tend to overshadow the small moments that are embedded in those big achievements. Both games in The Last of Us series succeed because, in their quiet moments, they are about human frailty. When that's the subject, the medium will hardly matter if the story is good.

On quarantine

Posted by Nick Jones May 22, 2020

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I am reading. I am looking onto the page. I am looking through the page. My eyes go fuzzy and now I'm listening to the music in my headphones. Behind me, school is happening. My wife is reading the text of a math problem to my daughter, who is also looking through the page and whose eyes are going fuzzy. We are in Queens and it is May, but we could be anywhere at any time. The hustle of living in New York City is gone and has been replaced with (nothing? something else?) I don't know. It's very strange.

We take a walk. We end up walking through the big cemetery in Kew Gardens because surely there won't be many people there. My breath fogs up my glasses as it pushes out of my lungs and through my mask. I think about every breath. I read the headstones. I try to imagine the lives all these strangers had, living in New York City like me—in their own weird timeline. Maybe it was the war, or the second war. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, or the flu. A job loss, a dead spouse. I'm sure they counted every breath, paced up and down hospital halls, drove slowly past parks, playgrounds and restaurants. Whatever. Bad and strange things happened in their lives and now they're dead and here they are in Queens for eternity.

The sky is brilliant blue. I think to myself the planets and the solar system don't know what's happening to us. I think that kind of thing a lot, that we're just bigger microbes on a bigger petrie dish. We ebb and flow like a tide, a blue green mat of humanity. We climb up the walls of canyons and spread across the floors of valleys. The tide comes in and goes out. The tide comes in and goes out.

We find a bakery that's open. We buy a peach pie and eat slices of it at 10:10 am on a Friday because there are no rules at all anymore, not really. Or there are rules but no one could be blamed for breaking most of them. People walk their dogs in the cemetery, they walk two abreast in the roadway. They're desperate to get out, they can sense the tide coming in and going out maybe. The place they had dinner on their thirtieth anniversary is closed forever now, they see, or the construction project that blocked their view for months is shuttered now and maybe cancelled. The tide is going out.

It's always hard to understand the purpose of sleep, but especially now. I'm never tired, but I'm always exhausted and fall asleep almost as soon as my head hits the pillow. My cells are dividing and my hair grows but I imagine it's slowing down. I think how old my parents were when I was born, and how old they were when they died, and I can only assume that if my cells are dividing and my hair is growing that by now they're slowing at forty-one. I can't be sure. The tide is going out. I'm asleep and the tide is going out but there are tide pools. There are spiny things and wet, transparent leaves in the pools. The wind blows and buffets my ears and blows ripples into the pools. I look up from the mud flats and I see Manhattan in the distance at the center of the petrie dish. I'm dreaming and my brother is saying something to me, he's holding two things out to me (to choose? to compare the two? I don't know). He never visited Manhattan.

In the morning I lay and look into my phone. It is a Day Of The Week but which one, I don't know. I am reading. I am looking onto the page. I am looking through the page. My eyes go fuzzy and now I'm listening to the music in my headphones.

Just a @%$(* website

Posted by Nick Jones May 13, 2020

I've redesigned this, my portfolio website, maybe twenty times. I tend to use this exercise as a way to learn a new technology or framework or as a creative outlet. The last time I did this, it was a way to learn more about React and begin creating my (ever nascent) Yarb framework.

I've been at this for a long time now. I've seen several epochs pass in terms of technology, as well as dozens of other smaller shifts in the way this work gets done. My brain is a catalog of minutiae: buying Connectix Ram Doubler through the mail and waiting for it for weeks just so that I could install the Apple Internet Connection Kit on my Performa 6205CD; the place to go to turn on virtual servers at Media Temple; calling Be on the phone and getting lessons on Bash from a saintly customer support rep that I would give anything to talk to one more time. From PHP, to Rails, to React and all the intermediate steps in between. At forty-one years of age, I'm one of the old men of web design—not as good or as famous maybe, but I've weathered the same shifts both galactic and minuscule and come out the other side mostly unharmed.

I'm one of the old men of web design—not as good or as famous maybe, but I've weathered the same shifts both galactic and minuscule and come out the other side mostly unharmed.

A few weeks ago I had just completed a major project, and I had some ideas for blog posts. I really wanted a place to write. Looking around I found all the usual suspects—Medium, Tumblr, more nerd friendly options like Ghost, or all-in-ones like Squarespace. Everything just reminded me how nice it was fifteen years ago to not only blog myself, but to read page after page of other blogs. Before Twitter cornered the market on quick hits of anxiety and blogging became social media, there was a whole world of content out there. It was weird and varied: fanpages, webrings, exhaustive Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode guides, failed and not-so-failed cooking experiments. It was the promise of the early internet made real—a patch of ground on which you could build whatever statue to whatever deity you liked. You could build your very own Close Encounters style mountain right there on your living room floor, and all that was standing in your way was some HTML and double-clicking CyberDuck.

Facebook ate it all. And what it didn't devour, Twitter happily gulped up. By 2009 most of that old internet was behind one paywall or another. The internet was the place to buy things, or watch TV. And after it got boring, the internet got terrifying. There was cyberbullying, and cyberstalking, and catfishing. There was the alt-right, and trolls. The internet was just another weapon, like all the other DARPA projects it grew up with. It was just a big computer network after all, and it could be pointed at your enemies with deadly precision and—well, /b could be your personal army.

One by one, almost every blog I read with devotion shut down. Soon only a scattered few remained. I still read Jason Kottke every day and even dutifully send $5 his way every month. But some of my very favorite writers in any medium—people like Paul Ford—pulled up stakes long ago.

So when I rebuilt this portfolio site, I made a few promises to myself. First, this is not a technology demo. Yes, it's a portfolio—but of my work. The site itself is not a monument to all the React and SASS and arcane Netlify knowledge I posses. Second, this site needs a blog. An old fashioned, time-stamped, text wall blog. Like the old days. This is a bunch of custom SASS and some Rails scaffolding and that's it.

As it turns out, all that democratizing the internet was supposed to do may have been another example of a real fine mess. It was beautiful from a distance, and it sounded nice in speeches and sold a ton of MacBooks. But from my vantage point in 2020, the paywall internet is narrow and mean-spirited. Here we all are, connected full-time in a way that we could only have dreamed of when we watched Steve Jobs unveil the very first iPhone in 2007. He didn't know, and neither did we, but being Very Online has made a lot of things Very Crazy. We used to have to just guess how mean and racist and stupid our relatives and co-workers are. Now we totally know, and we know all the time and our wrists go 'ding!' to let us know right now how aunt Cassie feels about a guy who hasn't even been president in almost four years.

I still want to be Very Online. I watch Steve unveil that goddamn iPhone once a month in a YouTube video I have lovingly bookmarked. When the copyright police take it down because it includes a ten-second snippet of a Beatles song, someone else puts it up—seizes the fallen banner—and I bookmark that one. I still feel like the kinder, gentler, progressive internet that teaches kids to code and connects the lovelorn is a dream that will never really go away. I watch my daughters use FaceTime as a way to just be in the same room together during this ludicrous pandemic and I think maybe they'll make good on the internet the way we could not.

Until then, I'm going to build my own mountain in my living room and this is it. It's just a website.