Tag Archives: Windows

Exploit the long tail of Adwords PPC with Keyword Funnel

Adwords Keyword FunnelI released my new product Keyword Funnel today. It is a tool to help Adwords advertisers improve the profitability of their Adwords campaigns.

I have found the best way to get a decent volume of affordable conversions from Google Adwords is to use a ‘long tail’ strategy. For my Perfect Table Plan product there are a few ‘head’ keyword phrases that have high search volumes, such as “table plan” and “seating arrangement”. But these aren’t very well targeted (“table plan” might have been typed in by someone who wants drawing plans to make their own dining room table). Also lots of other people are bidding on these head phrases, pushing the bid prices up. This combination of poor targeting and high click prices makes it hard to make a profit on head keywords.

So I prefer to concentrate on ‘tail’ terms such as “table plan software mac” and “wedding seating arrangements program”. These are much better targeted, so convert a lot better. The clicks are also cheaper because less people are bidding on them. However the search volumes are much lower, so you need a lot of these tail terms to get a reasonable amount of traffic. At least hundreds, and preferably thousands. Hence ‘long tail’.

the long tail of Adwords PPCThe good news is that you can mine lots of different sources of data for these long tail keywords. For example you can extract keywords from your web logs, Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools accounts. Even though many searches are now listed with the keywords ‘not provided’ by Google, it still isn’t hard to come up with thousands of candidate keyword phrases. The bad news is that they aren’t in a usable form. Before you can import them into Adwords you need to:

  • Sort out duplicate phrases, foreign characters, capitalization and other noise.
  • Remove unwanted and negative keywords.
  • Group keyword phrases into tightly focussed adgroups.
  • Put the results in a form Adwords understands.

I tried to use Excel for this. But, marvellous tool though it is, it really wasn’t up to the job. So I wrote my own tool. This worked very well, but it wasn’t a commercial quality product. So I started again, from scratch 6 months ago. Keyword Funnel is the result.

Keyword Funnel allows you to add hundreds of keywords to new or existing Adwords campaigns in minutes, rather than hours. This makes long tail Adwords campaigns with hundreds or thousands of keywords a much more realistic proposition. It also allows you to set up new campaigns in a fraction of the time.

Keyword Funnel is available for Windows and Mac. It is priced at a one-time fee of just $49 (up to 2 Adwords accounts) or $99 (unlimited Adwords accounts). You can download a free trial from the website and it comes with a 60-day money back guarantee. The website is currently a little unpolished, but the software is well tested and robust. Any feedback is welcome.

Try Keyword Funnel now!

Is desktop software dead?

desktop vs webIt’s rare that I chat to other software developers without someone asking me when I am going to do a web version of my seating planner software. Because the market for desktop is dead, right? SAAS apps is where all the action is!

I think the web is a great platform for some products, not so much for others. Let’s look at the advantages of web apps over desktop apps.

Web advantage 1: No installation

You can access a web app from any device that has a browser. No need to install. There is no doubt this is a major convenience. However most desktop utilities can be downloaded and installed in 1-2 minutes with a decent broadband connection. Also you don’t have to keep logging in to most desktop apps, once they are installed.

Web advantage 2: No upgrades

End-users are always using the latest version. This is definitely an advantage for technical support. But it does take away some choice from the user. Perhaps they weren’t ready to upgrade or preferred the old version?

Web advantage 3: Better user insights

You can analyse how users are using your software. This allows you to improve usability and send out tailored lifecycle emails. It is possible to gather similar information for desktop software, but it involves a lot of extra work.

Web advantage 4: Distributed architecture

If you are writing web apps, you get a distributed architecture for free. No need to do socket programming.

Web advantage 5: Less piracy

Cracks and keygens are a fact of life for desktop software vendors. It is easier to protect against piracy with a web app.

Web advantage 6: Cross platform

In theory web apps are cross-platform. Write them once and they can run on any device with a browser. But browser compatibility issues mean it isn’t that easy in practice, especially if you are still forced to support the dreaded IE6. Also there are solutions (such as Qt) that allow you to deploy to multiple desktop devices from a single code base.

Web advantage 7: Subscriptions

Web apps lend themselves to subscription based payment. This is great because you get a more predictable monthly income and potentially get more money from each customer over the lifetime of the product.

So what about the advantages of desktop apps over web apps?

Desktop advantage 1: Responsiveness

Native apps are more responsive than web apps, partly due to lower level access to the machine and partly due to not having to talk to a remote server. However this advantage is eroding as bandwidth and JavaScript performance improves and more work is carried out by the client in web apps (e.g. using Ajax).

Desktop advantage 2: Reduced hosting costs

The costs of hosting a website for a desktop app is minimal. Typically you just need to serve a few pages and a download file to each visitor. They then won’t need to come back until there is an upgrade. But hosting costs can be significant for a web app, particularly if the app requires large amounts of bandwidth or compute power.

Desktop advantage 3: Better access to hardware

Desktop apps can make better use of the hardware available. For example, you can generally do printing a lot better from a desktop app.

Desktop advantage 4: Better development tools

The old joke is that JavaScript is to Java as the Taj Mahal curry restaurant is to the Taj Mahal. As a C++ developer I am used to working with a fully fledged IDE, debugger, profiler, static analyser and runtime coverage analyser. I tried some JavaScript development recently. Ugh. The development tools seemed very primitive and  JavaScript is a language so hideous that surely even it’s mother couldn’t love it. No classes, no strong typing, no templates and broken scoping. However frameworks such as jQuery have made JavaScript much more accessible over recent years.

Desktop advantage 5: Psychological

Many people feel that anything web-based should be free. Psychologically customers seem more ready to pay for desktop software. Perhaps they feel a greater sense of ownership. This perception is gradually changing for B2B, but I think it is still prevalent for B2C.

Desktop advantage 6: Privacy

Many customers don’t feel confident storing important and confidential information on third-party servers.

Desktop advantage 7: Availability

You can’t use a web app unless the server is up and you have an Internet connection. A desktop app installed on your local machine is always available. You can continue to use it, even if the vendor goes out of business.

Desktop advantage 8: Up-front payment

Desktop apps lend themselves to a single, up-front payment. This is great because you get all the money straight away, improving your cash flow.

So I have come up with similar number of advantages for web apps and for desktop apps. Which is better? It depends, of course. For my particular application, I think a desktop app still has significant advantages:

  • My software can render and zoom in and out of large floor plans better than my web based competitors.
  • I use a genetic algorithm to assign guests to seats. It makes more sense to use under-utilised desktop CPUs for this, rather than me having to pay for a beefy compute server. The thought of writing a genetic algorithm in JavaScript is too awful to contemplate (although Atwood’s law dictates that someone will, if they haven’t already).
  • I can do printing better than my web-based competitors.
  • Most of my web-based competitors seem very feature-poor. I am sure that is at least partly due to poor tooling for web development compared to desktop development.
  • Most of my web-based competitors give their product away for free in the hope of making some money back on ads. I charge for mine.
  • Seating plans can contain sensitive information, particularly for events with celebrities, royalty and heads of state. Some of my customers don’t want this information transmitted to and stored on third-party servers.
  • If my server goes down then I lose sales. But my customers can continue to use my software. Imagine if they were dependent on my server and it went down (or I went out of business) the day before their big event. It brings me out in a cold sweat to think about it.

But other products are a better fit for the web. If I was writing a collaborative CRUD app, I would almost certainly do it as a web app. I have recently been working on a couple of new products. One is a web app and the other is a desktop app. Horses for courses.

A lot of the money I have spent on software over the last few years has been for desktop software. When I had to choose bookkeeping software, I chose a desktop package because I didn’t want to:

  • pay every month
  • store sensitive financial information on a third-party server
  • risk losing all my data if the vendor went out of business

If I look through the list of useful tools and services on this site I see that 51 of them are web-based and 35 are desktop based. Peldi of Balsamiq reported in 2009 that 77% of their revenue comes from the desktop versions of their software. I asked him if that had changed much and he was kind enough to send me the following graph (myBalsamiq is the web version). You can see that it is still nearly 70% 4 years later.

desktop vs web

The line between desktop and web apps is also becoming more blurred. Many desktop apps now use web protocols and embed web browsers. For example, the Qt toolkit allows you to easily create applications that are hybrids of desktop and web. It is also possible to sell a web app that companies host on their own servers. This adds some of the advantages and disadvantages of a desktop app compared to a web app installed on the vendor’s server (SAAS). Perhaps desktop and web apps will converge to the point where there the whole desktop vs web debate becomes meaningless.

So I think reports of the death of desktop software have been greatly exaggerated. There is no doubt that long-term trends ( e.g. increasing bandwidth and attitude to paying for web apps, for B2B at least) have been changing the balance in favour of web apps for some types of product. Particular those where collaboration is more important than graphics or computer power. But I think there will continue to be plenty of markets where a desktop app is a better choice than a web app for the foreseeable future. In the final analysis, customers care a lot more about how well your software solves their problem, than how it happens to be deployed (if they even understand the difference).

80 useful tools and services for software businesses

tools and servicesSome of the most useful nuggets of information I come across in blogs and podcasts are mentions of tools and services used by other people to better run their software businesses. So I have put together my own list of useful tools and services to run a software business.

Feel free to recommend your own favourites in the comments below. Please include your relationship to the tool/service (e.g. customer, user, employee or owner). You can also comment below about your experiences (positive or negative) with any of the tools and services listed. Anonymous comments will be treated with suspicion and may be deleted

Buying a lean, mean, compiling machine

Nearly two years ago I wrote an article about speccing my ultimate development PC. Somehow there was always something more pressing to do. But I finally took delivery of my shiny new PC this week, partly spurred on by the fact that I wanted tried and trusted Windows 7 for the OS. Also my current development PC is getting increasingly crufty after 5 years of continual use.

I emailed my requirements to the top 3 custom PC companies in the UK as rated by PC Pro magazine : Chillblast, Cyberpower and CCL:

Hi,

I’m looking for a PC for developing software. Prime requirements in order of decreasing importance:

1. reliability
2. cpu + disk speed
3. quiet
4. value for money

Here is my wishlist of components:

-i5-3570K CPU
-an SSD (at least 128 GB) + 2 fast and reliable HDDs (7200 rpm, at least 1 TB each)
-ASUS, Gigabyte or EVGA motherboard supporting USB 3.0 and SATA/600.
-16 GB of fast RAM
-Windows 7 64 bit professional
-quiet is good, open to suggestions on sound insulation, fans and/or passive cooling
-AMD Radeon HD 6850 graphics card
-at least 2 USB ports on the front and 2 USB ports on the back (ideally more, ideally including USB 3.0)
-DVD drive
-Gigabit ethernet
-full size case
-kensington security slot, so I can lock it to the ground
-I don’t need a monitor, keyboard, mouse etc
-I don’t need WiFi
-It has to be *super reliable* – I want reliable SSD + HDDs, good quality motherboard, good quality branded power supply etc.
-target price, not more than 1,500 inc VAT, less is better obviously

Can you build something to meet this spec or get close? Please send me the spec and your price (including UK delivery).

Both Chillblast and Cyberpower sent me quotes for a system fairly close to what I wanted within 1 working day. I then spoke to their sales people and went online to tweak their suggested systems using their web based system ‘configurators’. In the end I chose Chillblast over Cyberpower due to:

  • higher rating from PC Pro readers
  • cheaper for a comparable system
  • better warranty
  • better online configurator (I found the number of choices on the Cyberpower online configurator a bit overwhelming)

However there really wasn’t a lot in it. CCL took nearly 2 whole working days to respond to my initial email,  so I discounted them as insufficiently responsive.

Following some suggestions made by the sales people I spoke to, this is the spec I ended up with:

  • Chillblast Fusion Longbow
  • Windows 7 Professional 64 bit
  • Onboard High Definition Audio
  • Corsair CX 750W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified PSU
  • Sony 24x DVD-RW Drive
  • Seagate Barrcuda 2TB 7200RPM Hard Disk
  • AMD Radeon HD 6850 1024MB Graphics Card
  • Intel 120GB 520 Series Solid State Drive
  • 16GB Corsair PC3-12800 1600MHz DDR3 Memory
  • Asus P8Z77-V LX Motherboard
  • Akasa Venom Voodoo Ultra Quiet CPU Cooler
  • Intel Core i5 3570K Processor 3.40 GHz (No Overclocking)
  • Fractal Design Define R3 Low Noise Case – Black Pearl – USB 3.0 Edition
  • Total price: £1089.80 + VAT (inc MSOffice Home Edition)

I take security fairly seriously. I have a motorbike style ground anchor in my office and I want my shiny new box physically locked to it. But I was told that almost no PC tower cases have a Kensington lock slot. This seems crazy to me. My current Dell tower has one and the cost of one tiny little extra slot in the chassis must be pennies. So I had to buy a lock adaptor kit. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it works fine.

I ordered the system on 02-Oct and it arrived on 22-Oct. Here are a couple of photos of the new system with the side panels off.

The PC took a few days longer than the originally advertised time to arrive. This wasn’t a big issue in my case. But I only found out it was going to be late when I emailed them after the expected completion date. It would have been a lot better if they had been more pro-active and emailed me first. Other than that I am fairly satisified with the service from Chillblast so far.

There are a few issues with the case, which aren’t really Chillblast’s fault. It looks rather lovely in its big, black, minimalist sort of way, a bit like an obelisk from ’2001 a space Odyssey’. But the case scratches rather easily if you lay it down to change a component on my laminate floor. The side panels are also a bit fiddly to get on and off (my old Dell PC is better in this regard). Worst of all, it has rubber grommets (is that the right word?) that fall out into the case (and potentially into the fan or heat sink) if you even look at them funny. This means lying the case down to retrieve them, struggling with the side panels and more scratches. I have had to do this at least 4 times so far. It seems that they have made them of rubber that is far too soft for the job. Grrr.

How fast is the new PC? It certainly feels very snappy. I benchmarked it against my old Dell development PC (Dual Core 2.13 Ghz, 4GB RAM) building my event table planner software from scratch. This is 83k executable lines of C++ according to SourceMonitor:

Build time Old PC New PC
Debug build 6 minutes 56 seconds 1 minute 32 seconds
Release build 6 minutes 23 seconds 1 minute 28 seconds

So it is more than 4 times faster than the old PC at its key task – building software. Admittedly it isn’t a ‘fair’ comparison of the hardware. The older machine has a different version of Visual Studio, a different OS and probably some unnecessary services running in the background. But it is the best I can do in the circumstances and I doubt a ‘fair’ test would be much different. Despite the fact that I only went for a mid-range graphics card, the new PC can also handle playing Half-Life 2 on full 1920 x 1200 resolution without any noticeable issues. Hopefully the faster build times will give a significant boost to my productivity (as long as I don’t play too much Half-Life 2).

The new PC is also eerily quiet. I would guess more than 4 times quieter than my old PC. Even when it is doing a build, all you can hear is the faint whir of a fan.

Only time will tell how reliable it is.

Eventcountdown.com

I have just launched at new website at eventcountdown.com.  This website contains free countdown clocks,  for both Windows and web, to allow you to count down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to any event. It can be a wedding, a birthday or a major cultural or sporting event. Are your children wondering how many days, hours, minutes and seconds it is to Christmas ? Wonder no more! You can also use it to count up from an event e.g. giving up smoking or Perl.

web countdown clockweb countdown clock for Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android

windows countdown clockWindows countdown clock

The hope is that a significant number of people interested in planning events will go to evencountdown.com for a free clock and a small percentage will click through to PerfectTablePlan.com and buy my software. I have no idea how successful this will be. I certainly don’t expect a quick payback on the investment. But hopefully it will pay for itself in a few years, and then anything after that is pure profit.

This project has also been a small scale experiment in outsourcing that might lead on to greater things.

  • The web design and CSS/HTML coding was done by Sergey Pozhilov of μISVStyle.
  • The Windows countdown clock was done by Milan Marusinec of VectorGraphica.
  • The Javascript for the web countdown clock was done by Paul Kossowski of Dolphin Futures.

They all did a great job and the total cost was less than I would have paid for a couple of ads in event industry newsletters (which I tried recently, with fairly miserable results).

I have quite a few ideas about how I can improve eventcountdown.com, but I wanted to get something out there ASAP. After all if you aren’t embarassed by v1.0 you didn’t release it early enough. I would be interested to hear any feedback. Backlinks to eventcountdown.com would also be very welcome. ;0)

milan@crossgl.com

Speccing my dream development PC

My main development machine is a 4 year old Dell desktop, PC running 32 bit Windows Vista. Time for a new PC. I have been doing a bit of research, mostly by looking through back copies of PC Pro magazine (which I recommend,  by the way). I am speccing it out here on my blog in the hope that I, and anyone else thinking about a new PC, can benefit from my research and (more importantly, given my limited knowledge of hardware) the assembled wisdom and experience of readers of this blog.

A system failure could lose me several days work and a lot of mental energy to sort out, so reliability is my number one requirement. After that I am interested in performance, particularly speeding up compilation and linking, as this has a significant effect on my productivity (my table planner software is now well over 100k lines of C++ code). Getting a fast machine also means it will last longer before it becomes obselete.

Form factor

Tower desktop. I don’t like using laptops for extended periods and there is plenty of space under the desk for a tower case. Having a bigger chassis means more options for upgrading and hopefully less chance of overheating. I like to have my PC physically locked to a ground anchor to reduce the possibility of theft. So the case needs to have a Kensington-compatible security slot I can attach a security cable to. Some LED bling wouldn’t hurt.

OS

Windows 7 64 bit Professional (or Ultimate is if I decide to use bitlocker drive encryption). Windows 7 is increasingly what my customers are using. 64 bit will allow me to address >4GB RAM.

As I develop for both Windows and Mac, I could use a Mac for my main development machine. But I am more familiar with Windows and its associated apps, you get more bang for your buck with a PC and I’m not keen on Apple’s authoritarian attitude to developers. So I prefer to use Windows for my main development machine and use a Mac Mini for porting.

RAM

8GB of DDR3 RAM. Maybe more, depending on cost. But I am not sure whether having more than 8GB of RAM will make much of a difference to real world performance. DDR3 memory seems to be fairly standard on high end PCs. I can’t imagine the clock speed of the memory (e.g. 1,333 MHz vs 1,600 MHz) affects development related performance much. I haven’t seen any data on this.

Storage

Possibly a 128GB Crucial RealSSD C300 SSD for storing \Windows and \Program files and a 600 GB 10,000 RPM WD Velociraptor HDD for storing everything else. SSDs seem to be increasingly the way to go for storage that is predominantly read-only and the prices are coming down. 128 GB should be ample for Windows and lots of applications. But there have been issues over the reliability and performance of some SSDs, notably those with Indilinx controllers. anandtech.com, Jeff Atwood and PC Pro all rate Crucial SSDs well. The WD Velociraptor is one of the fastest HDDs around and 600 GB is currently the biggest one you can buy. It is pricey though at around £0.30 per GB, with 7,200 RPM drives around £0.05 per GB. Especially if I buy an extra one to keep as a hot spare.

I am still making up my mind on this though. Having two separate drives means an extra possible point of failure. Also some people say that, while benchmark results are impressive, the difference in performance between SSD and fast HDDs isn’t that great in real world scenarios. I also wonder whether a 10,000 RPM HDD is going to be as reliable as a 7,200 RPM HDD, such as the Samsung Spinpoint F3. I don’t know of any independent data on HDD reliability between different makes and models. In the absense of such data I guess the next best bet is to look at how long the manufacturer warranties are. You need to be fairly confident on reliability to give a 5 year warrantly.

I am also considering encrypting the drives for extra security. This will keep my data secure in case of theft and it also means I can return a defective drive under warranty without worrying about the security of the data on it. The main alternatives are Truecrypt and Windows 7 Bitlocker. Tests show Truecrypt AES encryption adding a 5-12% performance penalty. Anecdotal reports seem to show that the difference is hardly noticeable in real world use, especially with a fast CPU. A comparison of Truecrypt and Bitlocker from April gives Bitlocker a small advantage for speed, but favours Truecrypt for its flexibility. Also Truecrypt is free, whereas Bitlocker is only available if you buy Windows 7 Ultimate.

My current PC has 2 disk HDDs in RAID1 (mirrored) configuration. This was intended to decrease the chance of data loss, but it has been a huge headache. I have had to replace one or other of the RAID1 HDDs 4 or 5 times while I have had this PC. I can only assume that RAID was responsible for this catastrophic failure rate, so I certainly won’t be going for RAID again.

Media

Any reputable make of DVD drive that can write dual layer DVDs should be fine. The 8.5 GB capacity of dual layer DVDs is useful for backups. I don’t see any need to pay a premium to get Bluray.

Motherboard

A Gigabyte or Asus motherboard with support for USB 3.0 and SATA/600. I have just bought a USB 3.0 external HDD for backup so I would like to make the most of the additional USB 3.0 performance and a fast SATA connection is necessary to get the most from a fast HDD. Gigabtye and Asus motherboards seem to do well in the PC Pro magazine tests.

Power supply

Any respectable make should be fine. If a power supply fails the power surge can wreck the whole machine, so it definitely isn’t worth risking a cheap and nasty power supply to save a few pounds.

USB ports

Lots, including some USB 3.0 ports.

Graphics card

AMD Radeon 6850. I don’t play a lot of computer games, but I want a graphics card fast enough to give me the option. I would also like to have the option of multiple monitors, so it needs to have at least 2 DVI outputs. PC Pro magazine are recommending the AMD Radeon 6850 as exellent value if you don’t need the fastest possible card.

CPU

Intel Core i5-750 (4 cores). Raw processor speed is obviously important, but you pay quite a premium to get the very fastest chip. The i5-750 seems like a good balance between price and performance. Multiple cores are useful for running VMs and compiling (apparently Visual Studio 2005 requires a tweak to use multiple cores for compilation). Quiet fans would be nice. I’m not interested in overclocking as I worry about the effect this could have on reliability.

Networking

Gigabit Ethernet.

VDU, keyboard and mouse

I will re-use my existing monitor, keyboard and mouse.

Software

The less crapware pre-installed with the OS the better.

Warranty

The longer and more comprehensive the better.

Manufacturer

I have neither the time, the inclination nor the aptitude to build a PC myself. So I will be looking for a UK company that can build a PC close to the above spec. I had a terrible experience trying to buy a media PC from gamingpc-guys.co.uk earlier this year (I had to do a chargeback to get my money back when neither PC or refund had appeared after a month), so I certainly won’t be approaching them. Thankfully they seem to have gone out of business anyway. Given the problems I have had with the current Dell and the ludicrous cost of Dell replacement parts, I won’t be going for Dell again either. UK PC manufacturers that regularly do well in PC Pro tests include:

So I will be investigating how close a system they can provide me to the above spec and for what price. Interestingly all these custom PC companies seem to have products aimed very much at gamers, not developers. Given that there are a lot of developers in the UK that seems surprising. I guess most developers get their PC bought for them by IT departments and don’t have the luxury of a custom built PC. I think these companies are missing a trick by not having a PC aimed at developers amongst their base specs.

If you had roughly £1000/$1700 to spend on a development machine, what would you choose differently from the above and why?

Free computer wallpaper

I got bored of looking at the standard Windows and Mac desktop wallpaper, so I decided to re-purpose some of the photographs I have taken on my travels. I have created standard and widescreen versions. They should be high enough resolution even for most developers’ monitors. Happy Christmas.

Licensing

You can freely use these images as wallpaper on your computer. However they may not be modified, used for any other purpose or distributed (except via http://www.successfulsoftware.net) without my explicit written permission. I retain the copyright and all other rights to these images.

Instructions

Left click on a thumbnail of the appropriate size/aspect-ratio for your monitor.

Right click on the full-size image and select:

  • FireFox: Set as desktop background
  • Internet Explorer: Set as background
  • Safari: Use image as desktop picture

1920 x 1200 wallpaper

These images are suitable for wide screen monitors (aspect ratio 8:5) including:

  • 1920 x 1200
  • 1680 x 1050
  • 1440 x 900
  • 1280 x 800

Stirling Falls, New Zealand.

Window reflection.

Peak 43, Nepal.

Palm, Queensland, Australia.

Lenticular clouds near Mount Sefton, New Zealand.

Kalahari sand at sunset, Namibia.

Heron Island, Queensland, Australia.

Waves, Hawaii.

A MiG-29 Fulcrum performing the 'cobra' manoeuvre.

Dead Vlei, Namibia.

Dead Vlei, Namibia.

Boyd Falls, New Zealand.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Aquarium, Plymouth, UK.

1600 x 1200 wallpaper

These images are suitable for standard monitors (aspect ratio 4:3) including:

  • 1600 x 1200
  • 1152 x 864
  • 1024 x 768
  • 800 x 600

Stirling Falls, New Zealand.

Window reflection.

Peak 43, Nepal.

Palm, Queensland, Australia.

Lenticular clouds near Mount Sefton, New Zealand.

Kalahari sand at sunset, Namibia

An MiG-29 Fulcrum performing the 'cobra' manoeuvre.

Boyd Falls, New Zealand.

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

Aquarium, Plymouth, UK.

Notes

Creating wallpaper wasn’t as easy as I thought (nothing ever is). You need images that are in landscape format, are not too saturated, contrasty or busy and are cropped and resized to exactly the right width and height. Thankfully I had some tools to help – I used PicCrop to do the cropping, BatchPhoto for batch creation of the thumbnail images, Xplorer2 for batch file renaming and Photoshop Elements for everything else. Some of the images are only available in wide screen format as they didn’t work as well in a 4:3 format.

All the photographs were taken by me with a Minolta Dynax 7D digital camera or scanned from slides taken by me with a Minolta Dynax 700si. Goodbye Minolta cameras, I miss you.

Ten mistakes microISVs make

Here is a video of the “Ten mistakes microISVs make” talk I gave at the Software Industry Conference 2009 in Boston. Total duration: 27 minutes.

The slides aren’t terribly easy to read, due to the resizing and compression of the video. But you can also download the paper and slides:

A big thank you to Alwin and Sytske of collectorz.com for doing the video. You can read Alwin’s excellent software marketing blog at alwinhoogerdijk.com.

Feel free to embed this video, as long as you include a credit and a link back to this blog.

How many of these mistakes have you made? How many are you still making?

Getting ready for Windows 7

windows-7I am currently downloading the new Windows 7 release candiate. It is 2.36 GB and the ActiveX download control predicts it will take around 10 hours in total (NB I am also doing a large FTP upload, which is probably slowing it down considerably). Once the download is complete I intend to install it in a VM to test my table planning software.

You can download the latest Windows 7 release candidate here. It is free to download and use, but  it expires on 01-June-2010 and will shutdown every 2 hours starting on 01-March-2010 (insert your own joke here). A couple of points to note from the Windows 7 FAQ:

While the RC is stable and has been thoroughly tested, it’s not the finished product. Your computer could crash and you could lose important files. So please back up your data and please don’t test the RC on your primary home or business PC.

When you use the RC, your PC sends information to our engineers to help them check the fixes and changes they made based on Beta tests.

Microsoft hasn’t officially announced when Windows 7 will be for sale. But there are rumours that it is planned for October 2009. Will you be ready?

Interview with Craig Peterson of Beyond Compare

craig-peterson

I am a fan of file and folder comparison utility Beyond Compare from Scooter Software. It is a very polished and powerful piece of software with a big following. But I was intrigued by some of the unusual decisions they had taken: competing in a market with lots of free alternatives; going 6 years between major upgrades; re-writing from scratch; releasing a Linux version; and having an extremely generous trial policy. How had they succeeded despite ignoring much of the conventional wisdom? Craig Peterson of Scooter Software kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Can you tell me a bit about your background before working on Beyond Compare.
I started at Scooter Software straight out of college.  I did a lot of programming for fun before then, but this was my first professional job and my first introduction to Delphi.

How long have you been working on Beyond Compare and what is your role?
I’m the lead developer and I started here in late 2000, a few months before significant development on v2 started.  Most of my time is spent working on the directory comparison and the virtual filesystem layer (ftp, zips, version control), but there are very few places in the program that I haven’t worked on.  My non-development tasks include managing the build process, interfacing with our component vendors, keeping track of any interns, and tech support, when there’s difficult questions or when the dedicated staff don’t have time.

How many other people work on Beyond Compare on the business side and on the development side?
There’s one other full-time developer, one part time developer, two in tech support, two in sales, and our president, who handles everything else.

There are lots of different file comparison tools. How do you manage to run a successful business with so many competitors, many of them free?
Competing with the free tools hasn’t been as hard as I expected.  The big advantage we have here is that people are paying us for the software, so we have strong incentive to provide good tech support and to provide the features they want.  We work 8 hours a day on it, which gives us more time to develop new features than someone doing it as a hobby, and we can afford commercial libraries that someone providing a free utility can’t.

As for the commercial competitors, it’s mostly a matter of providing something that they don’t.  In our case BC’s directory comparison is much more powerful than the alternatives, and we have viewers for other file types like images, binary files, and data files.  That allowed us to keep competing even when we were lagging in other areas.

What are the main methods you use to promote Beyond Compare?
We rely almost entirely on word of mouth.  We’ve had lots of customers tell us that they brought BC with them when they switched jobs and ended up getting their companies to spring for larger licenses.  We do spend some money on Google AdWords, and we hired a company to periodically submit our site to search engines and download sites, but we’ve never run a print or banner ad.

scootersoftware.com has an enviable Google page rank of 6 and ranks second for “file comparison software”. Have you spent a lot of effort on SEO?
We had a company help with SEO for a lot of the 2.x lifetime, and they’d suggest tweaks to improve things.  For v3 we took a different approach and redesigned the site to make it more accessible to potential customers.  I’m sure some of those changes helped, since we ended up adding more descriptions and using more synonyms, but it was primarily a case of asking how we could make it easier to find the information someone would want and expanding on that.  We still have a fairly wordy page title though, and I think that’s entirely for the search engines’ benefit.

Are most of your customers programmers, or does the software appeal to a wider audience?
I’d say more than 50% are programmers, but there’s definitely a wider audience.  System administrators use it for migrating servers, web developers use it instead of a traditional FTP client, and non-techs use it for backups or synching their laptops and desktops.

How long do you allow people to use the trial version?
The trial is for 30 days, but it only counts days you actually run it, so if you use it infrequently you could easily go six months or more before it times out.

I used Beyond Compare for ages before I bought a licence. I would have bought it sooner if you had been less generous with the trial. Why did you go for such a long trial period?
That goes back to competing with all the other products out there.  If someone installs two programs to evaluate, and then doesn’t have a chance to really try them out until a month later, the one that works is more likely to get the sale.  It also makes it more likely that potential customers will learn the application and start relying on it, so when it does come time to pay they’re less likely to throw out that investment and switch to another tool.

I understand Beyond Compare v3 is a complete re-write. Why did you feel a complete re-write was necessary? Was it a good business decision in hindsight?
There were two reasons why we felt a re-write was justified: (1) we had a lot of features we wanted to implement that wouldn’t work in the current framework, and (2) we over-estimated the speed that we could re-write it.

In the text compare we wanted inline editing with dynamic re-comparisons and 3-way merge, neither of which would have been easy to integrate into the v2 codebase.  The directory compare had similarly major changes, though a lot of that is internal and in preparation for other features, so it isn’t as visible.  There was also all the work we did to get a Linux release out.  It wasn’t a complete re-write though.  Anything that didn’t need significant changes, like our reporting engine, was brought over mostly as is.

I think it was a good business decision in that it allowed us to rethink and rework a lot of things without the old baggage, but it was bad in that it significantly limited what we could release in the meantime.  We ended up going 6 years between major versions and even though we were always busy adding new features, we couldn’t release them until we got back to feature parity with v2.

Beyond Compare is written is Delphi. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of Delphi compared to other development ‘stacks’?
I think Delphi is still the best tool for developing a native Windows application quickly.  It’s very easy to mock up interfaces and then fill them in with code.  The resulting exes don’t have any external dependencies, which makes redistributing them easy.  The VCL (UI framework) ships with source code,  and that has permeated the community, so the vast majority of third-party components also include source.

On the flip side, it still can’t produce 64-bit executables and isn’t cross platform.  It doesn’t have a garbage collector or as large of a class library as Java or C#.  The community isn’t as large either, so there’s usually only a couple of choices when you’re looking for specific components, and if that vendor stops developing it, there aren’t as many people to pick up the slack.

If you had to do it all again, starting now, would you still choose Delphi?
Probably, but I would seriously consider C# or Qt.  In our case we have a lot of experience with Delphi and we know the libraries, so starting from scratch in another language would be a significant barrier.

Beyond Compare has a very slick user interface. Did you do any usability testing?
Not as such.  Our primary usability improvements come from using our own product.  We use BC every day, for every comparison we do, so anything that sticks out tends to get squashed quickly.  We also get alpha/beta versions into customers’ hands as soon as possible, and keep iterating until they’re happy.  V2 and v3 both had private beta tests that lasted over a year and a half, and some of the features changed dramatically in response to that feedback.

Beyond Compare has a nice integration with Windows Explorer. Was that difficult to do? Were you able to do it in Delphi?
The first version of it was submitted by a user, so it wasn’t difficult at all.  It has taken a lot of refinement to get perfect though, and we were changing it all the way through to the final 3.0 release.  It is written in Delphi, though I did rewrite it in C++ in order to get a 64-bit version working.  FreePascal has since started producing 64-bit binaries, so we’re back to the single Delphi version again.

You have Windows and Linux versions. What did you use to write the Linux version?
We’re using a heavily customized version of Borland’s now-dead Kylix product, which was Delphi for Linux.  It does allow us to compile both versions from the same source code, but it’s showing its age and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.  Our driving goal is to have the best Windows version we can, which means sticking with Delphi and using what’s available to produce the Linux version.  If OS X and Linux support outweighed that we would use a cross-platform option like Qt or Java, but we believe the Windows version would suffer in that case.

Do you sell many licences for Linux?
We sell enough to fund its development, so it’s a successful product.  It does introduce new challenges though, both in development and tech support, so if we were a smaller developer it probably wouldn’t be worth the overhead.

Do you think there will there ever be a web version of Beyond Compare?
I can see it as a possibility, and it would be interesting to explore, but it’s not something we’re looking into right now.  I think it would have a different audience than the current product, and would probably never be as powerful as what we can do locally.

How did you choose the price?
Our $30 standard edition is about the same price as our commercial competitors, and seems to be the standard shareware utility price.  The pro edition was priced based on our competitors, what our customers were telling us they’d pay, and what we felt the downward pressure of the freeware/opensource alternatives introduced.  We keep the price low in order to make our profits on larger quantities sold, instead of a larger margin per-unit.  We have increased our multi-user pricing considerably over the years though;  the discounts were very steep in v1 and v2, and the feedback we got was that it was just too cheap for what it provided.

I see some translator credits on the website. Is v3 available in languages other than English?
Not officially, but we have just released beta versions of a couple of languages.  The current credits are for the v2 translators, who are generally the same people working on v3 translations.

How important are resellers to your sales?
We get a lot of sales through resellers, but it’s generally from people who would buy it either way. Foreign resellers are a help to the customers though, because they allow them to order in their own language using the local currency.

Does Scooter Software have any other products besides Beyond Compare?
No, BC keeps us plenty busy.

Thank you Craig.

You can download a free trial of Beyond Compare from the Scooter Software website. I have no affiliation with Scooter Software beyond being a paying customer.