I have been gradually improving my data wrangling tool, Easy Data Transform, putting out 70 public releases since 2019. While the product’s emphasis is on ease of use, rather than pure performance, I have been trying to make it fast as well, so it can cope with the multi-million row datasets customers like to throw at it. To see how I was doing, I did a simple benchmark of the most recent version of Easy Data Transform (v1.37.0) against several other desktop data wrangling tools. The benchmark did a read, sort, join and write of a 1 million row CSV file. I did the benchmarking on my Windows development PC and my Mac M1 laptop.
Here is an overview of the results:
Time by task (seconds), on Windows without Power Query (smaller is better):
I have left Excel Power Query off this graph, as it is so slow you can hardly see the other bars when it is included!
Time by task (seconds) on Mac (smaller is better):
Memory usage (MB), Windows vs Mac (smaller is better):
So Easy Data Transform is nearly as fast as it’s nearest competitor, Knime, on Windows and a fair bit faster on an M1 Mac. It is also uses a lot less memory than Knime. However we have got some way to go to catch up with the Pandas library for Python and the data.table package for R, when it comes to raw performance. Hopefully I can get nearer to their performance in time. I was forbidden from including benchmarks for Tableau Prep and Alteryx by their licensing terms, which seems unnecessarily restrictive.
Looking at just the Easy Data Transform results, it is interesting to notice that a newish Macbook Air M1 laptop is significantly faster than a desktop AMD Ryzen 7 desktop PC from a few years ago.
Apple has transitioned Macs from Intel to ARM (M1/M2) chips. In the process it has provided an emulation layer (Rosetta2) to ensure that the new ARM Macs can still run applications created for Intel Macs. The emulation works very well, but is quoted to be some 20% slower than running native ARM binaries. That may not seem like a lot, but it is significant on processor intensive applications such as my own data wrangling software, which often processes datasets with millions of rows through complex sequences of merging, splitting, reformatting, filtering and reshaping. Also people who have just spent a small fortune on a shiny new ARM Mac can get grumpy about not having a native ARM binary to run on it. So I have been investigating moving Easy Data Transform from an Intel binary to a Universal (‘fat') binary containing both Intel and ARM binaries. This is a process familiar from moving my seating planner software for Mac from PowerPC to Intel chips some years ago. Hopefully I will have retired before the next chip change on the Mac.
My software is built on-top of the excellent Qt cross-platfom framework. Qt announced support for Mac Universal binaries in Qt 6.2 and Qt 5.15.9. I am sticking with Qt 5 for now, because it better supports multiple text encodings and because I don’t see any particular advantage to switching to Qt 6 yet. But, there is a wrinkle. Qt 5.15.3 and later are only available to Qt customers with commercial licenses. I want to use the QtCharts component in Easy Data Transform v2, and QtCharts requires a commercial license (or GPL, which is a no-go for me). I also want access to all the latest bug fixes for Qt 5. So I decided to switch from the free LGPL license and buy a commercial Qt license. Thankfully I was eligible for the Qt small business license which is currently $499 per year. The push towards commercial licensing is controversial with Qt developers, but I really appreciate Qt and all the work that goes into it, so I am happy to support the business (not enough to pay the eye-watering fee for a full enterprise license though!).
Moving from producing an Intel binary using LGPL Qt to producing a Universal binary using commercial Qt involved several major stumbling points that took me hours and a lot of googling to sort out. I’m going to spell them out here to save you that pain. You’re welcome.
The latest Qt 5 LTS releases are not available via the Qt maintenance tool if you have open source Qt installed. After you buy your commercial licence you need to delete your open source installation and all the associated license files. Here is the information I got from Qt support:
I assume that you were previously using open source version, is that correct?
Qt 5.15.10 should be available through the maintenance tool but it is required to remove the old open source installation completely and also remove the open source license files from your system.
So, first step is to remove the old Qt installation completely. Then remove the old open source licenses which might exist. Instructions for removing the license files:
Unified installer/maintenancetool/qtcreator will save all licenses (downloaded from the used Qt Account) inside the new qtlicenses.ini file. You need to remove the following files to fully reset the license information.
As a side note: If the files above cannot be found $HOME/.qt-license(Linux/macOS) or %USERPROFILE%\.qt-license(Windows) file is used as a fallback. .qt-license file can be downloaded from Qt Account. https://account.qt.io/licenses
Be sure to name the Qt license file as ".qt-license" and not for example ".qt-license.txt".
After removing the old installation and the license files, please download the new online installer via your commercial Qt Account.
You can login there at:
After installing Qt with commercial license, it should be able to find the Qt 5.15.10 also through the maintenance tool in addition to online installer.
Then you need to download the commercial installer from your online Qt account and reinstall all the Qt versions you need. Gigabytes of it. Time to drink some coffee. A lot of coffee.
In your .pro file you need to add:
QMAKE_APPLE_DEVICE_ARCHS = x86_64 arm64
Note that the above doubles the build time of your application, so you probably don’t want it set for day to day development.
You can use macdeployqt to create your deployable Universal .app but, and this is the critical step that took me hours to work out, you need to use <QtDir>/macos/bin/macdeployqt not <QtDir>/clang_64/bin/macdeployqt . Doh!
You can check the .app is Universal using the lipo command, e.g.:
I was able to use my existing practise of copying extra files (third party libraries, help etc) into the .app file and then digitally signing everything using codesign –deep . Thankfully the only third party library I use apart from Qt (the excellent libXL library for Excel) is available as a Universal framework.
I did all the above on an Intel iMac using the latest Qt 5 LTS release (Qt 5.15.10) and XCode 13.4 on macOS 12. I then tested it on an ARM MacBook Air. No doubt you can also build Universal binaries on an ARM Mac.
Unsurprisingly the Universal app is substantially larger than the Intel-only version. My Easy Data Transform .dmg file (which also includes a lot of help documentation) went from ~56 MB to ~69 MB. However that is still positively anorexic compared to many bloated modern apps (looking at you Electron).
A couple of tests I did on an ARM MacBook Air showed ~16% improvement in performance. For example joining two 500,000 row x 10 column tables went from 4.5 seconds to 3.8 seconds. Obviously the performance improvement depends on the task and the system. One customer reported batch processing 3,541 JSON Files and writing the results to CSV went from 12.8 to 8.1 seconds, a 37% improvement.
 I’m not judging.
 Apparently the use of –deep is frowned on by Apple. But it works (for now anyway). Bite me, Apple.
Tabular data is everywhere. I support reading and writing tabular data in various formats in all 3 of my software application. It is an important part of my data transformation software. But all the tabular data formats suck. There doesn’t seem to be anything that is reasonably space efficient, simple and quick to parse and text based (not binary) so you can view and edit it with a standard editor.
Most tabular data currently gets exchanged as: CSV, Tab separated, XML, JSON or Excel. And they are all highly sub-optimal for the job.
CSV is a mess. One quote in the wrong place and the file is invalid. It is difficult to parse efficiently using multiple cores, due to the quoting (you can’t start parsing from part way through a file). Different quoting schemes are in use. You don’t know what encoding it is in. Use of separators and line endings are inconsistent (sometimes comma, sometimes semicolon). Writing a parser to handle all the different dialects is not at all trivial. Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers don’t even agree on how to interpret some edge cases for CSV.
Tab separated is a bit better than CSV. But can’t store tabs and still has issues with line endings, encodings etc.
XML and JSON are tree structures and not suitable for efficiently storing tabular data (plus other issues).
There is Parquet. It is very efficient with it’s columnar storage and compression. But it is binary, so can’t be viewed or edited with standard tools, which is a pain.
Don’t even get me started on Excel’s proprietary, ghastly binary format.
Why can’t we have a format where:
Encoding is always UTF-8
Values stored in row major order (row 1, row2 etc)
Columns are separated by \u001F (ASCII unit separator)
Rows are separated by \u001E (ASCII record separator)
Er, that’s the entire specification.
No escaping. If you want to put \u001F or \u001E in your data – tough you can’t. Use a different format.
It would be reasonably compact, efficient to parse and easy to manually edit (Notepad++ shows the unit separator as a ‘US’ symbol). You could write a fast parser for it in minutes. Typing \u001F or \u001E in some editors might be a faff, but it is hardly a showstopper.
It could be called something like “unicode separated value” (hat tip to @fakeunicode on Twitter for the name) or “unit separated value” with file extension .usv. Maybe a different extension could used when values are stored in column major order (column1, column 2 etc).
Is there nothing like this already? Maybe there is and I just haven’t heard of it. If not, shouldn’t there be?
It has been pointed at the above will give you a single line of text in an editor, which is not great for human readability. A quick fix for this would be to make the record delimiter a \u001E character followed by an LF character. Any LF that comes immediately after an \u001E would be ignored when parsing. Any LF not immediately after an \u001E is part of the data. I don’t know about other editors, but it is easy to view and edit in Notepad++.
This is a guest post from serial software entrepreneur Dennis Gurock.
Thinking about product positioning (and matching branding) is especially important if you build a product for a crowded market with many established competitors (and there are many reasons why this can be a good idea). We were in exactly this situation when we initially thought about building and marketing our new test management tool.
Positioning will allow you to better focus on a specific market segment to target, it makes it easier to build a clearer and stronger message to reach customers, and it helps develop the initial product vision and feature set.
What does successful positioning mean for software products? It can mean identifying a unique angle to focus on so you can stand out with your product among other products and competitors. Especially if you are entering a crowded market, this allows you to better communicate the key benefits and features you have to offer. It will help you reach the right customers and ensures that customers remember you when they look for a new product to try.
To come up with positioning for your new product, you can focus on a specific customer segment or niche that you think will be easier to market to or that you think is underserved by existing offerings. It can also help you limit the initial product scope, so you can go to market faster. Then rigorously optimizing for this initial customer segment allows you to establish a market presence and expand to other segments more easily later.
Why is positioning useful?
There are many benefits of coming up with and deciding on positioning for your new software product early on. Once you decide on the positioning, many marketing, product management and sales decisions become more straightforward.
Clear message & benefits: it is not easy to stand out in a crowded market. Positioning allows you to come up with clear messaging so you can explain and highlight unique selling points in few words.
Target and identify niche/marketing opportunities: it can be difficult to decide which marketing options to try, which campaigns to book and which niches to target. Focusing on a specific market segment based on the product positioning can be a great way to identify matching niches and opportunities.
Identify customer fit during sales: one of the most important aspects of the sales process is identifying and ensuring prospects are actually a great fit for your product. It’s wasted time for both you and for your prospects to invest a lot of effort evaluating and piloting a product if they will not benefit from it. Positioning can help you quickly filter and identify which customers to focus on.
Better focus on initial product vision: there are a lot of directions to choose when building a new product. If you don’t have a clear vision to guide you, it is easy to be distracted by different directions and work on too many things at the same time. Clear positioning makes it easy to focus product management on specific goals and use cases.
Easier to choose features: when you start working with customers, you will (hopefully) receive a lot of feedback on features you should add. Positioning helps you decide which of these features you should actually implement. Often times the most successful products are developed by following strong opinions and saying ‘No’ to many requests.
Examples of software product positioning
Let’s look at a few examples of companies that use positioning to market and build their products. All these examples are from industries and product categories with many existing competitors and products.
Testmo: we entered a crowded market with many established testing tools when we developed our new product. Most existing offerings either focus on manual testing, or they offer a complete ALM toolset to handle the entire development lifecycle. With Testmo we had other ideas and wanted to position it differently, focusing on unified testing. This means we combine test cases, automation and exploratory testing in a single platform. At the same time it allows us to limit the scope of the product. We won’t add our own issue tracking, or CI pipelines, or existing DevOps features. Instead of we focus on integrating with other tools customers already use.
Another example is the documentation and wiki product GitBook. They heavily focus on software developers and position themselves as the primary tool for developers to publish user docs and to document internal knowledge. With this positioning in mind, they can focus on features that primarily make sense for developers, such as Git synchronization, Markdown support and code snippets. It also allows them to more easily market directly to software developers with a clear message.
Then there’s the application monitoring service Checkly. There are many services and products that enable you to monitor apps and sites for downtime and notify you about issues. Checkly positions itself as a tool that enables end-to-end monitoring with flexible scripting. So it doesn’t just make simple web requests to see if a site is still live. It allows customers to write custom scripts to implement complex user flows and thereby not just check if a site is reachable, but also test the entire stack with the front-end, database, authentication and much more. This focus allows them to build more targeted features for advanced use cases and thereby provides more value to customers compared to simpler competitors.
The popular email marketing service Campaign Monitor also started with very focused positioning. In the first few years they concentrated on providing the best possible campaign tool for web designers and design agencies. This focus allowed them to invest more in features designers needed, such as white labeling, reusable themes and live email previews. Once they established their market presence, they started to expand their customer base to capture a larger part of the overall market for newsletter tools.
These are just some examples of companies and products that have benefited from clear positioning. Of course there are also countless of examples of companies choosing not to have such clear positioning. There is nothing wrong with this and you can certainly be very successful even if you ignore these points. But more often than not positioning is a useful tool to improve focus on specific goals and customer needs, which increases your chance to build a successful software business.
Dennis Gurock is one of the founders of Testmo, a QA testing tool that unifies test case management with exploratory testing and test automation in one platform. He has been working on products that help teams improve software quality for more than 15 years.
If you want to find out how to do something, such as do a mail merge in Word or fix a leaky valve on a radiator, where do you look first? Probably Youtube. Videos are an excellent way to explain something. More bandwidth than text and more scaleable than a 1-to-1 demo.
I’ve done explainer videos for all 3 of my products. But I found it a real struggle. I would write a script and then try to read the script and do the screencast at the same time and do it all in one take. I would stutter and stumble and it would take multiple attempts. It took ages and results were passable at best. I got some better software to edit the stumbles out, so I didn’t have to do it in one go. But it still took me a fair few attempts and quite a bit of editing. It became one of my least favourite things to do and so I did less and less of it.
Recently, I came across these slides on video by Christian Genco. These and subsequent Twitter exchanges with Christian convinced me that I should stop being a perfectionist about video and just start cranking them out on the grounds that a ‘good enough’ video is better than no video at all (‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’) and I would get better at it over time. As Stalin supposedly said “Quantity has a quality all of it’s own”.
So I have ditched the scripts and the perfectionism and I’ve managed to create 13 short Easy Data Transform explainer videos in the last week or so. And I am getting faster at it and (hopefully) a bit more polished. I’m definitely not an expert on this (and probably never will be) but here are some tips I have picked up along the way:
Get some decent software. I use Camtasia on Windows and it seems pretty good.
Try to talk slower.
Try to sound upbeat (not easy if you are British and could voice double for Eeyore).
Try not to move the mouse and talk at the same time. This makes editing a lot easier. Some people like to do the audio and the visual separately, but that seems like too much hassle.
If you stumble, just take a deep breath, say it again and then edit the stumble out later.
Get a reasonable mic. I have a snowball mic on a cantilevered stand. I covered it with a thin cloth to try to reduce pops.
The occasional ‘um’ is fine.
Have a checklist of things to do for each video, so you don’t forget anything (such as disabling your phrase expander software or muting the phone).
I’m lucky to have a very quiet office, so I don’t have much background noise to contend with.
Using Camtasia I can easily add intos and outros, edit out stumbles and add various effects, such a mouse position highlighting and movement smoothing. I just File>Save as the previous project so that I don’t have to re-add the intro and outro. Unsurprisingly, Camtasia have lots of explainer videos. I wish there was a way to automatically ‘ripple delete’ any sections where there is no audio and no mouse movement (if there is, I haven’t found it). Some people recommend descript.com. It looks interesting, but I haven’t tried it.
I did an A/B test of recordings with my Senheiser headset mic against my Snowball mic and the consensus was that the headset was ok but the the Snowball mic sound quality was better.
Some people prefer to use synthetic voices, instead of their own voice. While these synthetic voices have improved a lot, they never sound quite right to me. Also it must be time consuming to type out all the text. Or you can pay to have a professional voiceover done, but this is surprisingly expensive (around $100 per minute, last time I checked) and almost certainly more time consuming than doing it yourself.
Some people aren’t confident about speaking on videos because they are not native speakers of that language and have an accent. Personally accents don’t bother me at all. In fact I like hearing English spoken with a foreign accent, as long as I can understand it. Also I think there is an authenticity to hearing a creator talk about their product in their own voice.
I’m not a big fan of music on explainer videos, so I don’t add any.
I let Youtube generate automatic captions for people that want them (which could be people in busy offices and on trains and planes, as well as the hearing impaired). They aren’t perfect, but they are good enough.
My videos are aimed at least as much at finding new users as helping existing users. So I make sure I research keyword terms (mostly in Google Adwords) before I decide which videos to make and what to title them. Currently I am targetting very specific keyword searches, such as How to convert CSV to Markdown. Easy Data Transform can do a lot more than just format conversion, but from an SEO point of view it is better to target the phrases that people are actually searching for.
I upload the videos as 1080P (1920 x 1080 pixels) on to the Easy Data Transform Youtube channel and onto my screencast.com account (which I pay a yearly fee for). I then embed the screencast.com videos on relevant easydatatransform.com pages using IFRAME embed codes created by screencast.com. I don’t use the Youtube videos on my website, because I don’t want people to be distracted by Youtube ads and ‘you may also like’ recommendations. They might be showing a competitor! I don’t host the videos on the website itsself as I worry that might slow down the website. I also link to the videos in screencast.com from my help documentation, as appropriate.
Some people like to embed video of themselves in screencasts, in the hope of making it more engaging. But personally I want people to concentrate on my software, rather than being distracted by the horror of my face. And not having to comb my hair or look smart was part of what got me into running my own software business.
In the next few months I will be checking my analytics to see how many views these videos get and whether they increase the time on page and reduce the bounce rate.
If you can spare a few seconds to go to my Youtube page and ‘like’ a video ot two or subscribe, that would be a big help!
Note that some of the above doesn’t apply when you are creating a demo video for your home page, rather than an explainer video. Your main demo video should be slick and polished.
This is a guest post from fellow software developer, Simon Kravis.
Few developers would choose their development platform on the merits of their respective Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) but it happens that applications developed in Windows need to be made available on the Mac platform.
There are many environments offering cross-platform (Mac, Windows and sometimes Android) functionality, but close inspection shows that they all have limitations. Visual Studio (the native Windows IDE) can produce apps which will run on a Mac using .Net Core – but only if they are command line apps on Windows. Other environments (like Xamarin) do support interfaces, but only involving simple controls like text boxes or drop-downs. There are other cross-platform IDEs (such as Qt) which offer better graphics support, but they are not cheap and the extent of their support is not evident. If you need functionality such as computer vision, there seems to be no alternative to creating a separate code base for the Mac. Once you start on this path it becomes obvious that Macs handle graphics (and interfaces) very differently from Windows.
Macs have evolved rather more than PCs over the decades: they abandoned their proprietary Mac operating system in favour of UNIX in 1999, adopting the NeXTSTEP platform created by NeXT. Apple originally used PowerPC chips, replacing them with Intel Core processors in 2006, and they are currently transitioning to RISC chips. The Mac NeXTSTEP programming language was Objective C, developed in the 1980s and this is still supported, although the modern Swift language was introduced in 2014, and the Xcode IDE appeared in 2003. Xcode is free, even for teams. It uses the Cocoa API, which is accessible from other environments. The current release (MacOS 13.0) supports both Objective-C and Swift and is also used for developing iPhone and iPad apps. Mac operating systems since Catalina (released in 2019) are 64-bit only. Xcode can only develop apps for Apple operating systems, notably iOS, which powers the iPhone. Most of the web questions and examples relate to iOS rather than MacOS. MacOS uses different frameworks from iOS, so some functions used in iOS are not available in MacOS, or have different parameters.
The Windows IDE (Visual Studio) dates from 1997, when it bundled together Visual Basic, Visual Fox Pro and Visual Source Safe and Visual C++. It has an open architecture based on plug-ins and supports 36 different programming languages, but the major ones are C#, VB.Net and C++. Visual Studio can develop apps for any platform via the .NetCore framework, but capability for non-Windows platforms is limited. The Community edition is free, and has almost all the functionality of paid versions.
Both Visual Studio and Xcode are highly complex applications. They both have graphical interface builders where controls are dragged from a library onto a form. Each application has a vocal supporters and detractors. My experience comes from about 5 years with Visual Studio developing C# applications. Before this I worked with Visual Basic for Applications in Microsoft Access, so I am well-versed in the Microsoft way of doing things.
Like most complex applications, Visual Studio and Xcode each have plenty of bugs, often producing completely unhelpful error messages. Reporting an Xcode bug through standard channels resulted in … nothing. Not even an automated message saying “Thank you for feedback. It will be used to improve future versions”. I haven’t even tried to report a Visual Studio bug, but I suspect that the much larger user base for Visual Studio will mean that workarounds are more readily available, even if the giant ship of Microsoft takes years to respond.
Moving to the Mac and Xcode for development was a shock as I found I didn’t know how to do the most basic things. String manipulation (used in most applications) in Objective C is highly verbose compared to C#. Google was invaluable for finding answers – mostly they were from Stack Overflow, but often from 10 or more years ago, sometimes from Apple Developer Forums. As Xcode has changed considerably since then, answers often had to be adjusted before they could be used. Another problem is that functionality once provided externally has since been incorporated into Cocoa, so attempts to find a current version of a component (or framework as they called in Cocoa) are often unsuccessful.
MacOS provides more native functionality than Windows. Features such as computer vision and PDF generation are included in MacOS, rather than requiring the use of 3rd party components, which may not as robust as desired, and may require a license for commercial use. However, documentation of MacOS functionality, if present at all, was rarely useful. A few times I asked questions on Stack Overflow which attracted the ire of the Mac gurus for either through having obvious (to them) answers or through not conforming to the forum guidelines (in their opinion). However, the integration of NuGet with Visual Studio provides easy access to the massive number of 3rd party libraries available for .Net on Windows.
The model-view-controller paradigm used on the Mac took some getting used to, as did the design of the main Xcode screen. Sometimes a useful display would disappear and I had difficulty in finding it how to bring it back. I often had to resort to retrieving earlier versions from the excellent Time Machine backup. Form design is similar on both platforms – dragging and dropping components from a library. Both Xcode and Visual Studio have bugs, as would be expected for such complex apps. Events from components are generated automatically in Windows, but have to be defined on the Mac (as Actions). References to the component you’ve added also need to be defined on the Mac (as Outlets) and are not a property of the component, whereas on Windows they are.
The Xcode environment provides only basic facilities from scratch: if you need to do something more sophisticated you’ll have to Google around to find out how. Once you know – it’s easy, but the learning curve for Xcode is much higher than for Visual Studio.
Rather than starting from scratch with the Mac version of my Caption Pro app, which uses local computer vision functionality to detect multiple photos, changes image dimensions and adds text to images, I found an existing open-source project on GitHub with similar basic functionality. This dated from 7 years ago and used Objective-C, so that was the language I opted for. An immediate handicap was that many of the answers I found to my questions used Swift in their example code, which is not interconvertible with Objective-C in the way that C# and VB.Net are. iOS applications for the iPhone (which are most common) use different frameworks from Mac apps, and routines in them sometimes have completely different syntax.
The user interfaces for the Mac and Windows versions look quite different, as shown below. There are some basic differences – menus appear separately to the application window on the Mac and are locked to the top of the screen, whereas Windows menus are part of the application screen. Toolbars offer access to common functionality on the Mac. Differences also arise from the fact the Mac application was adapted from existing code rather than created from scratch.
Open-source examples (often from GitHub) are useful, but rarely work out-of-the- box. Sometimes the modifications need are minor – like defining the development team- but sometimes it’s not possible to get them to build in a current version of Xcode.
Debugging on Xcode is frustrating – the call stack frequently contains assembler (which is perhaps why app performance tends to be better on Macs), and the debug variables window does not list all relevant variable values. Variable types may not be correct – Boolean values may appear as dates, and sometimes variables cannot even be evaluated by po (print out) statements. Printing out structure variables may show nothing. Despite the generally superior performance of Mac apps, building apps in Xcode appears to be much slower than in Visual Studio on similar vintage machines, and after code stops at a breakpoint, it may take a long time before the variables window is filled. Deployment of Mac apps can still be done on an ad-hoc basis, but you have to register as an Apple Developer to avoid blockages in installation arising from being an ‘untrusted source’. Bypassing these blockages is more than a matter of clicking “Install anyway” so it’s hard to avoid forking out US$100 per year for registration. Windows has similar blockages, which can be bypassed with a code-signing certificate. These certificates are available from many vendors, and are slightly cheaper than Apple developer registration, but the process of obtaining one may be very involved.
Ad-hoc deployment is somewhat easier on the Mac than on Windows, but the method of doing it via Archive generation is anything but obvious. Mac applications are actually disk images and applications keep all of relevant files in a folder. This makes uninstallation a matter of dragging the application icon into the recycle bin, a far simpler process than on Windows. dmg files are not recognized by IIS web servers (and may not be by Apache either), so unless the file type is registered, download from a web site will not be possible.
Apple pioneered the App Store for iPhones (it is the only way in which iPhone apps can be installed) and Mac apps can also be put there. Apple takes a commission of 30% (or 15% if you are a small company) and they review all apps before adding them. Passing the review process may be a lngthy process, as not all problems are detected in a review cycle. Fixing these issues and resubmitting may result in further problems coming to light. The review process may also be somewhat arbitrary. One App Store app presented an interface in German by default. English was available as Preferences option, but only after guessing where the Preferences option was located. App Store apps operate within a sandbox, which places restrictions on filesystem operations. Whether App Store deployment makes economic sense depends on the nature of the app, its market and price structure. Its advantages are that it targets the 16% of desktop users who use Macs, and streamlines installation (and payment, if applicable). The App Store supports ‘freemium’ pricing, where additional features are made available to paying users, but apps with free trial periods are shown as being free but with ‘in-app purchases’, which annoys some users.
Windows deployment can use .msi files, which have been around for decades, but are not easily installed by non-admin users. Self-extracting executables are more tractable, but 3rd party tools have to be used to create them. Windows 10 introduced Universal Windows Programs, which are easier to install and can be placed in the Microsoft Store, which operates in a similar way to the Apple App store, but for Windows desktops and tablets.
A key question which is very difficult to answer is “How long will it take me to convert my Windows app to run on a Mac?” Factors affecting this are app complexity, functionality and programmer skill. The time between starting work on the Mac app and first deploying it on the company web site was about 3 months, but the amount of time spent on the project each day varied between zero and 3 or 4 hours. If you are a paid resource, then the cost of a cross-platform IDE may be justified, but the requirement for local computer vision functionality added a great deal of complexity to my requirements, which is one reason why I opted for a separate code base. Substantial evaluation would be required before deciding if a cross-platform environment could support any required functionality.
Simon Kravis runs Aleka Consulting, a small software and consultancy company in Canberra, Australia specializing in information management and offering a number of software products. He has mainly developed scientific and engineering programs, starting in the era of paper tape.
I’m not too bothered about one ad being dissaproved. Especially during COVID, where almost no face-to-face events are happening anywhere in the world. But experience shows they will probably start disapproving many more over the next few weeks. I have clicked the link to appeal the disapproval. Hopefully, sometime in the next few weeks some under-paid, under-trained contractor, who might not speak great English, will re-approve the ad. But maybe not. Who can say in this opaque, Kafkaeaque, ‘computer says no’, outsourced world that we have collectively built for ourselves.
** Update 04-May-21 **
I appealed the dissaproval and the appeal failed. No reason given for why it is shocking. A second ad has been dissaproved for ‘shocking content’. I suspect many more will follow.
I started selling software online 16 years ago. Until this year I never had a forum for any of my products. I handled customer support for PerfectTablePlan and Hyper Plan by email and kept customers up-to-date with an opt-in email newsletter. But I rethought this position with my latest product, Easy Data Transform and started a forum at forum.easydatatransform.com in December 2020.
My ISP offered various forum software packages, but I really wanted Discourse, as I consider it head and shoulders above all the other forum software I have interacted with as a user (even if I find the badge system a bit patronising). I didn’t want the hassle of setting up and patching a Discourse server, so created the forum through www.communiteq.com (previously discoursehosting.com). It was suprisingly easy to set-up. And it gives the option to export everything, in case I want to part ways with them. The sheer number of options in Discourse are quite daunting, but I stuck with the defaults for the most part.
Some people use Facebook Groups for their product forums. Ugh. You have almost no control of such a forum. Facebook could even be showing ads for your competitors on your forums. Or they could just decide to shut you down and delete all the content. That is before we get on to the fact that Facebook make their money monetising hatred and abusing our privacy at an industrial scale. No thanks.
The advantages of a forum are:
Letting customers talk to each other, and post content helps to create a community around the product. Which, in turn, can add a lot of value to your product.
Customers can help each other with support questions. Sometimes they will answer before you are able to or will give a different perspective. Or even give a better answer.
If a customer asks a question that has already been asked, you can send them a link to the appropriate forum page.
It is a quick and easy channel to communicate with customers. I can post a link to a new snapshot release in a few minutes. This is much quicker than sending out an email newsletter. It is also more interactive as customers can respond on the forum and see each other’s responses.
A lively forum is ‘social proof’ that your product is worth buying.
A forum with lots of content should have a large SEO footprint.
The disadvantages of a forum are:
The time to maintain it. A forum that is broken or full of spam and unanswered questions is worse than no forum.
Disgruntled customers potentially airing their grievances in public.
The cost of the forum.
An empty forum looks bad.
Bad actors can be a pain. For example, people posting links to spam or competing products.
It probably only takes me 1-2 hours per week to post on the forum at present. Some of that is time I would have spent answering support emails. If that rises substantially then I may have to delegate it.
I try very hard to provide a good product, with good support and haven’t had any issues with negativity, so far. But I know from my experiences moderating Joel Spolsky’s Business of Software forum that moderating a busy forum can be tricky, time-consuming and emotionally draining.
The cost of the forum is currently around $20 per month, so pretty low. That may climb, but hopefully sales will be climbing as well.
I was a bit worried about whether the forum was going to look empty. I warned customers that the forum was an experiment and would be closed if there wasn’t enough activity, to manage their expectations. I also created a ‘sock puppet’ account and ‘seeded’ the forum with a few support questions that I had been previously asked by email (with the permission of those that asked) and then posted answers. But I only did this a handful of times and then the forum started to take off.
I have heard stories of people getting 1000+ spam posts a day on their forum. But I haven’t had any issues with bad actors, so far. I’m not sure how much of that is down to Discourse and how much of it is down to luck. But, no doubt issues will occur at some point.
I still have my product newsletter, which I send out every few weeks when there is a new production release.
Overall I am pretty happy with how the forum is going. Should you have a forum for your product? As always, it depends. I think you should consider it if:
Your customer base isn’t tiny.
You want to interact with your customers and get feedback. This might be less the case with mature products.
You have the time and energy to police and maintain it.
Your product is relatively open ended or complex. For example, if your product just checks whether website are up or down, there is probably a very limited amount you can discuss.
Microsoft Clarity is a new service that allows you to see, in detail, how visitors are interacting with your website. It includes:
heat maps, showing where visitors are clicking or touching or how far they are scrolling
recordings of visitor sessions, including mouse movement, clicks, touches and scrolling
People are clicking all over non-hyperlinked text. Hmm. Perhaps they somehow couldn’t the see the effing enormous blue button next to it? Notice that numbers are starred out to avoid personal information, such as credit card numbers.
You can also see how far visitors scroll down the page with scroll heatmaps:
So I can see that the buy button is appearing well above the fold.
You can also watch recodings of people interacting with the website, showing their mouse movements, clicks, touches and scrolling. This is where things start to feel a bit stalkerish. You don’t get any identifiable information on the visitor beyond their country, browser and their operating system and I’m ok with people watching me interact with their websites like this. But it still feels a bit voyeuristic. The results are also a bit strange. Some people just click all over the place and highlight random text (touches are tracked separately from clicks). There is a distinct danger that you could watch hours of sessions and come away without much actionable information.
You can filter the information in various ways, including by country or referring website. You can even filter to see sessions with ‘Rage clicks’ (where the user has clicked or tapped repeatedly in the same area).
Watching a few sessions with ‘rage clicks’ I could see that some people indeed seem completely unable to see the effing enormous blue ‘buy now’ button on the buy page. So I have also added a text hyperlink where most people are clicking in the text and will probably try changing the button colour. Perhaps to shocking pink!
Running Pingdom Website Speed Test on the Easy Data Transform home page, both with and without Clarity a few minutes apart, I can see that it had some effect on speed, but not too much.
Without Clarity script: 175.2kb of scripts, 7 script requests.
With Clarity script: 194.3kb of scripts, 9 script requests.
The load time was actually 0.1s faster with Clarity. That is probably just an anomaly.
I have disabled Clarity for now. But may reenable it after I have made some changes to the website, to see the effect of the changes. Overall I was quite impressed with the service and it was surprisingly easy to set-up. But the cynic in me does wonder what exactly Microsoft is getting out of it.
I wondered what it would look like if you took a body of text and then used it to generate new text, using Markov chains of different lengths. So I knocked up quick program to try it. ‘Bloviate’.
Bloviate analyses your source text to find every sequence of N characters and then works out the frequency of characters that come next.
For example, if you set N=3 and your source text contains the following character sequences staring with ‘the’:
‘the ‘, ‘then’, ‘they’, ‘the ‘
Then ‘the’ should be followed 50% of the time by a space, 25% of the time by an ‘n’ and 25% of the time by a ‘y’.
Bloviate then creates output text, starting with the first N characters of the source text and filling in the rest randomly using the same sequence frequencies as the source text.
Note that a character is a character to Bloviate. It treats upper and lower case as different characters, makes no attempt to differentiate between letters, punctuation and white space and does not attempt to clean up the source text. Which also means it works on any language.
Bloviate also tells you the average number of different characters following each unique sequence of N, which I will call F here. As F approaches 1.0 the output text becomes closer and closer to the input text.
Using ‘Goldilocks and the 3 bears’ as input:
If N=1 (F=7.05) the output is garbage. Albeit garbage with the same character pair frequency as the original.
On cre She sl s ramy raked cheais Bus ore than s sherd up m. ged. bend staireomest p!”Sof ckstirigrorr a ry ps.
” f waine tind s aso Sowa t antthee aime bupis stht stooomed pie k is beche p!
At N=3 (F=1.44) it looks close to English, but jibberish:
Once up and been sight,” she this timed. Pretty so soon, she second soft. She screame up and she screame hot!” cried the Mama bed the Papa been sleeping in the Papa bear
“Someone’s bear growl.
At N=5 (F=1.14) it starts to look like proper English, but semantically weird:
Once upon a time, so she went for a walked right,” she lay down into the kitchen, Goldilocks sat in the porridge from the three chair,” growled, “Someone’s been sitting my porridge and she tasted the door, and ran down the bedroom. Goldilocks woke up and she second bowl.
And it comes out with occasional gems such as:
“Someone’s been sitting my porridge,” said the bedroom.
At N=10 (F=1.03) it starts to become reasonably coherent:
Once upon a time, there was a little tired. So, she walked into the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.
At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge.
At N=15 (F=1.01) it starts to get pretty close to the original text, but doesn’t follow quite the same order:
Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.
At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.
At N=12 (F=1.07) the whole 680k characters of ‘Pride and prejudice’ produces:
It is a truth universally contradict it. Besides, there was a motive within her of goodwill which could not help saying:
“Oh, that my dear mother had more command over herself! She can have her own way.”
As she spoke she observed him looking at her earnest desire for their folly or their vice. He was fond of them.”
Obviously the source text is important. The Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics make nearly as much (or as little sense) at N=5 (F=1.08) as the original:
Is this to me, for me, to me
Mama, just a poor boy from this to me
Any way the truth
Mama, life? Is this time tomorrow
Carry on as if nothing all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh, didn’t mean to me, baby!
Just gotta leave me and lightning, very fright out, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my time to die?
At N=12 (F=1.05) 160k characters of Trump election speeches produces:
Hillary brought death and disaster to Iraq, Syria and Libya, she empowered Iran, and she unleashed ISIS. Now she wants to raise your taxes very substantially. Highest taxed nation in the world is a tenant of mine in Manhattan, so many great people. These are people that have been stolen, stolen by either very stupid politicians ask me the question, how are you going to get rid of all the emails?” “Yes, ma’am, they’re gonna stay in this country blind. My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government that will not protect its people is a government corruption at the State Department of Justice is trying as hard as they can to protect religious liberty;
Supply your own joke.
I knocked together Bloviate in C++/Qt in a couple of hours, so it is far from commercial quality. But it is fairly robust, runs on Windows and Mac and can rewrite the whole of ‘Pride and prejudice’ in a few seconds. The core of Bloviate is just a map of the frequency of characters mapped to the character sequence they follow:
QMap< QString, QMap< QChar, int > >
You can get the Windows binaries here (~8MB, should work from Windows 7 onwards).
You can get the Mac binaries here (~11MB, should work from macOS 10.12 onwards).
Note that the Bloviate executable is tiny compared to the Qt library files. I could have tried to reduce the size of the downloads, but I didn’t.
To use Bloviate just:
paste your source text in the left pane
set the sequence length
press the ‘Go >’ button
I included some source text files in the downloads.