Tag Archives: Windows

How to add a dark theme to your Qt application

Dark themes are now available for Windows 10 and Mac and it is increasingly expected that desktop applications will offer a dark theme. Previously Qt support for dark themes was patchy. But I am happy to say that it now seems to work fine with Qt 5.12.2, and I have added dark themes to both Windows and Mac versions of my Easy Data Transform and Hyper Plan applications.

Easy Data Transform for Mac with a dark theme:

Easy Data Transform for Windows with a dark theme:

Hyper Plan for Mac with a dark theme:

Hyper Plan for Windows with a dark theme:

I haven’t decided yet whether to add a dark theme to PerfectTablePlan.

Adding dark themes was a fair amount of work. But a lot of that was scouring forums to work out how to integrate with macOS and Windows. Hopefully this article will mean you don’t have to duplicate that work.

Dark themes work a bit differently on Windows and Mac. On Windows changing the UI theme to dark won’t directly affect your Qt application. But you can use an application stylesheet to set the appearance. On Mac changing the UI theme to dark will automatically change your application palette, unless you explicitly block this in your Info.plist file (see below). On both platforms you will need to change any icons you have set to the appropriate light/dark version when the theme changes. Some of this may change in future as dark themes are more closely integrated into Qt on Windows and Mac.

macOS

You can add the following helper functions to a .mm (Objective-C) file:

#include "Mac.h"
#import <Cocoa/Cocoa.h>

bool macDarkThemeAvailable()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        return true;
    }
    else
    {
        return false;
    }
}

bool macIsInDarkTheme()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        auto appearance = [NSApp.effectiveAppearance bestMatchFromAppearancesWithNames:
                @[ NSAppearanceNameAqua, NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua ]];
        return [appearance isEqualToString:NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua];
    }
    return false;
}

void macSetToDarkTheme()
{
   // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/55925862/how-can-i-set-my-os-x-application-theme-in-code
   if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
   {
        [NSApp setAppearance:[NSAppearance appearanceNamed:NSAppearanceNameDarkAqua]];
   }
}

void macSetToLightTheme()
{
    // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/55925862/how-can-i-set-my-os-x-application-theme-in-code
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        [NSApp setAppearance:[NSAppearance appearanceNamed:NSAppearanceNameAqua]];
    }
}

void macSetToAutoTheme()
{
    if (__builtin_available(macOS 10.14, *))
    {
        [NSApp setAppearance:nil];
    }
}

The macSetToLightTheme() and macSetToDarkTheme() are useful if you want to give the user the option to ignore the OS theme. Call macSetToAutoTheme() to set it back to the default.

Corresponding header file:

#ifndef MAC_H
#define MAC_H

bool macDarkThemeAvailable();
bool macIsInDarkTheme();
void macSetToDarkTheme();
void macSetToLightTheme();
void macSetToAutoTheme();

#endif // MAC_H

You then need to add these files into your .pro file:

macx {
   ...
   HEADERS += Mac.h
   OBJECTIVE_SOURCES += Mac.mm
}

You can detect a change of theme by overriding changeEvent():

void MainWindow::changeEvent( QEvent* e )
{
#ifdef Q_OS_MACX
    if ( e->type() == QEvent::PaletteChange )
    {
        // update icons to appropriate theme
        ...
    }
#endif
    QMainWindow::changeEvent( e );
}

If you decide you *don’t* want to add a dark theme to your Mac app, the you should add the bold entry below to your Info.plist file:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd">
<plist version="1.0">
<dict>
    ...
    <key>NSRequiresAquaSystemAppearance</key>
    <true/>
</dict>
</plist>

This will then force it to be shown in a light theme, regardless of the theme the operating system is in.

Windows

To set a dark theme palette you can use a stylesheet:

QFile f( ":qdarkstyle/style.qss" );
if ( !f.exists() )
{
   qWarning() << "Unable to set dark stylesheet, file not found";
}
else
{
   f.open( QFile::ReadOnly | QFile::Text );
   QTextStream ts( &f );
   getApp()->setStyleSheet( ts.readAll() );
}

The stylesheet I used was a modified version of qdarkstyle from a few years ago.

To unset the stylesheet and return to a light theme just call:

getApp()->setStyleSheet( "" );

Alternatively you can do it by changing the application palette.

Windows helper functions:

bool windowsDarkThemeAvailable()
{
    // dark mode supported Windows 10 1809 10.0.17763 onward
    // https://stackoverflow.com/questions/53501268/win10-dark-theme-how-to-use-in-winapi
    if ( QOperatingSystemVersion::current().majorVersion() == 10 )
    {
        return QOperatingSystemVersion::current().microVersion() >= 17763;
    }
    else if ( QOperatingSystemVersion::current().majorVersion() > 10 )
    {
        return true;
    }
    else
    {
        return false;
    }
}

bool windowsIsInDarkTheme()
{
    QSettings settings( "HKEY_CURRENT_USER\\Software\\Microsoft\\Windows\\CurrentVersion\\Themes\\Personalize", QSettings::NativeFormat );
    return settings.value( "AppsUseLightTheme", 1 ).toInt() == 0;
}

Currently there seems to be no way to conect to a signal or event that shows the theme has changed in Windows. So I connected to a signal from a QTimer that fires every 5 seconds to check windowsIsInDarkTheme().

Icons

When the theme changes you potentially need to update any icons you have set, e.g. for the toolbar.

In a light theme you can usually set the active icons and let Qt calculate the corresponding disabled icons. This doesn’t work for a dark theme as you want the disabled icons to be darker than the enabled icons, rather than lighter. So you can either calculate the disabled icons programmatically or you can provide a set of disabled icons as well. I opted for the former.

Assuming your icons are set up as resources under :/icons/dark and :/icons/light you can do something like this:

QString getResourceName( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    return QString( ":/icons/%1/%2" ).arg( dark ? "dark" : "light" ).arg( iconName );
}

QPixmap getPixmapResource( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    QString resourceName = getResourceName( iconName, dark );
    QPixmap pixmap = QPixmap( resourceName );
    Q_ASSERT( !pixmap.isNull() );
    return pixmap;
}

QIcon getIconResource( const QString& iconName, bool dark )
{
    QIcon icon;
    QPixmap pixmap = getPixmapResource( iconName, dark );
    icon.addPixmap( pixmap );
    if ( dark )
    {
        // automatic disabled icon is no good for dark
        // paint transparent black to get disabled look
        QPainter p( &pixmap );
        p.fillRect( pixmap.rect(), QColor( 48, 47, 47, 128 ) );
        icon.addPixmap( pixmap, QIcon::Disabled );
    }
    return icon;
}

Then you can reset the icon for the appropriate theme with:

bool isDark()
{
#ifdef Q_OS_MACX
   return macIsInDarkTheme();
#else
   return windowsIsInDarkTheme();
#endif
}
...
myButton->setIcon( getIconResource( "my_icon.png", isDark() ) );
...

You may also be able to update icons through QIcon::setThemeName(). But I didn’t explore this in any detail.

Note that you probably don’t want the enabled icons to be pure white, as it is a bit too visually jarring against a dark theme.

Bloviate

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

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:

  1. paste your source text in the left pane
  2. set the sequence length
  3. press the ‘Go >’ button

I included some source text files in the downloads.

You can get the source for Bloviate here (~1MB).

It should build on Qt 4 or 5 and is licensed as creative commons. If you modify it, just give me an attribution and send me a link to anything interesting you come up with.

Getting Qt 5.9 working on Windows (eventually)

I have had Qt 5.5 and 5.6 installed on my development machines for some time. Now that I have purchased a new Mac development box (an iMac with a lickably beautiful 27″ screen) I thought it was a good time to update to a more recent version of Qt. I went for Qt 5.9, rather than Qt 5.10, as 5.9 has been designated as an LTS (long term support) release. Upgrading turned into a real chore. I am quickly writing it up here in the hope that it helps someone else, and as a reminder to myself a few years down the line.

I like to build Qt from source. Because then I know it was built using the same compiler, headers, SDK etc as I am using to build my product. And I have more control over how Qt is configured. Also I can patch the source and rebuild it, if I need to. But I have had problems building Qt on Mac before. So I decided to install the pre-built binaries on my new Mac. I installed the latest version of XCode and then the Q5.9.4 binaries. This was a couple of big downloads, but it all went pretty smoothly.

I successfully built Qt 5.5 from source on my Windows machine previously, so I decided to try that for Qt 5.9. I have Visual Studio 2010 installed. This isn’t supported for Qt 5.9.4, so I downloaded Visual Studio 2017. I unzipped the Qt source into C:\Qt\5.9.4, ran ‘x86 native tools command prompt for VS 2017’, made sure Python and Perl were in the path and then:

cd C:\Qt\5.9.4

set QTDIR=C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase

set PATH=%QTDIR%\bin;%PATH%

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

Note that you are told by the nmake script to do nmake install at the end of this. But it tells you somewhere in the Qt Windows documentation not to do this, unless you have set the prefix argument (confusing, I know)

The build failed part way through making qtwebengine. Something to do with a path being too long for Perl or Python (I forget). It seems to be a known problem. Odd as the root path was just C:\Qt\5.9.4. I don’t need qtwebengine at present, so I deleted everything and tried again with -skip qtwebengine:

configure -opensource -confirm-license -opengl desktop -skip qtwebengine -nomake tests -nomake examples -no-plugin-manifests -debug-and-release -platform win32-msvc -verbose

nmake

It seemed to complete ok this time. But using this version of Qt to build Hyper Plan I got an error:

Unknown module(s) in QT:svg

On further examination the SVG DLL  had been built, but hadn’t been copied to the C:\Qt\5.9.4\qtbase\bin folder. Similarly for a lot of the other Qt DLLs. I couldn’t find any obvious reason for this looking through logs, Stackoverflow and Googling. I could possibly do without the SVG functionality, but I wasn’t sure what else was broken. So I decided to give up on bulding from source on Windows as well.

I download the Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2017. This seemed to go ok, but then I discovered that I could only build a 64-bit application from these. No 32-bit version was available for Visual Studio 2017. Many of my customers are still on 32 bit versions of Windows. So I need to be able to ship my product as a 32 bit executable + DLLs[1].

So I uninstalled Visual Studio 2017 and installed Visual Studio 2015. I then got an error message about Visual Studio 2017 redistributables that I hadn’t uninstalled. So I had to uninstall those and run a repair install on Visual Studio 2015. That seemed to work ok. So then I download the 32-bit Qt 5.9.4 binaries for Visual Studio 2015. I had to download these into a different top level folder (C:\Qtb), so as not to risk wiping existing Qt installs that I had previously managed to build from source.

Eventually I managed to build Hyper Plan and PerfectTablePlan on Mac and Windows. What a palaver though! Qt is an amazing framework and I am very grateful for everyone who works on it. But I wish they would make it a bit easier to install and upgrade! Has anyone actually managed to get Qt 5.9 built from source on Windows?

[1] I don’t bother shipping a 64-bit executable on Windows as the 32-bit executable works fine on 64-bit versions of Windows (my software doesn’t require excessive amounts of memory). I only ship a 64-bit executable on macOS as almost no-one uses 32-bit versions of macOS now.

Promoting your software through 1-day sales and bundles

Hyper Plan, my visual planning software for Windows and Mac, has now been for sale for a bit less than 2 years. Given that I am (by choice) doing all the development, marketing and support for both Hyper Plan and my other product, PerfectTablePlan, I have had a limited amount of time to promote Hyper Plan. But Hyper Plan is in a  competitive market, where it is hard to get noticed using traditional promotional techniques such as SEO and PPC. So I have been experimenting with promotion via 1-day sales sites and bundles.

I did several promotions through both bitsdujour.com and macupdate.com promo. These were 50%-off sales for 1 day (sometimes extended for another day). The site takes 50% commission on the sale, so I only got $10 of my normal $40 ticket price. But I also got exposure to a whole new audience I wouldn’t normally reach.

I also included Hyper Plan in bundlehunt.com and macupdate.com software bundles. In these bundles customers purchased some 10 items of software at a big discount. The promotions lasted for a few weeks each. I am not at liberty to divulge how much I got for each licence, but a quick calculation based on the price of the bundles and the number of items in the bundle tells you that it was a lot less than $10!

My hopes related to sales sites and bundles were:

  1. A worthwhile amount additional sales revenue.
  2. Increased feedback, giving me more insight for improving the product.
  3. Making money further down the line from major upgrades (e.g. v1 to v2).
  4. That I wouldn’t be swamped in support emails from people who were paying me a lot less than the standard price.
  5. More word-of-mouth sales after the discount has finished.

On analysing the results, the first 4 turned out to be true.

I had previously tried promoting my PerfectTablePlan table planning software on bitsdujour.com, but the results were disappointing. It just wasn’t a good match for their audience. However Hyper Plan is a more general tool and it did a lot better. The bundles also sold in impressive volumes. The source of Hyper Plan sales revenues to date after commission (but not including upgrades) is show below.

sales-revenue-source

So the extra sales were certainly significant from a revenue point of view, bearing in mind that Hyper Plan is a relatively young and unknown product.

I also got some very useful feedback from the bitsdujour comments section.

I released v2 of Hyper Plan in March 2016. I have crunched the numbers to see how many v1 customers to date have paid for upgrades to v2.

percentage upgrades

I expected that the 1-day sale customers who had paid $20 for the initial licence would be less likely to pay $16 to upgrade to v2 than those who had hadn’t purchased at a heavy discount. I was surprised that the opposite turned out to be true. I don’t have a good theory why.

I don’t have any figures for bundle customer upgrades, as the bundles happened after v2 was released. Given that bundle purchasers probably only wanted a subset of the software in the bundle, I expect the upgrade percentages to be a lot lower than above.

I wasn’t swamped in support emails. In fact things were surprisingly quiet during the bundles, which makes me wonder how many people who purchased the bundle were interested in Hyper Plan.

There were no sustained jumps in traffic or sales after the 1-day sales or bundles ended.

Best of all, the 1-day sales and bundles don’t cost anything, apart from a modest amount of time to set-up.

I know some vendors promote these 1-day sales and bundles to existing customers. But I don’t understand why you would do that. The whole point of these channels is to reach new audiences. Also you risk annoying customers who have paid list price. If you already have an audience you can promote a sale to, then you don’t need 1-day sales sites or bundles. Just email them a discount voucher.

I had one complaint from an existing customer on a forum who had paid full price and then saw Hyper Plan in a 1-day sale. I offered to refund the difference back to them, but they didn’t take me up on it.

In conclusion, the sales and bundle sites brought in useful spikes of additional sales (especially when you include upgrades later on) and feedback, without a big jump in support burden. But they didn’t lead to a noticeable long-term increase in traffic or sales. Obviously every product is different. But if you have a product that needs exposure, isn’t too niche and doesn’t require a lot of support, it may be worth giving 1-day sales and bundles a try.

South West Bootstrappers meetup

I am organizing a regular meetup in Swindon (UK) for people who are running (or are interested in running) their own bootstrapped (i.e. not VC funded) software product business. Come along and talk shop with other aspiring and experienced bootstrappers. It doesn’t matter if you are developing for web, Windows, Mac or mobile.

The first meetup is on the evening of Tuesday 16th June 2015. You can find out more and RSVP at meetup.com/South-West-Bootstrappers/.

swindon meetup

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