Dear Members Of The Press

Trying a slightly different self-deprecating approach to the press release today. We’ll see if it works. New PCalc updates for the iPhone and Mac OS X, all out today. The App Store is doing its usual trick of not listing new things on time, so at this point I’m relying strictly on press coverage to get some sales. Fingers crossed, please.

Continue reading “Dear Members Of The Press”

Twitkitteh: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

By now, hopefully most of you will have heard of Twitkitteh, our ground-breaking new iPhone Twitter client designed for cats.

I alluded to this being an experiment earlier, so I thought I should explain my actions to the whole class.

So, as many of you know, I’ve been working away on PCalc for the iPhone for pretty much the last year, with some modest success. It’s done a lot better than PCalc on the Mac ever did, and is quite highly rated in the iPhone world, if I say so myself. But it’s never had life-changing levels of sales, and to a certain extent that has to be expected. As an advanced scientific/engineering calculator, even a damn good one, it’s quite a niche product, so it’s never going to be a truly mass market item.

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the difficulties of marketing iPhone apps, and the different techniques I’ve tried over the past months to get the word out. And I’ve been looking at the software on the app store which has been a runaway success. The store has been likened to a gold rush – a number of people have become very rich, very quickly. But in the long term, the people who are going to be making the most money are the ones selling the shovels…

The single most annoying thing about the app store is not the opaque nature of the submission process, the Kafkaesque paperwork, or the complete lack of communication from Apple in response to time-critical problems. No, the single most annoying thing is the news story you see in the press every other week about some four-year-old who wrote an application in her basement in fifteen minutes and made a million dollars over the space of a weekend.

I think I have developed a facial tic due to the breathless press coverage about how everybody writing iPhone software is now living in a giant castle made from the finest diamonds. Amazingly enough, we’re not. Out of the many tens of thousands of developers, a few dozen or so have probably made a fortune, some are making a living, or at least close to one, and many many people aren’t making anything at all.

Ok, I realise there is a tiny element of bitter jealousy here. PCalc isn’t going to make me a million dollars overnight, and if I’m being honest, I would actually quite like a million dollars. While the artistic process is enjoyable, I am ultimately trying to run a business, just like Apple. I get a kick out of making decent products that people enjoy using, but I do also like being able to pay the bills. Call me crazy, I know.

But it does seem to be the case that what’s selling on a big scale on the store isn’t the $9.99 application, the one that actually does something useful, but it’s the 99c toy that people buy to show off their phone to their friends and use for about a week before moving onto something else. Surely, if you wrote one of them, you’ll get rich? I mean, the platform might suffer a little, but it’s a license to print money, right?

I figured, fine, let’s actually sit down and try writing something silly and see what happens. I decided I would give myself a couple of weeks to design and implement a small app, and I would try and make the most populist thing I could possibly think of.

Now, here’s where you can question my true motives. Was I:

  • a) darkly satirizing the current state of iPhone development
  • b) doing a serious investigation into the marketing and sales of a mass market application
  • c) trying to make a million dollars myself
  • d) all of the above

I think it’s (d) if I’m really honest. I certainly started with mostly (a) and (b) in my head, but once I was working on it, I did start to believe the hype a little bit. I figured I would write something to point out the absurdities of the app store, and worst case, if it outsold PCalc a hundred to one and I made a fortune, I could point to that as proof of my theories while relaxing on a warm bed of money.

So, I thought about it a little bit and, a few nights later, when I was sleeping – and this is the honest truth, I swear – I had a vivid dream about having been contracted to write iPhone software for cats. I can’t remember if it was the cats themselves who were the clients, but the first thing they wanted me to write was a Twitter app.

I woke up at 3:30AM and thought to myself, that’s completely absurd. Then I thought to myself, that’s completely brilliant. I had the name, product design, and everything, just handed to me on a plate by my deranged subconscious. I got up, registered the domain name, scribbled some design notes down in a BBEdit file, and went back to bed.

microblogging for your cat
featuring a multipaw interface
i has a twitter
cat face / blue feather icon
random lolcat style tweets
long tail
popup keyboard style from pcalc?
lolspeak instructions
100s of random kitteh phrases

The genius I thought was in the idea. A simple pitch of “it’s a twitter application for cats”. People’s reaction to that ranged from thinking I’d gone insane to thinking it was the best thing they’d ever heard of. I was confident I was onto a winner.

I tweeted a bit about having had a great idea for the best iPhone app ever, and got many people rather excited. This was exactly the kind of thing the mainstream media would pick up on though I thought. Either they would say it was evidence of the decline of western civilisation, or they would say it was brilliant, but either way there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

So, let’s treat this as a real contract, and write the thing. I thought about how I would design such an app, I even tested it on a real cat. Yes, my tongue was firmly in my cheek, but I did want to do it properly and write a quality product. I spent a long time on it over those weeks, to get everything done within my time limit. I generally suck at graphics, so it took me about eight hours in Photoshop, and my sister-in-law’s cat, to come up with a decent icon.

Of course, the blue feather is a reference to Twitterific. Sorry Craig, it was in the dream.

Thankfully, the hardest part on a technical level – the networking code that would talk to Twitter – was already written. Matt Gemmell’s excellent open source MGTwitterEngine did everything I needed. It’s used by Twitterific amongst other things too. And, as a bonus, it’s also written in Scotland.

I certainly had fun writing the tweets – roping in my friends and family to brainstorm ideas of what a cat would say, and translating that into lolspeak. There are quite a few knowing references to pop culture, long tails, and blue birds thrown in for good measure. I think it’s fair to say I got a bit carried away, especially with the animating mice and the sound effects.

A few weeks later, I showed off the finished app to a limited set of people. Opinion ranged from quiet bemusement to excited registering of multiple Twitter accounts. Matt Gemmell wrote to me in an IM:

You’re standing on a small hill, looking out at the landscape around. Behind you, there’s a lush and verdant valley with a shining river running through it. That valley symbolises James Thomson, creator of the venerable and much-loved DragThing, former Finder team engineer, and subject of quiet respect in the community.

Ahead is a chasm, filled with the corpses of kittens, then a blasted wasteland with strange, floating captions in a narrow, white sans-serif  typeface.

In this darker land ahead, you are the Twitkitteh guy, and parents warn children away from you at the same time as they teach their kids lessons like always using the proper crossing when going to the shops.

I want you to take stock for a moment, because you’ll never stand at this boundary again.

Seriously though, I’m looking forward to it.

I figured if it could get that kind of reaction, I must be doing something right.

And so, last Monday, it was submitted to the App Store.


Let There Be Lite

Ok, it’s been exactly a month since the release of PCalc Lite and I figured I should share my findings with y’all. Sorry, I’m not entirely sure why I used the phrase “y’all” there, but let’s roll with it.

The executive summary is that sales of the full PCalc just about doubled over the same period, and we’re seeing sales run at around 1-2% of the downloads of the free version.

Here’s a pretty graph:

Basically, the left side of the graph is the 1.2 release, and the subsequent month, whereas the right side is the 1.3 release (with added PCalc Lite) and the subsequent month. Yes, I’m not giving you my exact sales figures.

We didn’t get as much publicity on the 1.3, so the initial sales spike wasn’t as high unfortunately, but the month itself was a lot flatter, without the boom and bust we’ve seen on previous releases.

It’s still early days of course, but it looks like having a free version so people can try out the basics certainly helps. And I think I picked the functionality for PCalc Lite reasonably well. It’s pretty good for a free app, but not so useful that it’s hurting our sales, which was my main fear.

Anecdotally, I did have quite a few people tell me that they’d gone ahead and bought the full version on the strength of playing with the free one.

Last time I checked, PCalc Lite was the most popular calculator on the US App Store. Downloads of the free one are falling off, perhaps as it gets further away from the front of the listings, but we’ll see what happens with 1.4 which should be due very shortly. 

So, some key points I think:

  • Make a lite version of your app available. Potential customers of your app will be very happy that they can try out at least some of it before buying. You’re really saying “this is the quality of software I make, buy the full version with confidence that you’re not about to waste your money”.
  • Make the lite version actually useful in its own right. If it’s useful and doesn’t annoy people constantly about the full version, people will download it and tell their friends. Maybe only a small percentage of them will buy the full version, but if the original number is big enough, that’s good.
  • Why not go and download a copy of PCalc Lite 🙂

I consider this a success anyway.

Carving Statues Of Elephants

Ok, since it’s the festive season, I’ll do the good news first before ranting a bit:

  1. You can now download PCalc Lite, a free and only-slightly-less-awesome version of PCalc for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It’s available on the App Store here.
  2. Despite being a new app, was approved by Apple in a mere three days from submission to being on the store.

And the bad news:

  1. Despite being a new app, the release date was set to the day of submission, the 16th, not the day it actually turned up on the store. So, it’s already on page 3 of Utilities and won’t get the “new app bump”. I don’t know if the release date trick works for new apps, but I’ve given it a try.
  2. PCalc 1.3, an update to an existing app, is nowhere to be seen, lost in the submission queue. Well, so much for publicising them together.
  3. It’s almost impossible to plan a product release in advance with the App Store. I mean, don’t get me wrong, a three-day turnaround on a new app submission is really good to see. It’s just that it could have easily turned up next year. I was taken by surprise this morning and was scrambling to update the website at 8am.

Ok, let’s back up a little bit and talk about PCalc Lite. My PR spiel for the release says:

Available for a limited time only, PCalc Lite is a fully functional and free taste of our popular scientific calculator for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

It includes an optional RPN mode, multiple undo and redo, unit conversions and constants, as well as two stylish themes and our highly praised design.

If you like what you see, the full version has many more settings and themes, a paper tape, engineering and scientific notation, and full support for hexadecimal, octal and binary calculations.

In the continuing absence of demos or trial periods in the App Store, the idea behind PCalc Lite is to provide something useful and free that’s better than the Apple calculator, but which will also drive interest in our full version. PCalc Lite is a great calculator, but PCalc is even better!

So yes, it’s basically an advert for PCalc, but it’s actually a pretty solid calculator in its own right and miles better than the default Apple one. And did I mention it was free? So, everybody should go and download it. I can say it’s awesome all I like, but just go try it and see what you think yourself.

This is of course, another in a long line of big marketing experiments. I’ve given away something significant with the hope of making more money by doing so. The real question is, have I got the right balance between removing functionality and making it useful, so it doesn’t completely kill sales of the full version?

As the old line goes:

How do you carve a statue of an elephant? Start with a block of marble, and remove everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.

So, I took PCalc and chipped away at all the features. I decided early on to keep the RPN mode which is probably the most dangerous decision. It’s something that makes it quite distinct from the Apple calculator, but it’s also an important selling point to a lot of people. I figured if I took it out, people might say that there’s no reason to download PCalc Lite over the Apple calculator in terms of features. I’d disagree politely, of course. But some of my beta testers expressed the concern that with the RPN mode in there, PCalc Lite does everything they need and they wouldn’t need to buy the full version.

All of the other options are gone, with the exception of the “easier to read digits” option and two themes. I made a new “Twilight” theme to be the default for PCalc Lite, mainly because I needed to create a distinct new icon for it, and wanted them to match. Attention to detail and all that. In the end, I ultimately added the theme as an option in the full version of 1.3 as well, as it looks pretty sweet.

I also trimmed the constants and conversions down by half, taking out all but the basics, and adding a small polite note in those sections saying you can get more in the full version.

Hex, octal and binary modes gone. Tape and stack / register display gone. Two-line display gone. Engineering and scientific notation gone. Even thousands separators. I took a positively Jobsian approach to the removal of options and features.

But the core user interface is all intact, so you should be able to get the feel of the application which I think is very important. Like the way undo and redo is implemented with swipes on the LCD, or the way the parentheses display works. The subtle details that make the difference, or so I hope.

Many of my testers commented that I should keep all the features in there, but if you tapped on anything outside of the Lite stuff, I should throw up an annoying alert saying that it’s only available in the full version.

That’s tempting, but I don’t think Apple would allow it into the store. As it is, I thought I was sailing close to the wind, given that @chockenberry had already told me about the problems they’d had with the free version of Twitterific. I think it might be different for PCalc because my Lite version isn’t ad-supported, it’s just plain free. Or I might have just been lucky.

But it was important to me to make something that was a complete product in its own right, with some gentle upselling to the full version. I’m hoping that decision will make PCalc Lite very popular, perhaps even Top 100 popular in the free apps section if I’m lucky, and I’ll make the sales up due to the sheer number of people exposed to the wholesome PCalc goodness.

I’ve said it’s only available for a limited time, but to be honest, that depends on how popular it is, and what it does for sales. If sales nose-dive from the get go, it’s going to be pretty darn limited. If sales go up significantly, then I don’t see any reason to remove it.

So, today will be spent promoting PCalc Lite, trying to give it a good start in life, and hoping this form of altruistic capitalism pays off. Wish me luck!


Yes, the release date trick works even for new apps! Currently PCalc Lite is on the front page of the new releases in the Utilities section of the iPhone store, though the iTunes view hasn’t updated yet. I expect it will as data gets pushed out to the servers. Ok, now to try and get some press coverage…

UPDATE 2 – 8pm GMT

Oh, App Store, you are so loveably unpredictable! I just got an email there saying that the full PCalc 1.3 release is also now approved and “Ready for Sale”. I’ve never had one of those emails at this time of day before. I wonder if somebody in Apple reads this blog?

Anyway, it’s not appeared on any of the stores as yet, but presumably it will be there soon. I’ll wait before updating though.

Of course, I sent out all the PCalc Lite PR emails about four hours ago, and Macworld has run a story at least so far. I can’t really send out another one now. Will assess the situation tomorrow I think…

Go Towards The Lite

Apologies for my silence over the last few weeks gentle reader, I caught the man-flu that’s going around these parts, and haven’t felt up to much until now. Two weeks ago, I started working on a PCalc 3.4 release, and in less than a day of highly productive work I had ported the themes from the iPhone version back to the Mac. 24 hours later had a temperature of 39°C and I haven’t touched the code since… That’ll teach me. At the moment, I just have the tail end of a cold, so it’s back to work.

Anyway, one of the things I was mulling over in my feverish state was the possibility of doing a free “Lite” version of PCalc for iPhone.

In the continuing absence of demos or trial periods, I was thinking I should create something useful to give people a taste of the full awesome PCalc experience and encourage them to buy it, but not quite so full or as awesome as to cannibalise our sales. The App Store is filling up with such little tastes at the moment, so it certainly qualifies as a trend. And I’ve heard at least some anecdotal evidence from other developers that lite versions can increase sales.

This is more a “pre-mortem” rather than post – I haven’t started working on it yet, but I thought I’d encourage some debate before I do.

There are two big questions really. The obvious one is “what functionality should I remove?” and the slightly less obvious one is “what will Apple actually let me put in the store?”.

Erica Sadun wrote a nice guide on Ars recently entitled “App Store lessons: creating demos for fun and profit“. She says:

“Demos help sell products for very little overhead. Developers need only cut down their feature set, change a few options and ship the result out to App Store. From a financial point of view, demos are made of win.”

But I’ve also been hearing from illustrious people like Craig Hockenberry that Apple is insisting that “free and paid versions have to be feature equivalent” and that explicit upselling language isn’t allowed. The Iconfactory has a free ad-supported version of Twitterific as well as a premium version at $9.99. They are pretty much identical in terms of functionality, with the exception of no adverts in the premium version and an additional theme. Apparently that’s all Apple would allow them to do.

So which is it? Clearly, I can’t just produce a feature equivalent version of PCalc and give it away for free. Ed Voas wryly suggested I just remove the “9” button, which isn’t actually a bad idea in terms of letting people try everything without giving away the farm, but I suspect that Apple wouldn’t find it quite so droll. 

So far, I haven’t been able to track down a definitive policy statement from Apple on the matter. It’s easy enough for a game – you just include the first couple of levels and get people wanting to play more. And you can do that while staying within the (apparently unwritten) guidelines.

So what is PCalc Lite going to be then?

I could ship it with some very basic layouts for a start – remove functionality that way. If you think of a layout as a game level, that kind of works. I’ll lose the binary, octal and hex, some of the fancier scientific stuff.

Likewise with the themes – just ship with the one, probably the original “Blue Sun” one. Most people seem to prefer the fancier coloured ones, so it’s a chance to convince people to upgrade there. Likewise, get rid of the LCD colours, and the two-line display option.

Conversions and constants, also should go – or perhaps just include one or two as a demonstration.

I should probably keep the RPN mode though, that means I’ll have something to offer over the built in calculator.

So yes, I think the idea should be to provide a very simple RPN calculator that hints at what you will get with the full version of PCalc, but is still quite useful in its own right. And if it proves to be really popular at the expense of sales, I guess I can always kill it!

Any thoughts, please add them below.

Bonus trivia, Apple fact fans. I made a DragThing Lite many moons ago, back in the days when I was working at Apple. I was asked by management to put one together – to potentially ship as part of Mac OS 8.5 – when it didn’t look like the in-house app switcher would be ready in time. I made a quick prototype over a weekend, but in the end I think I remember the development time was extended for the OS in general and it wasn’t needed. So I just shipped the Lite version myself with DragThing 2. But yeah, DragThing was nearly part of the OS.

A PCalc 1.2 Post-Mortem? Not Yet

Okay, it’s a little early for another post-mortem, it’s only been out just over 24 hours. But day one sales of PCalc 1.2 were ten times that of PCalc 1.1 – which was arguably a bigger deal in terms of new features than the admittedly cool additions of 1.2.

So far, press coverage has still been somewhat limited despite my plea, although Mr Snell and Mr Gruber were most kind yesterday. Early days, anyway.

More analysis soon, but I’d have to conclude that getting PCalc onto the front of the Utilities section on the store was clearly very important.

A PCalc 1.2 Press Release

Dear Member of the Press,
I know what you are thinking, “Not another iPhone press release, and for a calculator at that!”. But, please bear with me for just five minutes to hear my impassioned plea.
This isn’t some throwaway application I put together in a weekend – it’s an application that’s had over six months of solid development love over five releases, itself built on over sixteen years of coding. It currently has over sixty 5-star customer reviews on the App Store, and thousands of die-hard fans on both the iPhone and the Mac.
So, yes, it’s a calculator. But it’s not just another calculator.
I think we got off to a bad start last time with version 1.1. It was my fault entirely. I came out with this big release I’d spent months on, sent out my press releases, and not a soul ran a story with the exception of that nice Mr Gruber fellow. Sales were quite poor and we both said some things we regretted in the morning.
But I understand, don’t worry. You’re tired of the deluge of iPhone press releases, and everything you see just starts to look the same after a while. I didn’t do anything to make it an interesting read and, let’s face it, I’m kind of fighting a losing battle with a calculator which – I’ll be the first to admit – is next to the flashlights and to-do list apps in terms of reaching saturation point on the store.
So here’s the thing. Send me your iPhone’s device ID (*) and I’ll send you back a copy of PCalc 1.2. Have a play around with it and if you don’t think it’s the best app you’ve ever used on the phone then that’s cool. But if you like it, how about some coverage? We can put the whole 1.1 incident behind us, and move on together.
(*) The “Ad Hoc Helper” app on the store is a good way of finding it.
PS, I nearly forgot, here’s the press release:
TLA Systems Ltd are pleased to announce another significant new release of their advanced calculator PCalc for the iPhone. 
It’s available to download today from the App Store. Review copies are available on request.   

What’s New?
Version 1.2 includes an optional two-line display for use with the RPN mode, so you can see the first two items on the RPN stack. This was actually the number one feature request after the initial release of PCalc on the iPhone, and we’re happy to add it for all the engineers out there.
There are two new calculator themes included too – “Seventy Three” a sleek dark retro style, and “Rough Draft” a fun drawn blueprint look which will be rather familiar to DragThing users.
The full list of changes is here:   


Also, for those people who want to see what goes on behind the screenshots, our brand new developer blog is available here:
Here’s a shot of the two-line display, complete with the new “Seventy Three” theme:
More Information   

PCalc for iPhone is available to buy today at $9.99 from the iTunes Application Store at the following link:


More information and screenshots are available at:


Thank you for your interest.

Predictably Unpredictable

So, PCalc 1.2 was submitted to the App Store last Thursday, and the Apple approval process before it shows up on the store has taken exactly six days for the last four releases. So, I figured it would appear on the store around Wednesday this week. Plenty of time to write some PR and plan my marketing strategy then.

Apparently not.

Woke up this morning to find the “Ready for Sale” email from Apple sitting smiling in my inbox. So, four days from submission to being on the store this time, and that included a weekend.

Given that developers have been so unhappy about how long the submission process takes, it seems somewhat churlish to complain about the process getting faster, but it’s still annoyingly unpredictable. At least it didn’t hit on a Sunday morning I guess.

I think Apple should at least give you an ETA when you submit something to the store, and perhaps daily updates as the submission queue changes. It would be nice to get a heads-up about when your software is going to be available to the public.

I’m currently scrambling to update the website with the 1.2 information. I’ve also submitted new screenshots via iTunes Connect and I’ve done the “Availability Trick” to hopefully move PCalc onto the front page of Utilities on the store. So far the store hasn’t updated with any of my changes, but fingers crossed that will happen soon and I can do a bit better from this release than I did with 1.1.

I’ll send out my PR this afternoon, as soon as I’ve actually written it. Wish me luck!


Ok, App Store has updated with metadata changes, and we are currently the second app listed on the front page of Utilities on the store on iTunes. Excellent! Oddly though, still not listed on front page of the phone store. I’ve seen changes happen on one before the other, so it might just be lag between different servers. We’ll see. Anyway, stage one completed – PCalc is up and visible on the store.


PCalc now listed as the first app in the Utilities section on the phone store. Result! Now all I need is to get some PR out this afternoon and we’ll see what difference this all makes to sales today. Feeling good…

The App Store Crunch

Interesting article by Andy Finnell about iPhone app pricing, and how the current race to 99c isn’t sustainable.

PCalc started out at $9.99, and is still at $9.99, because I think that’s a fair price for the amount of effort I’m putting into it. It’s actually a little on the cheap side even, but I figure I can write off a good chunk of time spent learning the iPhone so I can hit the ground running for my next app. Or just sell my consultancy services to the highest bidder of course…

Having said that, I did also laugh at this satirical article on iPhone Footprint that references PCalc:

Apple has done it again. Recently the company announced that it has become the number one distributor of flashlight and calculator applications through the App Store. Scott Forstall, Senior Vice President of iPhone software said that 20 million flashlight and calculator applications were downloaded in October, 2008. He termed this as a rare feat for the Company.

Well played sir, well played.

Attack Of The Clones

One neat Twitter trick to try is using RSS feeds with to track the use of keywords that are important to you. For example, I’ve got feeds on “DragThing” and “PCalc“, and also on “@jamesthomson” to catch any tweets I miss that reference me.

And yes, @jamesthomson is me – feel free to follow me to boost my vast programmer ego even further.

Anyway, first thing this morning as I was heading out to the gym, Twitter flagged up the following tweet by @MDMstudios:

Xcode has been crazy all day. At least we got PCalc ( the calculator ) to Apple finally.

“What? What?! WHAT!?!” I said, channelling an alarmed David Tennant. “I’m just about to submit my 1.2 release today, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t actually do it yet…” Reading on, it looks like these folk have written a programmer’s calculator for the iPhone, called it PCalc, and just submitted it to the App Store.

OK… Well, that’s going to be interesting… It was only a month or two ago, somebody said they were working on a new application for Windows called DragThing and I had to send them a little note.

I’ve sent a polite email to the first address I found, and hopefully I can convince them nicely that pulling the submission and renaming it to something else might be best for both of us, without any threats of lawyerly smiting with trademarks required. Luckily, I caught it at the submission stage, rather than having it appear on the store itself.

Anyway, it got me thinking – I wonder if the Apple submission process actually checks such things? Could I just make a new app, call it, say, Twitterific and submit it and get it onto the store. Yes, of course The Iconfactory have a trademark on the name, and there would be legal recourse, but would Apple reject it before it reached the store?

Or does Apple consider that’s not their job, and will leave it to the lawyers to sort out afterwards? I wonder.

Hopefully there will be a reasonable ending to this particular story anyway. Some further investigation suggests that the developer in question is actually 14. Which depressingly means that they are younger than some of the code in PCalc, which I started writing in 1992 when I was at university…


I just got an email back from them, and they are going to change the name, and apologised for any trouble. Phew!