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.