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.