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The Price of Free

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First off, I realize that I'm a little late to blog about this, but this past weekend I've been in the process of moving. I'll certainly be posting more on that in the not-too-distant future, but suffice it to say that I've been a little busy these past couple days...

Anyway, last week, I was thrilled to hear from my friend Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software that Leo Laporte singled out and mentioned Pukka on MacBreak Weekly, his weekly podcast, as a Pick of the Week. Ever since I learned that both Leo and productivity geek and frequent show guest Merlin Mann had used Pukka, I was hoping that they would mention it. A few months ago, my friend Jim alerted me to the fact that Pukka's posting sound effect appeared in the middle of a MacBreak Weekly episode (Episode 65, about 10:20 into the show) but no mention was made of Pukka -- though obviously someone was using it during the show! That's why in this past week's episode, when Leo and the guys spent a good chunk of time talking about Pukka, I was really excited! I found the spot in the show (Episode 82, about 1:36:18 into the show) and my wife and I sat down to listen.

On the whole, I was quite happy with the feedback -- after all, Leo said "I love Pukka" and "Pukka is simple -- it just does what it does." But pretty quickly, though the feedback about the app never went negative, I heard something that made both my wife and I take pause -- "They shouldn't charge for it, but they do."

I'm not going to rehash arguments for and against this, as Daniel wrote eloquently on this and received 87 comments on his blog post before he closed commenting. I really wanted to get my word in there, but the time for that conversation has passed (however, you should still go over there and read both Daniel's excellent analysis as well as the many thoughtful comments if this is a topic of interest for you.) Other folks also got their say on their own blog posts: Michael McCracken, Tom Armitage, Matt Johnston, and Baron VC, for starters.

One of the commenter's thoughts, about Pukka being no more than two hours of work, is ludicrous enough that I'm not even going to address it save mentioning a few nuggets of Pukka's programming that could keep you busy for more than a couple hours each:

  • AppleScript support
  • Spotlight support with Core Data
  • Scalability testing on up to 25,000 bookmarks
  • Custom managed object deletion policy in Core Data (Hint: when deleting a bookmark, only delete each of its tags if it was the last bookmark for that tag, and when deleting a tag, only allow deletion if all of its bookmarks are deleted, but maintain a consistent and responsive data set during these transactions. Also, see above re: 25,000 bookmarks.)
  • Sparkle support: Cocoa code, but also a distribution and appcast feed update process.
  • Working out fun API issues like inconsistency and client throttling.
  • Trying to implement dockless mode while maintaining future compatibility with Leopard code signing. Also, taking the time to blog publicly about it as a way to help other programmers as well as to open your own thinking to analysis & criticism by others.
  • Dealing with a Leopard API instability that is core to your application. Also, taking the time to blog publicly about it for your users and for other developers.
  • Doing the above with an installed user base on Tiger and Leopard.
  • Doing the above, while providing what I feel is an above average level of support, for two years.

I'll leave that argument as is -- blame the above list on a lot of driving in the past few days while thinking about that specific comment ;-)

It's true, at first glance, Pukka may not look sexy (it doesn't produce smoke effects, after all) and may seem to be nothing but a simple form-like frontend to a free, public service, but as many kind commenters on the above-mentioned blogs have pointed out, and as Leo himself summarized when he said, "It doesn't do much -- I just love it!", Pukka represents hours and hours of thought and planning and attention to the user experience -- that is what is king in the Mac software business. Mac software for me is like a good relationship -- the more time you invest in the software, the more richly you will be rewarded with little surprises and delights along the way. You can see the kernel of this idea in my first post here over two years ago:

I set out to write a program that does the actual posting and I had it working that night. It grew from there as I lovingly tweaked it and worked with beta testers to make it better. I hope you like it. What’s more, I hope that you’ll support my efforts so that I can keep the creative juices flowing.

I followed that up a few months later when I started charging for Pukka:

If you look at my blogroll, you’ll see over 30 Mac developers or products that I admire, nearly all of which I use and have paid for, if they charge. I’ve easily spent several hundred dollars on Mac shareware [...] The Mac has shown me what it has undoubtedly shown you — that software is art, and Mac users have deeper loyalties than price points.

On the topic of pricing, it's true that there is some voodoo to determining the price of a piece of software that you've created, and I say that even though I do not make my entire living off of Mac software (though I will point out that Pukka enabled me to bootstrap my own business, including starting out on my own and enabling me to attend developer conferences and meet like-minded entrepreneurs.) I don't typically like to quote the same blog when discussing two different points, but again Daniel Jalkut nails this topic in his post The Price is Wrong from several years ago (there's a reason Daniel attracted a Daring Fireball link and 87 commenters on his latest post.)

I'm all on board with free software if it works for the developer -- in fact, the day the MacBreak Weekly episode was published, I released a little freeware application called Snarf for icon designers. I maintain and build Drupal modules. And before that, I released a number of open source programs like Ticketsmith, spliff, and purgeimap.

But for me, it all comes down to this: what will the market support for an application that, for the right user, adds at least that amount of value to their workday? For me, right now, that's what I'm charging for Pukka. I hope that you agree, but if not, I fully support your right to make a better application, at a price point that works for you, or to use the free services that Pukka works with yourself directly. And I'll even help you out if I can, because others have certainly helped me along the way.

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Hear, hear! I would buy your software in a second if I didn't have to buy a new computer to run it first...

I'm confused by people saying it should be free based on the fact that a bookmarklet does the same thing. It doesn't. Try to manage multiple bookmarks in multiple delicious accounts for a few days. You gladly pay for the time it saves you. Posting bookmarks should be easy and thankfully Pukka keeps it that way.

I've been using Pukka for ages. It does one thing and does it beautifully. Thank you.

As a writer (but not a software developer) I'd like to contribute this: the simpler a piece of writing is, and the easier it is to read, the more likely it is that it was harder to write and took longer to put together. The more work the writer puts in, the less the reader needs to do.

I'd bet that it's the same with software.

I happily pay for Pukka and until recently it's done the job wonderfully. For the past couple weeks though only about one in twenty times will it post to del.icio.us. The other 19 I get the "There was a connection problem!" message even though I'm on a perfectly good connection. Is there an update coming soon? An error log we could send you? Thanks.

@David: I'll send you an email and we'll work out the issue -- not a known one, but could be specific to your account or some bookmarks you have tried.

I think it morbidly fascinating that the person who left the comment about Pukka being "only a couple of hours of work" is making an error of at least two, more likely three, orders of magnitude. Not only that, he dares complain about somehow being "ripped off" because of the price point - as if anybody but Justin had a right to price Justin's creative work!

You'd think that at some point common sense would kick in. He has no obligation to buy if the price point isn't suitable for him. And if it's indeed "only a couple of hours of work" surely there'd be a lot of free, equivalent-quality Pukka clones around, making it moot to complain about Pukka in the first place? A very bad case of entitlement syndrome, I'd say.

@Miraz: Indeed! I've certainly found Pascal's quip "if I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter" to be equivalently true in programming. The best writing is rewriting, and the best coding is refactoring.

I'm running into the same "there was a connection problem" issue. Right before and after it occurs, I can edit my del.icio.us entries via a browser, so my connection seems to be fine and del.icio.us is up. It happened yesterday morning, then went away, and now is happening again.

Running Tiger on a Macbook using a wireless internet connection.

(I've been a paid-up Pukka user for quite some time, and, aside from this glitch, it's been wonderful.)

@Chris: I'm actively working on this issue. It seems that even though the del.icio.us frontend seems to work ok, the backend may not be all the time. You can follow the progress of this here:

http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ydn-delicious/message/1975

When I first got my Mac, one of the first apps that caught my attention was Overflow, by Stunt Software. It's a great piece of software and I purchased it. The thing is, I had not met Quicksilver, or Launchbar. Anyways, Overflow had a money back guarantee, and once I discovered that Quicksilver was what I needed, I requested my money back.

I also purchased Pukka a long time ago. But I haven't found a replacement.

So maybe for all those who think it should be free, give them a money back guarantee. And let them experience for themselves if they really want to go back to bookmarklets.

@Gaston: That's an interesting suggestion -- thanks for the idea. I have heard it mentioned in Mac developer circles before and there is probably no harm in it.

money-back guarantee

In response to Gaston's post above, some time back I implemented a money-back guarantee on my software, but did not mention it publicly other than a few places on the site. I've since added several links to it (wherever purchasing the software is referenced) and I'm mentioning it here for completeness.