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May 9, 2004

{     Interview : Panic Software     }    

A while ago, I wanted to contribute some interviews to the 'Dozen site, because I've enjoyed the work of the other authors. I didn't, however, know where start or who I wanted to interview first. I'm a Mac user, and love the extra time and creativity that goes into most "Mac Apps". With that in mind, I decided to try to learn more about a company who's products I use everyday, Panic. (http://panic.com), and they were happy to oblige! Founders Steven Frank & Cabel Sasser are the creators of some really great/useful tools: Transmit, a easy to use FTP client, Audion, a audio program that predates the Apple's own iTunes with some extra features and tweakability, and Candybar, icon theme changing app, that's a snap to use! Bear in mind, because this interview was conducted by me sendng them twelve questions, some answers may sound redundant, but it was not my intent, also as of writing this forward, they've added a few more fun/useful tools to their stable of applications. So, read on, even if you're not a Mac user, the interview gives some insight to what a small company of developers is all about. If you are a Mac user hop over to their site and give their app's a test-run, if you like 'em, buy them!

&tMatthew: After reading your Essays () one gains a better understanding of what you guys were setting out to do when started Panic. Could you imagine at the time that you would still be doing what you do, and would be where you are today?
Steven: I honestly never dreamed our little company would be so successful that people would want to, say, interview us. I mean, I hoped it would be, but I didn't expect it would.
Cabel: Well, great question. I'm a notoriously optimistic person, so I always just sort-of went forward assuming everything would work out, but without ever really thinking about it. Fortunately, our "goals" are always relatively low-key ones -- we never had "LEAR JETS BY 2007!!" banners hung in the office or anything, all we ever wanted was to do what we like to do and make enough money to pay the bills while doing it. So, I guess the inspiring advice here is: "Set your sights as low as possible!" *laugh* I will admit in retrospect that my optimism didn't have a lot of logic or reasoning behind it -- in fact, had I stopped and thought about the reality of the situation for a second or two it probably would have been a lot like when Wile E. Coyote steps off the cliff and only falls when he looks down. So, I'm glad I don't think realistically!

Being, first, a demo user of Transmit & Audion, then buying them, as well as Candy Bar, your theme of Shockingly Good Software never loses it's meaning, I use them everyday. How hard is it to combine power, simplicity and style into what you guys produce?
SF: Well, it's not easy. :) Producing a good-quality user experience is surprisingly hard, which is why we leave that to Cabel. *laugh* The other programmers and I typically get a mock-up of how the application should look from him, and then we split it up, implement what we can, clarify what various things are and aren't possible from an engineering perspective, and it sort of evolves as we go around like that.
CS: It's a very careful and sometimes painful but always rewarding balancing act! Ever played the old arcade game "KickMan"? It reminds me of that but without the Pac-Man that comes down occasionally. It's also a process of constant revision, to be honest. Things are never "done". And, weirdly, a lot of it is instinctual. Mockups can only go so far -- you have to have people who just automatically know when things look wrong or work awkwardly, and take it upon themselves to fix it. I think that's really rare in an engineer -- we're lucky enough to have guys like Wade and Dave and Ian, and of course Steve here, who really do understand that without a good interface, the best code in the world means little. Thank God for them!

Following that, how did your Apps catch on?, amongst the sea of other Mac Apps that were floating around then? How did you get the word out?
SF: It's nearly 100% word-of-mouth so far. Apart from a very short banner ad campaign for Audion, we've never advertised our products.
That's not like a corporate rule or anything, we've just never gotten around to it. We've just notified the news sites, and it somehow spreads virally from there. In retrospect, probably a little more advertising wouldn't hurt. :)
CS: This is another one of those things I try not to think about because I'm afraid I'll jinx it. ;) It's just "happened". Obviously, our web site is all we have -- so it's critical that it communicates the products really clearly, because there ain't nothin' else. So how did it work? Great question. Perhaps it's a good moment to bless the Mac community as a whole. Do you think that if we were a Windows company anybody would have ever noticed us? I seriously doubt it -- there are approximately 2181 FTP clients, and 7 new ones are released every day, or something like that. Luckily, us Mac users, when we like something, that something automatically gets a little bit of the halo effect from our love of Apple itself, so we tend to automatically proselytize and share the excitement of our find. It's wonderful to be a part of a group of people -- Mac users -- that can fall in love with and get excited by things that inspire them, even if it's just a piece of software.

As an 11 year old in 1983 I remember after spending hours on my Ti99/4A typing the demo programs, I would immediately hack it to change colors, sounds etc. When "Skinning" became the rage with Audio players, you guys embraced it, and incorporated into Audion, was this an attempt to regain the "Joy of Hacking" an application to suite one's fancy/curiosity?, or to develop interaction with your customers?
SF: We did skinning (or "faces" as they are known in the Audion universe) because it was considered "the norm" for media players at the time, I suppose. If you didn't have it, everyone would have asked for it to be added, and you would have ended up adding it anyway. But we did take it one step further than everyone else. Rather than just a rectangular area that you could redesign, Audion was one of the first desktop apps, if I'm not mistaken, to allow arbitrarily shaped custom interfaces with full alpha channel support (not just transparent holes in the window). And this was back on Mac OS 8, before any of us mere mortals had heard of "Aqua". Cabel just said to me one day, you know, "Why don't we have alpha channels so you can have nice shadows, etc, on the faces?" And I said, "Well, that's impossible." But the idea was so cool, I couldn't shake it, and I started hacking around with it, and eventually came up with a way to do it. It was a little eerie when Aqua was unveiled and also had windows with shadows and alpha channels... We had been thinking the same thing as Apple without even realizing it.
CS: I've told Steve this story before, but when I was a little kid I once wrote a complete version of the arcade game "Jungle Hunt" -- the one where you're Tarzan, swinging from vines and fighting alligators -- for my TI99/4A, all in BASIC. I spent an incredibly long time typing in my code, saved it to tape, and gave it a run. Unfortunately, my code knowledge was pretty much limited to basic logic branching, and drawing ASCII pictures of things on the screen. So, my version of Jungle Hunt went like this: "You see a branch. Do you wish to grab it? [Y/N]". "You see an alligator. Should you fight it? [Y/N]". Eventually, if you picked the right vines and alligators, a hideous but probably pretty awesome in retrospect drawing of the "girl" you rescue would slowly draw on the screen. This doesn't really answer your question in any way, but it probably explains why I don't program anymore. :)

With the Unix backbone of OSX in Apple's current OS, do you find it easier to code your apps? Or do you long for the days of Apple's proprietary OS?
SF: Speaking as a programmer, I'd rather have Mac OS X any day of the week. Everything related to the act of programming is substantially easier. I'm a little bit nostalgic about Classic's elegance and general coherence, but I absolutely don't miss the hard crashes, interoperability with other OSes, or the Chooser.
CS: Oh, heavens no. As a user, I have no longing for Mac OS 9 -- and the rosiest-colored glasses on earth wouldn't help. I never reboot, I can pop open a shell for precise control, I work faster than I've ever worked, etc. I suppose I do still have a fondness for the particular, hand-plotted pixel qualities of the Platinum appearance and its cool Copland icons, but that's only a retro-appreciation -- a "might look cool on a t-shirt" kind of thing. :)

In your personal computer use, do you still find yourself using "classic"-mode or do you boot straight into OS9?
SF: I keep Classic around for the sole reason that the developer and connectivity utilities for the Newton require it, and I still tinker with those every once in a while. Other than that, I wouldn't even need Classic installed.
CS: If I were to open Classic today, it's entirely possible moths would fly out of my screen. Except that that doesn't make any sense.

You've recently released Unison, a Terrific Usenet reader app! How long did it take you to come up with the Idea for it, and the bring it to market?
SF: Dave, one of programmers, was talking to us about wanting an app that would just stream random music off a Usenet server, and he built a prototype that basically did just that. So, as a group, we looked at it and thought, you know this world of Mac Usenet is a lot like the Mac FTP world before Transmit. There are some existing clients, but they're all a bit confusing and not very Mac like. Can we do to Usenet what we did for FTP? And so that became our direction. I think it took about a year to put it all together if I remember correctly.
CS: It's interesting, because, if I remember correctly, Dave and I both re-discovered Usenet at around the same time. It was this realization that, "Hey, wow, there's some amazingly cool stuff being posted every day that I can't get anywhere else." And once you make that realization, it gets rather addicting, and you want all the cool new stuff posted every day. :) Unfortunately, all the existing Usenet clients were a little awkward to look at and use. So, like Steve said, we thought we could pull off the old "Transmit Special". Now, we're well underway on Unison 1.5, and I'm really excited for it since it addresses virtually every request we currently get through the support e-mail. That's always a nice thing to be able to do. It should be a great update. As I said earlier, we're never really "done". Ever. :)

Following that, you've offered a subscription based service that for $11.95 gives you a whopping 10 gigabytes of downloads! How do you facilitate that, Why?
SF: We realized that the biggest obstacle to selling a Usenet client is that it's only useful if you have access to a server. If you don't, that's a brick wall. You simply need a server before you can even see how cool the client is. So we needed a way to route people around the brick wall, and decided to partner with an existing Usenet service. They get new clients, and we don't have to maintain the infrastructure. It has worked out pretty well, I think.
CS: As Steve said, it's the first time we've really partnered with a third-party to provide a service, but it's been really interesting and beneficial for both of us. They can focus on what they do best -- maintaining a crapload of servers, terabytes of data, etc., -- and we can focus on writing good software. But our two areas of expertise can merge together to create something bigger!

What are your guy's opinions of Apple today, and where do you think it will be in the future, in it's relationship to a company like yourself?
SF: I think Apple and the Mac OS are the strongest they've ever been. We see more Macs in our day-to-day lives than ever before. Although I kind of miss the really "out there" advanced human interface research the "old" Apple was getting into, I think it has been beneficial for them to streamline it, and take a less proprietary route with hardware and the OS. Apple is becoming increasingly a software company too, with the iApps, and we do have to watch out for them as a competitor now, which is a new complication in the whole business. But there are still lots of opportunities in the market. Even Apple can't do everything.
CS: Interesting question, because when we first started Panic, I remember really thinking that we'd have this deep, close relationship with Apple right away -- like, we'd just e-mail them or something, they'd see our app, fawn all over us, and give us a billion dollars. It was totally naive, but kind of cutely naive now that I think back on it. Once we realized that the only way we'd succeed is on our own hard work and merits, we just sort-of forgot about the whole "needing Apple" thing. And, ironically, it was only when we STOPPED really caring about it that we started making good contacts at Apple, and getting to know the people over there! I think Apple's about as strong as they've ever been at this exact moment. And I can say this, because when we started Panic, Apple was about the worst as they've ever been at THAT exact moment. So, we've seen the complete transformation, as Apple pulls a total Optimus Prime and goes from a Gil-ridden Performa 2918 semi-truck to a iPod-inventing robot. It's been awesome, and I look forward to the future.

Do you feel lucky to have a company that has gotten a foothold in more than one Niche market for mac users?
SF: Extremely lucky. We just made apps that we needed, and put them out there for others to try, and somehow we just got the chemistry right. I wish I could say we had a master plan and really knew what we were doing, but really it wasn't like that at all in the beginning. We plan a little bit more these days, but there's still definitely a bit of luck involved, I think!
CS: Unbelievably so. I can't give enough "virtual thanks" to the incredible users who downloaded our demos, bought our software, told their friends about it, and sent us nice e-mails. Heck, even the ones that send us crazy e-mails. We literally owe our users everything and my gratitude is boundless -- almost to the point of frustration. If it were possible to drive to everybody's house and tell them "thanks" in person, I'd probably take a few months off and give it a shot. Okay, maybe realistically I'd get bored after a few days, but the sentiment is there! I can only hope we continue to make things worth having in the future -- I'll certainly work as hard as I can to make that the case.

Following that, do you actually have a relationship with Apple? Meaning, do they use your apps (not counting Audion for obvious reasons iThink)? Or do they support what you do for the mac community?
SF: Yes, Apple is a customer. Beyond that it's pretty much just the standard Apple/Developer relationship. We know a few people on the inside, but we don't know what the specs of the next G5 are going to be, or anything like that.
CS: Steve speaks the truth!

Finally, what's next? Any revamps to Audion (i.e. incorporating Ogg Drop, transcoding)? Website updates to the Goodies section? Cross-platform apps (not necessarily to windows but maybe Linux, i.e. Yellowdog PPC linux, etc)?
SF: We'll at least have updates pretty much across the board throughout the year. New app ideas are gestating all the time though, and I only wish it didn't take so long to write them...
CS: I think it'll be a year of nice surprises -- I don't think we've ever had so much going on at once here.In the non-software side of things, I can say I've got at least three things I want to add to the Goodies page... but, of course, I'll probably never have the time to do them. Wish me luck. :) And, we've got a not-so-secret secret plan to make our ever-popular t-shirt designs and such available to the world -- hopefully you'll hear more about that soon! Software wise, our schedule is full at least until the end of the year! We may even need to bring some additional bodies on board to help out. It's truly a really exciting time to be a small Mac software company.

    » If you use OS X, then go get some Panic software now, you'll wonder how you ever worked without it!

Written and conducted by Matthew Dropco

Comments

Ahh, you trumped me! I was toying with the idea of reviewing or featuring Mac OS X software and developers for the past few weeks but never quite realized it entirely. Thanks for getting this done where I never would have.

I'd heard about Panic when I first started digging around for programs that did some of the things Panther couldn't. Candybar, for instance, has been mentioned time and time again but I didn't quite realize what it did. Now I know I need it, just to get that damned iMac icon out of there (I downloaded a good half dozen icon packages looking for the perfect PowerBook G4 icon only to realize I cannot change it. . . which led me to wonder just what on earth these people were drawing little PowerBooks for anyway).

And Unison! Hot dang have I been looking for you! I've grabbed a number of Usenet readers for Panther and not one of them delivered what I was looking for, i.e. a program that actually looks like it belongs on my screen with a robust download manager to help me collect my MAME roms in style.

Posted by: benjamin at May 29, 2004 10:05 PM

Damn! They outta bundle these things together. I want all of them!

Posted by: benjamin at May 29, 2004 10:09 PM

Ben,

You know, I thought about that too recently... I don't know if you've seen those bundles by Aladdin or others, but it would be cool to have it all on one disc. My guess, and maybe I should of asked them whilst conducting the interview, why they don't bundle. My assumtion is that Although me and you love all of it, there may be some other folks out there who don't want to pay for something they may not use, or, maybe it's a cost factor for Panic, having to send out discs to be pressed professionally can be expensive, besides, it's "Earth-Friendly" to just download it!

Oh well, Thanks for reading!

Best,

m.

Posted by: Matthew at May 31, 2004 6:09 PM
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