Category: Business

SmartGo One: Business Model

TL;DR I’ve replaced SmartGo Kifu and SmartGo Player, two paid-up-front apps, by SmartGo One, a free app with extra features available through in-app purchases and subscription.

I’ve just released SmartGo One, which completely changes the business model for my apps. This all-new iOS app replaces both SmartGo Player ($3) and SmartGo Kifu ($20) with a free app.

Some history: I released SmartGo Pro for iPhone in September 2008 (first $10, then $13), followed by SmartGo Kifu for iPad ($20) in April 2010. The two were merged into a universal app in 2012. SmartGo Kifu has always been a premium paid-up-front app – if you bought it a decade ago, you have not paid a cent for it since. This is clearly not sustainable, especially for an app that appeals to a niche audience of dedicated go players.

In December 2015, I announced that I was moving my apps to Swift – with SmartGo One, that effort is finally bearing fruit. (Did it take longer than hoped for? Yes, it most certainly did.) I’ve written a separate blog post on user interface and feature changes, and plan to write one on the technical changes under the hood; in this post, I will focus on the business model.

Old apps

This is how the old apps were positioned:

  • SmartGo Player ($3) was aimed at people who wanted to learn the game and play against the computer.
  • SmartGo Kifu ($20) was aimed at existing go players who wanted to study the game, solve problems, and record their own games.
  • Go Books (free with in-app purchases) is aimed at anybody who wants to learn more about go, from beginner to expert. The books range in price from $3 to $20.

Over the last years, as most of my time has gone into the new app, sales of Player and Kifu have been slowly declining, while sales of books have remained stable. In terms of gross revenue, the three apps have been roughly even, but Kifu and Player account for more income due to Go Books having higher upfront costs (converting books to digital) as well as higher royalty payments.

New app

The new app is free to download, and is aimed at anybody who wants to do anything with the game of go, from beginner to expert. The free features include most of the features of SmartGo Player (except that computer play is limited to the smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards), as well as the game-recording features of SmartGo Kifu.

There are three ways to pay in SmartGo One:

  • Subscription: For $12 per year, you get access to the full GoGoD collection of 114,000+ pro games as well as advanced features like joseki matching. You can also play the computer on the full 19×19 board.
  • Problem collections: SmartGo Kifu included 2,000 problems; SmartGo One gives you 200 problems for free, and then you can buy additional problem packs ($4 each) to get more problems at your level (up to currently 4,700 problems).
  • Books: All 150 books from Go Books are integrated in SmartGo One, and can be bought using in-app purchase. (The stand-alone Go Books app is still available, and books bought there can be read in SmartGo One.)

Will it work out?

With such a radical change in business model, it’s hard to predict how it will turn out. Here’s my (possibly wishful) thinking:

  • Many of the go players who were willing to pay $20 up-front for an app they couldn’t even try should be willing to pay $12 per year (after a 14-day free trial). These are the old Kifu customers.
  • As a free app, SmartGo One should see many more downloads than SmartGo Player did. Some of these downloads will lead to people buying a book to learn more about the game, or maybe they get into solving go problems and buy a problem collection. A few might even subscribe, but I think subscriptions are going to be mostly dedicated long-term go players.
  • The free Go Books app was not getting enough downloads. Anecdotally, there are many users of Kifu and Player who still don’t know about Go Books. Having the books directly integrated into the app should help people discover them.

Also, SmartGo One is better in pretty much every way than the old apps (in my humble, unbiased opinion). That should count for something.

So maybe it will work out? Interesting times ahead as I build up a whole new user base for this app. But regardless of the finances, SmartGo One is a win for users, as I discuss in this other blog post on user interface and features, and a win for me, putting future development on a much better path.

No Mac Studio for Me (Yet)

TL;DR Apple released exactly what I wanted, but I’m not buying it yet, as the MacBook Pro with M1 Max is still amazing.

Last year I wrote about my plan to transition from the behemoth Intel Mac Pro to something based on Apple silicon, but it depended on Apple releasing the right products in the right sequence. This worked out wonderfully: I bought a MacBook Pro 14″ with M1 Max last year as soon as it was released, and sold the Mac Pro to pay for it. The laptop was faster and 10x lighter. And came with a gorgeous screen.

The next step I was looking for was Apple releasing a standalone display, and that finally happened. And while we’re still waiting for the Mac Pro, they released a faster desktop, the Mac Studio. Apple delivered exactly what I wanted: a display I can use for many years, and a fast, quiet computer I can upgrade every few years.

However, I’m not buying yet. For now, the M1 Max in my laptop is fast enough, and the LG 5K screen I’m using is okay, so I’ll just keep using these. It’s great to know that if the screen fails, I can get a good monitor from Apple. And there’s a faster Mac available when I need it. In the past, if you wanted quiet performance, the Mac Pro (and iMac Pro for a brief time) was the only choice; now Apple is delivering amazing performance in both laptops and desktops.

And while I wait, there are rumors of upgrades: the Apple Studio Display might be upgraded with HDR and faster refresh? Or larger – 6K? 7K? The Mac Studio will likely be upgraded with an M2 next year, providing faster single-core speed. And the Mac Pro is still on the horizon. Lots of good choices ahead.

Replacing my Mac Pro

I wrote about my new Mac Pro a year ago. It’s still rock-solid, and it’s done everything I asked of it. But the writing is on the wall: Apple’s new $1,000 MacBook Air is now comparable in speed to my year-old $10,000 Mac Pro. This year, Apple will likely release updated MacBooks Pro with more cores and memory and blow right past the performance of my Mac Pro. Next year, an updated Mac Pro will do the same again.

I had hoped to get seven years out of it? That was before Apple announced the switch to their own chips, and before they blew Intel chips away with the performance of the M1. My expectation was based on the incremental performance gains we’ve seen from Intel over the last decade, not the paradigm shift ushered in by Apple’s M1. The Intel-based Mac Pro is rapidly losing value, and it’s clear I’ll want to replace it as soon as I can.

My Plan

Here’s my current plan; we’ll see if Apple releases the right products in the right order for this to work out.

Mid 2021: Buy the rumored 14-inch MacBook Pro. I expect it to be faster than my Mac Pro for all practical purposes. Hook it up to my existing two monitors and use as my main machine. Sell or trade in the Mac Pro before it loses too much of its value.

Mid 2022: Evaluate the new Mac Pro, and possibly upgrade to that one.

External Displays

I’m glad there are finally some rumors about cheaper external displays. I think Apple was waiting to release monitors until they redesigned the iMac, so the monitors could match the look of the iMac (ideally using the same enclosure with simpler innards). And they were waiting with the iMac redesign until they could use their own chips, both for lower thermal requirements and to be able to include Face ID. Now their ducks are finally all lined up.

It makes too much sense for Apple to plug this hole in their lineup. And the work Apple has put into making resolution switching seamless also makes more sense if monitors are on the horizon. Here’s hoping — I’d love to replace the LG 5K with an Apple monitor with Face ID.

So while my Mac Pro didn’t turn out to be the long-term investment I had hoped for, I’m stoked about Apple’s M1, and very excited about what they’ll announce this year and next.

SmartGo: Mac $0, Windows $19

tl;dr SmartGo for Mac is now free; SmartGo for Windows reduced to $19 (was $39). All-new version of SmartGo for iOS in the works, will come to Mac later. No ETA.

Future of SmartGo Apps

The all-new version of SmartGo for iOS is taking shape. Still no ETA, but getting closer, and I’m excited for how it’s turning out. If you have an iPhone or iPad running iOS 14, and are interested in early testing, let me know.

The new iOS version will replace both SmartGo Player and SmartGo Kifu. It will be free to download, with a subscription for the GoGoD game collection and some functionality; additional problem collections will be available through in-app purchase.

SmartGo for Mac

I plan to bring that same iOS app to the Mac. Catalyst has become much more capable this year, making it easy to bring an iPad app to the Mac. Thus it’s now clear that the current Mac version (built on the old code base) is a dead end, and that it doesn’t make sense to update it any more. I’ve released what is likely the last iteration of that app. While it’s far from perfect, it can still be a useful tool for many until the new Mac app comes along, so I’ve made it a free download. Thanks to GoGoD and goproblems.com for letting me take that step while keeping their game and problem collection in the app; please support them in other ways (e.g. by buying books by John Fairbairn).

SmartGo for Windows

SmartGo for Windows has not been getting frequent updates over the last years, and that will likely not change. My focus is on the iOS and Mac versions of SmartGo. Given that reality, I’ve reduced the price from $39 to $19. The app is getting long in the tooth, but it’s still an indispensable tool for go players on Windows, with 108,000 pro games, 2,000 problems, joseki matching, and more. It may get some updates, but no promises; buy it for what it is and can do today.

Enjoy! And please stay safe until we can play go in person again.

Go Books in German

tl;dr Go Books is now offering some books in a single non-English language instead of bundling all languages for a book into a single purchase.

I just added three German-only books to gobooks.com:

  • “Elementary Techniken” by Thomas Hillebrand
  • “Strategie” by Richard Bozulich
  • “Angriff und Verteidigung” by Akira Ishida and James Davies

The first is new to Go Books, the second was already present as “The Basics of Go Strategy” (in English, Spanish, and German), and the third is “Attack and Defense”, which did not have a German translation in Go Books. German has been removed from “The Basics of Go Strategy” – if you already have that book and were reading it in German, please let me know, and I will get you a complimentary copy of “Strategie”.

Why this shift? The previous approach had advantages in producing and maintaining the book (the diagrams were shared between languages, so any fixes would apply to all languages), but it became clear that there were some significant disadvantages that limited the creation of translated versions:

  • Different language editions might be by different publishers, with different royalty requirements.
  • With no way to tell which language people were buying and reading, it was hard to decide which translations were worth it.

Most books with translations remain multi-lingual for now, as we see how this experiment works out. The “Lehrbücher des Go” series of six books will be completed as German-only books, adding German translations for “Tesuji” by James Davies, “Counting Liberties and Winning Capturing Races” by Richard Hunter, as well as “Leben und Tod” by Gunnar Dickfeld.