Category: Business

More Privacy

Tired of all those privacy updates? I bet you are.

I’ve made it as simple as I could: https://smartgo.com/privacy.html. I was already collecting very little personal data, but I’ve been able to trim it some more:

  • I’ve removed third-party analytics (Fabric/Crashlytics) from all my apps. I was close to doing that when Fabric was bought by Google; the upcoming GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) gave me the final push. There’s no reason for Google to have any information about how you’re using my apps.
  • I’ve also removed Google Analytics from my websites. The small benefit of knowing the number of visitors and where they came from was not worth the hassle of having to tell you about this and getting your permission to collect that information. Again, it’s data about you that I don’t want to share with Google. Feels good to be tracker-free.

Zero trackers

I have two favors to ask you:

  • When Apple asks you to share anonymous usage data and crash reports with developers, please agree. Those crash reports really help developers improve their apps.
  • For the mailing lists, I will need your affirmative consent to continue to send you email. No consent, no more Go Books Newsletter for you. So please agree to update your settings when that mail comes.

I know very little about you and how you’re using my apps, and that’s perfect. But that also means that I rely on you to tell me when the apps are less than perfect. And of course, if you’re happy with the apps, please tell your friends. Thank you in advance – I’ll never know that they heard it from you.

SmartOthello Postmortem

SmartOthello is not dead yet, but the app has not lived up to expectations. It’s time for an assessment of this project: why I started it, obstacles along the way, and where to go from here.

Motivation

I needed a project to learn Swift and to experiment with different business models. I settled on Othello for several reasons:

  • Expertise: Expert knowledge of the game, and contacts in the Othello community. (I was the 1992 US Othello champion and have played at six Othello world championships.)
  • Similar domain: A two-player board game close enough to Go that much of the foundation code could carry over.
  • Potential customers: A more popular game than Go (think of all the people playing it as Reversi on Windows).

In addition, a trademark dispute had recently been resolved, with Megahouse of Japan making more efforts to license use of the name “Othello” and the trademarked board design.

Expectations

My three Go apps (SmartGo Kifu – $20, SmartGo Player – $3, and Go Books – free with IAP) were all doing reasonably well, with roughly similar profits. I had hoped SmartOthello might add a fourth leg to that stool, and thought I had several things going for me:

  • Experience: I had years of experience with Go apps in the App Store.
  • Marketing: I had a good marketing angle (former US Othello champion).
  • Design: All the existing Othello/Reversi apps in the App Store sucked. I knew I could create an app that gave players a better experience. (And some of those apps were ranked similar to my Go apps on the top grossing charts.)
  • Social: Game Center online play and leaderboards should help spread the app socially, something I didn’t have in my Go apps.

Obstacles

I made good progress on the app in the fall of 2015, learning Swift along the way. Not everthing went smoothly:

  • Licensing: I wanted to use the official name Othello, so I had to negotiate with Megahouse. We reached a deal on a reasonable licensing fee (10% after Apple’s cut), but I was not able to get them to agree to any business model other than a fixed paid-up-front price for the app.
  • iAd: Apple announcing the end of iAd didn’t help. So I was stuck with a paid up-front app for the first year; I figured I could re-negotiate after that (which I did, more below). However, not being free means the installed base becomes much smaller, thus Game Center play would not work as well (there may not always be a player available when you’re looking for a match).
  • Game Center: Implementing Game Center support was a mixed bag. Achievements and leaderboards were easy, but turn-based game play took a lot longer than expected, due to poor documentation, bugs, and APIs that are not fully baked. I could have implemented my own server in the time I spent getting Game Center play to work.

Release

Those obstacles slowed me down, but didn’t stop me. (Maybe they should have.) I finally got SmartOthello released on August 15, 2016, localized into Japanese, German, and French. In my unbiased opinion, I think design, game play, and usability are the best of any Othello app on the App Store.

Sales were underwhelming. Some possible contributing factors:

  • Press: I had created a press kit and reached out to press, but didn’t manage to get much coverage. August may not have been the best time to launch.
  • Go Players: I expected to be able to get some of my Go customers interested in Othello, but turns out there’s little crossover interest between the two games.
  • Othello players: My contacts in the Othello community were not as relevant as I thought, for several reasons:
    (1) The community of serious Othello players is very small.
    (2) There are some strong Othello analysis apps on Android, and thus most strong players are using Android, not iOS.
    (3) The core Othello community doesn’t really connect much with the general game-playing public, which is my audience.
  • Megahouse: I had expected Megahouse to help promote the app in Japan, a major Othello-playing country. Nothing.
  • Unlicensed apps: Lots of apps in the App Store continue to use the name Othello without being properly licensed. Megahouse has had little success getting those apps removed.

So the launch was not perfect. But it got worse.

iOS 10

  • At WWDC 2016, Apple announced that the Game Center app was going away, and that Game Center match-making was going through iMessage. This was ominous, but at least during the beta period, things worked reasonably well.
  • When iOS 10 was released in September, the avatar pictures disappeared. As the design of SmartOthello was heavily based around the avatars, I had to create my own bandaid for that.
  • Together with the cumbersome match-making using iMessage, I think the loss of the avatars was the death-knell for Game Center. (It‘s still technically alive, but without any improvements in iOS 11, it‘s not the technology to bet on.)
  • I had heard people complain about App Store search for years, but my Go apps always ranked reasonably well in search. With SmartOthello, search was a clear problem. Adding a space to change the app name to Smart Othello actually helped a bit, which is ridiculous. (The licensing restriction of not being able to include Reversi in the name also hurt.)
  • Since SmartOthello was a $2.99 app, I could at least benefit from Search Ads, but not enough for the app to get real traction.

Advertising and sale

  • In November 2016, I got the chance to advertise at the Othello World Championship in Japan. The resulting bump in sales? Minuscule. Again, it shows a disconnect between the serious player community and the general public I’m trying to reach.
  • I got permission from Megahouse to run a $0.99 sale over the holidays. More sales, slightly less profit. Back to $2.99.

Free with IAP and ads

  • By April 2017, I got the agreement with Megahouse renegotiated, allowing me to experiment with different business models and prices. So I tried free with ads and in-app purchase.
  • That experiment failed miserably. Sales went from low to near zero. While usage of the app went way up, I was not able to get the number of downloads that would be needed for the ads to generate significant revenue, and too few users upgraded to the Pro version. (My ads may have been too nice, and I may have included too much in the free version, but without more downloads, experimenting with those parameters would be futile.)
  • It’s possible this business model might have worked better when I first released the app and it got its initial attention; it’s much harder to generate interest with a new business model than with a new app.

Conclusions

  • Swift worked out really well. I’m very happy with the Swift foundation I got from the Othello project, and the conversion of my Go apps to Swift is continuing.
  • I’m glad I figured out issues with Game Center before trying to integrate that into my Go apps. At least that disaster was averted.
  • From an App Store perspective, Othello is more different from Go than I expected. The audience seems to consist more of casual players rather than people interested in a specific game, and as such they are probably less willing to spend money on the game. Thus my experience with Go was not as valuable; also, any conclusions based on this Othello experience might not transfer back to Go.

Future

I still love how the SmartOthello app turned out, and I will leave it in the App Store, giving it a chance to get noticed and grow over time. There’s much more I could do with it, but I can’t afford to invest more development effort into it at this point. Major changes (such as replacing Game Center, for instance) will have to wait until I get the Go apps converted to Swift and updated for iOS 11, get Go Books available on other platforms, and more: it will be a while.

SmartOthello will go back to paid shortly. Grab it for free while you can.

SmartOthello with ‘Ads’

SmartOthello achieved two of my goals for the app: it helped me learn Swift, and it gave me a reboot of the user interface that will influence the next versions of my Go apps. However, due to licensing restrictions, I couldn’t experiment with business models. For the first year, MegaHouse (who owns the license to Othello) was only willing to accept a paid-up-front app. I priced it at $2.99 — same as SmartGo Player, which is selling well. It turns out that Othello apps are a crowded market to compete in, and sales have been disappointing.

Blog othello pro upgrade

After renegotiating that license, SmartOthello 2.0 is now free, with a $2.99 Pro Pack in-app purchase that:

  • unlocks stronger computer play,
  • enables download of the WTHOR games database,
  • enables opening analysis,
  • and removes ‘ads’.

As for ads, I don’t want to give over part of my app’s screen to something garish that I don’t control. I’ve decided to follow Marco Arment’s lead and just roll my own. Their main purpose is to give you an extra kick to invest in the app so you can enjoy the full experience as it was designed.

Some of the ads promote the Pro Pack. For example:

Blog ads play expert Blog ads remove ads

Some promote my own apps:

Blog ads go booksBlog ads smartgo kifu

Some promote apps that I personally enjoy and recommend, mostly by indie developers. If people tap on the ad and purchase those apps, the affiliate fee (still at 7%?) helps, but more importantly, it helps another indie.

Blog ads obscuraBlog ads draftsBlog ads pcalc

And a few are links to books on Amazon that I’ve enjoyed, again with an affiliate link.

Blog ads changer

I expect income from those affiliate links to be minimal, but if those ‘ads’ nudge you to upgrade to the full experience, they have fulfilled their purpose. And they’re reasonably stylish, they’re accessible and localizable, there’s no user tracking, and you can even swipe to the next/previous ad anytime.

It’s an experiment. I’ve tried to find the right balance between being obtrusive and being obnoxious; most likely, I have not made them obnoxious enough. SmartOthello will be my guinea pig before I make any changes to the business model of my paid Go apps, SmartGo Player ($2.99) and SmartGo Kifu ($19.99).

Game Center

SmartOthello as released mid-August:

Blog othello avatar

And here’s SmartOthello mid-October:

Blog othello no avatar

The layout of the app was designed with profile pictures in mind. These player avatars disappeared when iOS 10 was released: Game Center leaderboards show boring gray circles, GKPlayer.loadPhoto returns nil.

Some bug reports and a Technical Support Incident later, this appears to be Apple’s intended behavior, not just a glitch. This behavior is so wrong and unlike Game Center that I think Apple will eventually backtrack, but waiting and hoping is not an option: I could not leave SmartOthello in that broken state. The newest version adds the ability to set your own profile picture and uses CloudKit to share these between players.

Matchmaking with iMessage

At WWDC in June, Apple announced that the Game Center app was going away, but not to worry, the Game Center functions were all still going to be there. Player invites would be using the newly improved iMessage; no code change needed. (Sure.)

That may have been true for the simplest matchmaking scenarios, but not for SmartOthello. I’m allowing players to set their color preference to black, white, or neutral, and their opening preference to regular or random. To start a game, I thus need that information from both players. (If they both prefer the same color, color choice will be random; random opening will only be applied if both players agree.) This added negotiation step needed extra work in iOS 10.

Blog invitation accepted

Starting a game over iMessage is cumbersome, adding several extra taps to specify opponent and start the game, as well as context switches. Apple has work left to do there. In particular, there needs to be a way to bypass the confusing auto-match screen.

Why no profile pictures?

My guess is that the missing profile pictures are related to using iMessage for matchmaking. Many iMessage users have images associated with them, but those are through the user’s contacts. There’s no way to map Game Center players to contacts, and for privacy reasons, it’s obvious that Apple won’t make those images available through Game Center.

It would be easy for Apple to add back a profile picture in Settings > Game Center. However, when starting a match through iMessage, that opponent would then have two images: one from Game Center and one from iMessage. It’s a mess, and that may be why the Game Center images were removed. Apple dug this hole for themselves; I hope they can dig their way back out.

Game Center in SmartGo

One of my goals with SmartOthello was to learn Swift (which worked out perfectly) as well as gain experience with technologies like Game Center and iCloud before including them in SmartGo. My experience with Game Center has not been good (poor and outdated documentation, APIs not working as advertised, no way to avoid polling for invites), and Apple doesn’t seem to be paying a lot of attention to the future of Game Center. Removing the avatars was a poor decision, and matchmaking using iMessage needs a lot of work.

At least I know to steer clear of Game Center for SmartGo.

My Path to Swift

After some experiments with Swift, I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time on a new project written completely in Swift. (Project to be revealed in due time.) Faster development, fewer bugs, and more fun — I’m hooked, and I don’t want to go back.

With the open source announcement of Swift delivering everything I wanted and more, there’s no reason to go back. Swift will be my main language for the next decade.

My programming language history

Most of my career has been focused on two large code bases, PowerPoint and SmartGo, and just a few programming languages. These languages have paved my path to Swift.

6502 assembler: After the TI-59 pocket calculator, my first real computer was a KIM-1. With a blistering speed of 1 MHz and a whole 1KB of RAM, that was an amazing machine. I squeezed my first Othello program into that computer, and learned a lot about performance and knowing every bit.

Modula-2: After some Pascal on Apple II, my time at ETH Zürich and UNC Chapel Hill was spent with Modula-2, first on the Lilith and then on the Mac. The original Smart Go Board for Macintosh was written in Modula-2. With the strong influence of Niklaus Wirth, I got drilled in the fundamentals of strong typing and modularity.

C++: When I started at Microsoft in 1991, most of the PowerPoint code was in C, with some Pascal in Mac-specific files (PowerPoint originally started as a Pascal program on the Mac). Over the next several releases, piece by piece, we successfully rewrote the whole program in C++, completely object-oriented. Both speed and memory usage were critical, and we learned how to use a subset of C++ to achieve high performance. (At one time, six of the twenty developers on PowerPoint had a connection to ETH Zürich — the Swiss influence was strong on that team. Still is.)

Once I left Microsoft in 1999 to work on SmartGo, C++ on Windows was the natural choice. C++ worked really well for Go, from fast low-level bitset operations to object-oriented UI code. But Vista pushed me over the edge and back to the Mac.

Objective-C: The Mac version of SmartGo got interrupted when Apple opened the iPhone for development. Keeping the base code in C++, I added the UI for SmartGo on iOS as I learned Objective-C. Seven years later, I’ve written a lot of Objective-C code, but it’s not my language of choice. The lack of type safety, the convenience of nil objects hiding potential errors, the need to avoid dynamic allocations and message passing in tight loops: these all worked against my nature. And having to interface with Go-specific code in C++ kept me from taking advantage of the full power of Objective-C.

Swift: With just a few months of Swift experience, it’s already clear that it gives me the building blocks for writing fast, high-quality software for the game of Go. It has strong typing and performance rivaling C++. It supports operator overloading (useful for bitset operations in Go) and generics (useful for arrays indexed by .Black and .White). Unicode string handling is a godsend for a game that originated in the Far East. Value semantics. Returning tuples. No crazy block syntax. Functional programming. And good riddance to semicolons.

I’m still in the early stages of learning Swift, and I’m already writing code better and faster than with the subset of C++ I had been using for 20 years. Did I mention it’s more fun too? So to me, it’s a clear choice.

Moving forward

I know where I’m going: my apps are transitioning to Swift. I know the first step: a separate Swift project to help me master the language and build up some base modules. After that? It will take me a while, but I will figure it out.

Transitioning a large code base is risky and never easy. I have no illusions that this will be simple. (Moving PowerPoint to C++ was good practice, but also a warning.) The fact that Swift doesn’t interoperate with C++ makes it harder. And it all has to be done while keeping the existing apps healthy and customers happy and dealing with any other curve balls Apple throws my way.

Yes, this will slow down development on my Go apps for the next years. It’s a risk I have to take: I’ve worked on these apps for fifteen years, and plan to work on them for many more. As an indie developer, I need to invest in my apps and in myself.

SmartGo for Macintosh

It’s been a long road. But today you can download an early beta version of SmartGo for Macintosh.

I know a lot of you doubted this day would ever come. I’ve been promising a Mac version since practically forever, and it kept not happening. Sorry about that. Some history is in order.

Smart Go Board for the Macintosh was released in 1987, with frequent updates until I joined Microsoft in 1991, where I worked on PowerPoint until 1999. SmartGo for Windows was released in 2002; Windows Vista finally pushed me over the edge and I switched back to the Mac in 2007.

So in early 2008 I had made good progress on the Mac version, but was running into issues with the cross-platform approach I had started with (using wxWidgets). When Apple announced the iPhone SDK, it seemed like a great way to gain experience with Objective-C development before getting back to building a fully native Mac version. I knew I wanted thousands of pro games in my pocket, and figured other Go players would too; I had no clue it was going to take off as it did.

So in 2009 I added computer play, and more games, and then had some time to work on the Mac version again. And what does Apple do in 2010? They announce the iPad. SmartGo Kifu was born, available on day one. A big success, but that first iPad version demanded a lot of rethinking and refinement.

The iPad also inspired a new way to visualize annotated games: book view. That gave me this crazy idea of putting Go books on the iPad. Basically, I wanted to read “Invincible” on the iPad; I had no clue that a few years later I would end up with a new file format and 100 Go books. (And no time to work on the Mac version.)

Turned out it made sense to split off Go Books for the Mac as a separate app, and that actually shipped a few months ago. Which finally left some time to make significant progress on SmartGo for Macintosh.

So is the Mac version done yet? No. But it has gotten to the point where it’s useful to me. Getting it to a 1.0 release will take time, as there are many big and lots of small issues to work on, and I still need to keep updating the iOS versions as well as Go Books. Meanwhile, I want to give you the opportunity to use what I have so far.

As promised, the Mac version is free if you already own the Windows version. The two platforms are bundled: buy one, get both. So if you’re already using SmartGo for Windows, and now have access to a Mac, just download the Mac version and start using it. (If your email has changed, let me know.) If you’re new to SmartGo, take the 15-day free trial for a spin.

The Mac version inherits the GoGoD game collection and the problem collection from SmartGo for Windows and SmartGo Kifu. It inherits the tree view and joseki matching from SmartGo Kifu. It adds built-in access to Kogo’s Joseki Dictionary. However, there are still significant holes; for example, there’s not even a way to edit game info yet. Over time, those holes will be filled, and more of the advanced functions from the Windows version will make their way to the Mac. (Some, like playing on IGS, will remain Windows-only.)

It’s still a long road ahead. But now you can join me for the rest of the journey.

Another Step for Go Books

You can now buy Go books and read them on your Mac; another step towards making Go Books available on multiple platforms (an Android version is in development). However, the corresponding iOS app has not been released yet, so books you’ve bought on your iPad won’t show up on your Mac yet. Click here for more details.

I’m still working to get all the publishers onboard with selling books outside of the iOS app; I’m still waiting for final approval from Kiseido, Yutopian, and Good Move Press. Until then, those books will only be available on iOS.

As always, please let me know if you run into any questions or issues.

Update 2014-11-19: Kiseido has agreed to extend digital books beyond iOS.

Update 2014-12-21: Good Move Press is in, so you can now buy the five books in the Learn to Play Go series for the Mac.

Update 2014-12-30: Add Yutopian, which means all books are now available on the Mac.