Personal software vs factory-produced software

20.46, Thursday 18 Jun 2020 Link to this post

Rev Dan Catt, technologist and pen plotter artist, recently posted about the tools he’s built to run his art business: Making all the Things.

Like, there’s web-based tool that he’s built - just for him - to remind him about popping stuff in the post to people.

The copy is delightful because it doesn’t have that generic second person thing that most apps do: Your Music, Your Photos, etc. INSTEAD, the site copy is all in the first person:

When and where to send cards & letters: Here’s where I keep all the information I need to get stuff sent off smartish.

The copy is from Catt’s Correspondance Tracker. It’s mostly as you’d expect: forms and buttons and checkboxes and headers, e.g.: When stuff was sent. Here’s the explanatory text that follows:

This is when I sent letters or cards, so when I go “Oh when did I send that letter?” I can see here

The two checkboxes can help if I sent something with tracking, once I’ve checked it’s arrived I can mark it off.

It’s like when you write yourself a post-it and leave it in a box file of paperwork that you know you’ll open again in a year and want to know what’s going on…

Robin Sloan put it like this: An app can be a home-cooked meal.

He created a video messaging app that works a bit like Snapchat, only super simple, and for use by only four people: his family.

And here’s Russell Davies’ Bikemap project (2011) which is a physical, printed out map of his neighbourhood (from Google Maps?), with little LEDs poking through where there are bike-share stations. They light up when there are bikes available.

I love writing little bits of automation just for me. I’ve made a Shortcut or two on my iPhone. I’m happy enough writing an ad hoc script to go through a bunch of files for me, or to generate the numbers I need to plug into my accounts once a month. Ok.

But these examples are different…

I wonder what qualities mean that they feel like proper software?

They’re packaged. They don’t feel temporary. If you accidentally deleted the icon, you could re-install it.

There’s just the right amount of design and copy.

These examples don’t seem like they’re “inside” someone else’s platform, like a tool written in a spreadsheet does.

They live shoulder-to-shoulder with “bought from the store” apps, in the same browser as websites with padlock icons like, and on shelves next to mass-produced products.

There’s an equivalence between personal software and factory-produced software, here.

I wonder what modern computing would look like, if it was focused on making that equivalence easier.

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