Personal software vs factory-produced software

20.46, Thursday 18 Jun 2020

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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