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Indie Mac Development in the UK

by Giles Turnbull
05/25/2007

Ever wondered what's it like to be a Mac developer outside the U.S.? Sure, the coding part of things is pretty much the same--it's the same OS, wherever you live--but other aspects of building successful Mac software are a little bit different.

Mac DevCenter recently got in touch with a group of U.K.-based indie developers to ask them a little about their lives, how they stay in touch with Apple, and why international exchange rates make such a difference to them.

Meet the Team

To begin with, we contacted a dozen or so individuals, and from that group a smaller one of seven opinionated developers took part in the discussions (which were conducted online).

The developers (in alphabetical order):

  • Keith Blount is a teacher and part-time, self-taught programmer who spent three years building Scrivener, a widely acclaimed tool for creative writers. He currently uses a MacBook Pro, having used a G4 iBook to do most of the development work for Scrivener, and after a short-lived and disastrous spell with a MacBook.
  • Joshua Coventry is the youngest member of the group, running Fastforward Software in his spare time when he's not studying Business at sixth form college. He uses an iMac Intel Core Duo Rev. A, 17-inch 1.83 GHz model with 1 GB RAM and 160 GB HD, and a 12-inch PowerBook G4 on the road.
  • Richy King's background is in financial software development, and two years ago he set up his own business, Wired Up and Fired Up. He splits his time between consulting work and developing apps like NoodleBoard and Relaunch. Richy's Mac collection comprises a 17-inch G5 iMac, which runs SVN and Trac and acts as a hub for printers and external drives. He also has a Core Solo Mac Mini, mainly used for testing, and a white MacBook.
  • Peter Michelsen works for Microspot and has spent four years developing its 3D CAD applications Interiors and Modeler.
  • Rory Prior operates ThinkMac from the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth. His products include NewsLife, an RSS reader, and InstantGallery, for posting photos to the web.
  • Fraser Speirs is the creator of the FlickrExport plugins for iPhoto and Aperture. Fraser lives in Greenock, Scotland, and teaches computing in a local school four days a week. Connected Flow fills the fifth day. His setup includes a 4x3 GHz Mac Pro with 3 GB RAM and three 250 GB hard disks (one Tiger production, one Tiger development, and one Leopard development). Hanging off that is an Xserve RAID, an Apple 30-inch display and a 20-inch Dell display. He also uses a 17-inch MacBook Pro (Core Duo version). Fraser himself is the first to admit that he has "a stupid amount of kit."
  • James Thomson is also in Scotland, in the city of Glasgow. From there, he and his wife run TLA Systems full time, producing apps like DragThing and PCalc. Prior to starting his own business, James worked for Apple for a while. He currently uses an old G5 Dual 2.5 GHz with 1 GB RAM as his primary development machine, but alternates using this and a more recent Core Duo iMac.

Money, in Different Flavors

Central to the non-American coder's life is the state of international exchange rates. Someone living in the U.S. and earning U.S. dollars earns a reasonable amount of money. Someone living in the U.K. and earning U.S. dollars makes half that amount, in real terms.

Consequently, they have to price their products with the exchange rate in mind. And the way it changes doesn't help much, either.

Fraser Speirs is blunt:

"I suppose the exchange rate is a little outside our circle of influence, but it does have an impact on selling to the U.S. I reckon 70 percent of my market is U.S."

That said, he adds that sales have remained steady despite the slide of the dollar against the pound.

Keith Blount employs a strategy with fluctuating exchange rates in mind:

"I set my price in dollars, but basing it on the assumption that the exchange rate would always be about 2:1. That way, when the dollar has a good couple of weeks, I can smile."

And customers don't tend to think much about international pricing, either. Keith adds: "Even with a low price I get emails daily about educational pricing and possible discounts. For $35! After eSellerate takes their share, that's barely five pints in a London pub…"

To which Fraser responds with a wry: "It's so expensive to live here compared to the U.S."

Rory Prior has started selling his products in euros. He says: "It's hard to tell what the fallout will be exactly, but it sure is nice to claw back some of the income the dollar was taking with it."

"Pricing is definitely hard," agrees Keith Blount. "I could easily have pitched Scrivener at twice the price. But then I would have had to manage an official student discount scheme. And a lot of people will buy shareware under $40 without thinking about it too much. But of course, that is both a blessing and a curse. It means you get a lot of sales, but also a lot of customers who hope that the low price means that they can tell you what your app should be. Um, that sounds ungrateful, but I don't mean it that way. Most of my customers are brilliant, but there definitely is a contingent who see the low price as an indication that you are looking for input of some kind, I think."

Richard King's only shareware product has been through several prices, all of them $10 and under. Oddly, he says, there's been little corresponding shift in sales.

James Thomson adds: "I have considered increasing the pricing to compensate for the exchange rate, but it's hard to justify that without a corresponding big upgrade."

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