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The Missing Manuals

Interview with Oliver Breidenbach of Boinx Software

by Derrick Story

iStopMotion enables users to create sophisticated stop-motion animation movies with nothing more than an iSight (or equivalent device) and a Mac OS X computer. It recently captured first place in the International division for the third round of our Mac OS X Innovators Contest.

Oliver Breidenbach is the public face for Boinx software, and I had the chance to meet him in person at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference when he journeyed all the way from Germany to participate in the Innovators Special Evening Event. One of the things I appreciated about Oliver is his keen business sense, as well as his understanding of the Mac platform. In this interview, you'll get an inside look at what it takes to get a good invention out in front of potential customers... and maybe see some possibilities for your own software.

The Making of iStopMotion

Derrick Story: When did the lightning bolt of inspiration first strike about your award-winning idea. Was it in the shower, on a walk, during conversation...?

Oliver Breidenbach: It was a collective experience. A friend told me about a customer of his looking for a professional stop-motion animation solution for Mac OS X. I told my brother Achim, who is the lead engineer behind it, about the custmer's request, and he really got excited because it reminded him of the old days when we used to do stop-motion animation in our backyard animating Lego models of the Millennium Falcon and pretending that the weeds were a jungle planet. This is commemorated in the application icon that is a picture of the Super 8 camera we used back then.

We toyed around with the idea and discovered that quite a number of people we knew (and more that we didn't know) liked the idea of an easy-to-use application that would make the stop-motion animation a fun experience. This meant that the application would fit the motto that I set for Boinx Software ten years ago: Enjoy your life. At the time that we decided to make iStopMotion, our company was focused primarily on consulting and services. But we always wanted to be a company that would develop and market software for a broader audience. Our goal was to have software that is entertaining but also challenges the creativity and intellect of users.

DS: Then what did you do? Work up a prototype, get some help, let it ferment? How much time passed between when you had the initial inspiration and the first working prototype?

OB: Achim started soon after we decided to give it a shot and quickly put together a working prototype in Java using QuickTime for Java and Swing (Cocoa for Java and QuickTime for Java did not and, as far as I know, still don't mix), because it seemed a good idea at the time.

Oliver at Mac OS X Con
Oliver participating in the Mac OS X Innovators Special Event at the recent O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference.

QuickTime for Java is a great framework to work with, quite a bit easier than going at it through the C APIs of QuickTime directly. Plus, we thought we would have a backdoor should the Mac version not sell enough, in which case we could easily move the Java code to the other platform.

We actually released the very first public "Christmas Preview" version in Java in December of 2002. It was wildly more successful than we had anticipated and we got valuable feedback and suggestions from its users. Meanwhile, another key player had joined the team and Florian set out to make the thing look really nice, at which point we realized that it would not make much sense to continue using Java. In addition, there were some questions surrounding QuickTime for Java's future. So, on New Year's Eve 2002, we decided to move to Cocoa and produce a real Mac OS X app. Looking back, it was a good decision. There is just no way to make a Java app look and feel as good as a Cocoa app.

DS: Tell me a little more about developing in Cocoa. At the Mac OS X Conference, the Innovators seemed to recommend this route across the board. Is this the path Boinx will most likely follow in the future?

OB: We've been using various object-oriented frameworks for years: MacApp, OpenDoc Framework, PowerPlant, the Java Classes. But when we were introduced to NeXTStep with the first "Rhapsody" Developer Releases, it was a revelation: It actually worked as you expected. It was lean and intuitive and it still is in the Cocoa form that exists in Mac OS X. Cocoa is very complete and doesn't get in your way should you wish to access OS functionality that is not directly supported in the framework.

Still there is an issue with Cocoa. As one developer said at the WWDC, "New Cocoa functionality in Panther is nice and it may solve a lot of our problems when we get to use it in four or five years, when we finally drop support for Mac OS X 10.2...". For the first time since Mac OS X 10.0, Apple faces the challenge of keeping the installed base updating their OS. There are a lot of nice things in Panther that people will love to have, but you can work in Mac OS X 10.2 while you couldn't in any version before that. So, for a lot of people, they have to make a choice to upgrade or not. Therefore, developers cannot make use of the new cool things in Cocoa without abandoning at least a part of their users or keeping various versions of their products around.

DS: Do you have a mentor? Or maybe someone who helped you overcome the technical hurdles involved with bringing your idea to life? Tell us about that person and his or her role.

OB: A couple of people have thrown technical advice our way during development, but there is no mentor. We've got a strong team with backgrounds in every area that will ensure the company's success: Achim and Florian are great engineers, Florian is also a gifted application designer; I am a reasonably good marketeer; Wolfgang, our trainee, is getting better at technical support; and we have recently reinforced the sales team with Vera, who handles orders and takes care of the educational partners and resellers.

Our customers have joined in with feedback, bug reports, feature suggestions and a number of really good stop-motion animations. Check out Sven van der Hart's Bloody Snow, the most professional production we have seen so far. We collect the work we become aware of on our web site. Our customers are really setting the direction of the product and we try not to let them down too much.

DS: How many people did you tell about your idea during the development phase? Was this something you kept under your hat, or did the Mac community at large know you were working on this?

OB: The Mac community at large is pretty big and therefore I think it's safe to say it was pretty much clueless about what we were up to. On the other hand, we didn't exactly keep quiet about it either. We had four or five public development releases during the six month period that it took us to go from 0.1 to 1.0. We took a lot of comments and advice from people who downloaded those early releases and used them for production work.

I think you'll get better software if you let your customers in early, during the development process. But you need to have your products refined to a certain stage to discourage competition before you go public. This is a very thin line to draw.

DS: What was harder... Developing the application to the point that it was ready for public consumption, or the "sales, marketing, and distribution" side of the equation? Why?

OB: There are some technical challenges--who wouldn't expect them? QuickTime is a very big and powerful thing, but it is not polished equally well throughout the system as various parts of it enjoy more public attention while others are kept at a basic level. QuickTime for Java seems to do a better job at capturing video than the C API does (mostly by being easier to use) but does not offer the same level of control as the C API.

But sales and marketing is definitely harder than engineering. (It may be because that is my part. ;-) For a small software publisher, getting on the shelves of the dealers seems quite impossible--despite Steve Jobs' reassurances to Mac developers about making shelf space available at the Apple Stores at WWDC each year.

The person at Apple who decides what gets on the Apple Store shelves evaded my detection successfully for more than half a year now. During my quest, I've learned that the distributors that Apple has chosen to work with want to charge us a sizeable amount of money up front just to list iStopMotion in their catalogs--at which point the product has not even been presented to Apple for consideration. Maybe the solution would be to team up with other small software companies and create a pool of products to convince Apple to deal with us directly.

Electronic distribution therefore seems to be the limitation for our success. Despite all the hype about the Internet, its reach, while expanding, still seems limited. iStopMotion got quite a bit of online coverage, but even to the Internet savvy audience at the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference, the product was fairly unknown until it was announced as the winner of the Innovator Contest.

On the other hand, we are surprised to what length people will go to purchase our software: recently, we got an order from some folks at a U.S. school who told us they had never before cared enough for a product to order outside the U.S., and that their secretary had to learn how to send a fax to an international fax number before they could place the order.

DS: I noticed that you guys were comparing notes at the Mac OS X Conference, talking shop I assume. Did you get any good business ideas from meeting with the other Innovator award winners?

OB: We were certainly having a good time. The other award winners are intelligent people, and I enjoyed getting to know them. Robb Beal's comments on the panel and afterward at the hotel bar about the community of Mac developers got me thinking about more ways to let other people participate in our success and how important that will be for our business.

This the spring of this year, Boinx Software created the Mac Developer Directory in order to give the Mac developer community a business platform, a forum where interested parties could find individuals or companies to help them create Mac software and hardware solutions. There are about 400 developers registered with their profiles. It is a great start for banding together to improve the business. Robb is certainly right when he talks about how the Mac developer community should get closer together.

DS: What will you do differently, and what will you do the same on your next big project?

OB: For some time, iStopMotion will probably remain the big project that we are working on. We've already released a small companion product, iRecordNow with a set of features for continuous recording, which we will eventually incorporate into iStopMotion.

iStopMotion is a good teacher and there is a lot of potential for us to realize in this product. We've learned a lot: what payment options you offer is a key factor for sales. Giving away software for free is socially rewarding but does not pay for your lunch. The users of your software determine the use cases and much more. We are now looking for ways to include other people in our success, such as resellers or co-marketing partners. There are a number of hardware products that would make a nice bundle with iStopMotion. We are also looking for software vendors with products that fit with our customer profile and work well with iStopMotion.

DS: What one piece of advice that you've learned during the process would you pass on to other Mac developers?

OB: I think we could write a book about that, so limiting to one piece of advice is difficult. That said, I believe you have the best chance for success if you're creating something you need yourself and would use frequently. After you've done that, the trick is to know when to stop thinking about it as your product and let the customers take control. Be prepared for a wild ride.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.

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