software Posts

The Business and Technology of Zero-Knowledge Software

In the past year and a half I’ve written a few times about an encrypted email app we built at Black Chair called Parley. Parley, at this point, is essentially dead: the service has been in “pre-beta” for about 7 months, and we haven’t made any significant changes to it in at least 5. As it stands, I consider it an impressive accomplishment for our company, but it needs quite a bit more work before being ready for prime-time and it is unlikely to see those changes without a significant cash injection. (Basically, we chose a horrible intersection of the consumer space for a bootstrapped project: email software is very difficult to get right, encryption is very difficult to get right, they are both even more difficult to get right on mobile platforms, and—even worse—general consumers are not feeling any pain due to unencrypted email. We need to target businesses, and that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.) I’m not crazy about taking on investment for this sort of project (or rather, I’m incredibly picky about who we might take on as an investor) so Parley is basically on the shelf for now.

The Economics of Custom Software

It was a Saturday afternoon in spring, and I was sitting in my parents’ basement with the lights off, staring at the monitor belonging to our brand new Compaq Presario computer. I was replying to a client email debating the price of a project (after the work had been completed), which we had previously agreed would be a whopping $600. I was 12.

The whole thing had started for me about a year before, when I got a bit carried away in computer class and ended up building my school’s website. My school was affiliated with a church, so I built their website too. Those two were freebies, although I did end up leveraging the first into an educational copy of Macromedia Flash, which cost several hundred dollars at the time, and I believe the church found a volunteer stipend for me at the end of that year as well. I then made the website for a Bible camp, for which I timidly charged $300.

A Thing I Made For NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it is affectionately known, happens every November. It’s exactly what it sounds like—writers go nuts for a month trying to write an entire novel.

I’ve never completed a successful NaNoWriMo. I wanted to last year, but realised that I was going to have to fit writing it in at sort of odd times, from different locations, with different computers. All of the existing web apps for writing weren’t conducive to the sort of mental space I need for extensive creative writing, so I decided to make my own: a bare bones, no frills online text editor that saves to Google’s servers and works offline when internet isn’t available. I didn’t finish it in time for last year’s NaNoWriMo (and didn’t write a novel either, though I did manage about 10,000 words) but it’s ready for this year. I’m calling it “Just Write”. Check it out if you want, and let me know what you think! (It’s completely free, and I intend to keep it that way.)

On Visual Design

I’m the first to admit that it is possible to spend too much time/money on how things look, especially in a business context. Young companies are especially bad for this, spending months getting their logo just right instead of working on or selling their products/services. However, the other extreme astounds me, especially in certain industries. Software companies, for example, can be exceptionally bad—and they have no excuse. If a software company can’t build a website that looks inviting and is easy to use, how could they ever be expected to build an entire system that looks inviting and is easy to use?

Of course software companies are far from the only culprits; I just happen to have a vested interest in what other software companies are doing ;) (There are a lot of things that other companies are much more well-suited to than Black Chair—games, for example—but I think I can honestly say we have a pretty strong team when it comes to designing excellent user experiences.)