Monday, June 3rd, 2013
The best software lives at the extremes. Extreme feature sets, extreme polish, extreme choices. Opinionated software. Software that has a voice of its own, so to speak, one that tells us exactly how it was meant to be used.
Take, for instance, the two writing apps I use most: iA Writer and Sublime Text. It'd be hard to imagine an app comparison more drastic. The former is an app, quite literally, devoid of choices. No settings, no options, nothing. It's the closest to a typewriter that one could have on a computer, a well-oiled machine for writing, and nothing else. Contrast that with Sublime Text, the quintessential configurable text editor. It's designed around options, so many that it offers them in a json file rather than a traditional options screen. It has a package manager and its own command system. It can be anything you want. It's practically an operating system for text.
Neither app is bad. In fact, both are polished apps, the epitome of their particular style of editor. They're both text editors, but that's where the comparisons should rightly end. That is, comparisons of their feature sets. For both apps share one other quality that makes them both apps that have continued to be important: they're opinionated.
iA Writer is opinionated to the extreme, some would say. Its designers picked how they wanted the app to work, and declared their choices best. End of story. On the other hand, Sublime Text caters to those who are picky, and want to tweak endlessly to make their text editor their own. It's far from opinionated, we would say.
Except that's anything but the case. Sublime Text is an opinionated app too, though in a totally different way. It's designed specifically for those who love text editors and want to tweak them, and thus exposes every possible setting so you can extend it and make it what you want. It doesn't try to make things simpler for everyone else with a settings dialog or other graphical interfaces. It's opinionated that text and keyboard commands are best, and if you don't like that, you'd best find another text editor.
It's these defining features that have made both iA Writer and Sublime Text apps that have continued to be worth talking about. They're interesting because of the choices their developers have made. Far too often, app simply hit the middle. They try to perhaps please everyone, and end up thrilling no one. The very best apps, however, stick out and do something different. Maybe that difference is having a very curated set of choices, maybe it's in letting people work in a unique way, and maybe it's in giving far more freedom than any other app.
If you're building an app, give us some reason to talk about your app, something that makes it stick out. Otherwise, it'll soon be forgotten, bypassed by the apps that — while either simpler or more complex than yours — actually changed the way we work.