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Sheltered from the damp chill of the Seattle air, Brent Simmons tapped away on the keyboard as he stared onward into the soft glow of his computer monitor. It was February 11, 2003, and Simmons was ready to ship the newest version of his news reader application, NetNewsWire.
"The e-commerce thing is set up and working and tested. There's a new home page for NetNewsWire sitting on my hard drive. All that remains is to package up the app and upload it and let folks know it's up." Simmons wrote for his blog, Inessential, while batting away the nagging thoughts of bug fixes and press releases.
Each previous release of NetNewsWire, all created at the helm of Simmons' company Ranchero Software, gave him a perfect thrill. This version, NetNewsWire 1.0, would be different though.
"The launch of NetNewsWire 1.0 was particularly amazing, because that's the first time people paid for the app," says Simmons. "The amount of money that came in surprised me and my wife, [Ranchero Software co-owner] Sheila; it was way more than we expected. We suddenly had the idea that we could make a real living doing this."
NetNewsWire 1.0 was one of the first great products of its kind. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers allowed people to subscribe to sites and stay up to date on the latest articles within one platform. They not only changed the way people browsed the Internet, RSS readers connected people to their favorite sites on a deeper level. NetNewsWire's launch coincided with a time when people were keeping up with as many blogs as they were news sites, making an RSS reader all the more important.
The Start of Something Big
NetNewsWire's journey began in a simple way. Having recently left UserLand, a company at the forefront of blogging and RSS integration, Simmons knew he wanted to continue exploring the world of news aggregators. He also wanted to create an app in Cocoa and needed a catalyst.
"I put my heart and soul and all of my brain and creativity into that app, and I did it because I wanted to create something that people loved."
The news reader he created soon turned into something worth sharing. It had an auspicious start with a healthy following and glowing reviews. Feedburner called it one of the most popular desktop news readers in 2005, it received Macworld magazine's Editors' Choice Award in 2003 and 2005, and it made Time magazine's Top 10 iPhone Apps list in 2008.
"I put my heart and soul and all of my brain and creativity into that app, and I did it because I wanted to create something that people loved," says Simmons. "When I hear that praise, I feel like I did the right thing: I wasn't wasting my time and talents."
Finding a New Home
Simmons had spread himself too thin by trying to manage versions of the app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac while focusing on other projects. In 2011, after years of this stressful balancing act, he decided to let NetNewsWire go.
"That was a super-hard decision, since NetNewsWire was my baby," Simmons says on his blog. "But after nine years it was time to turn it over to a bigger team with in-house designers and more programmers."
At the time, NetNewsWire was owned by NewsGator and managed by Simmons and a small team there. Simmons suggested to his friend, Black Pixel founder and CEO Daniel Pasco, that his company purchase the app from NewsGator. After careful consideration about what this would mean for the Black Pixel team as well as for Simmons, Pasco was ready to take over the product.
"We're totally on fire about this acquisition," Pasco told John Gruber in an interview for his site, Daring Fireball. "Most of us have had a love affair with NetNewsWire that goes back for several years (it was the first third party Mac app I ever purchased). We've gotten big enough to be able to lavish a lot of attention on NetNewsWire, and I intend to restore it to its former glory."
Pasco was flooded with waves of awe, excitement, eagerness, and fear as he went about adopting NetNewsWire and establishing it in its new home at Black Pixel. He wanted to honor the spirit of NetNewsWire and the many years of hard work his friend put into the application.
Knowing that Pasco's primary goal for NetNewsWire was making a great user experience, Simmons made it clear that he did not want him to worry about whether he liked the new direction it took.
A Time of Triumph
A syncing service was one of the benefits garnered by NetNewsWire while it was at NewsGator. This is something that NetNewsWire users requested early on and it was important for the product to retain this feature somehow. Right away, Black Pixel's product team began looking at how to integrate iCloud for syncing, but the new service from Apple wasn't ready for such a task.
Still feeling that iCloud would be the best fit once it was fully functional, the product team shifted their focus to developing Kaleidoscope 2 while they waited for Apple to work out the issues.
"By the time we shipped Kaleidoscope 2, we had internal discord around whether or not it was worth working on NetNewsWire anymore," says Pasco, detailing the ill-fated turn of events. "Bil [Moorehead, CTO], George [Dick, COO], and I were for it, and most of the business management team was strongly against it. This, with some major internal problems, resulted in us focusing on client work and shelving product for a while."
NetNewsWire users -- some patient, others indignant -- waited for Black Pixel's next move.
By the time Black Pixel resumed work on NetNewsWire 4, Pasco was determined to not be dependent on a third-party sync service. Doing so would put the software at risk if the third party ran into problems or dissolved completely. He decided to build a prototype for NetNewsWire's dedicated sync service instead. The team had some logical concerns about that direction and pushed back. But Pasco's tenacious leadership and ambitious goals ultimately drove the product strategy forward.
With the strategy in place, what the team needed was thorough manager. That person was Black Pixel Director Jeff McLeman. His ardor for the app combined with decades of product management experience provided the team a firm but exciting direction. His message to them was clear: This is our mission. Help us accomplish it or move out of the way.
"We were not going to ship a product. We were going to ship a great product tied to a great service."
Energized and focused, the team banded together and set about integrating Pasco's dedicated sync service and testing it rigorously. McLeman had the server team put together capacity plans, failover plans, emergency plans, author code and management scripts to make sure that when the product rolled out, its users would have a reliable sync service.
From there they tackled NetNewsWire for iOS. While beautiful, this app had flaws from using the same data source architecture as the desktop version. The only way to thoroughly address the issue was to move the iOS product over to a data management architecture tailored for the platform. After advocating his position with the executive and product teams, McLeman had the green light to move forward and four weeks to make it happen.
"We were not going to ship a product. We were going to ship a great product tied to a great service," says McLeman. "The thing I have learned over the years I have shipped great hardware and software products is that everybody has ideas, but time and budget is the enemy. Figuring out the right thing to do given those constraints, and not burning out the team by thrashing, is key."
In the end, their ambition to produce something so essential was a monumental success. They had an app for Mac and iOS that synced perfectly and a solid foundation for building better features for new Apple products.
"I've loved NetNewsWire, for years, and it was a joy to corral the team, execute on a plan, and deliver a great sync system with two great apps," says McLeman, adding that there is still so much more to accomplish.
The New NetNewsWire
On September 3, 2015, after being in public beta for a few years, NetNewsWire 4 was released to the App Store. A considerable amount of hard work went into making this application better than ever before. Updates included a great user experience, solid engineering, and a dedicated free sync service for staying up to date across devices. Soon after, NetNewsWire for iPad was released, making this beloved product a universal application.
"The new NetNewsWire positioned us as a company with the technical chops to not only do app development, but complex back-end systems as well," says Pasco. "This project has also made a huge difference to our team members, especially as we look forward to our other products besides NetNewsWire. People want to ship."
As the team looks ahead to the future of Apple products and how NetNewsWire can evolve for new platforms, it's certain more is coming soon.
Behind all great software is a human, or in this case, a team of humans, emboldened to make someone's life better. What started as a spark of creativity from one person grew into many brilliant teams taking turns stoking the flames. NetNewsWire continues to illuminate the lives of its builders and the people who use it.