Ben Chinn

Slightly nerdy ramblings and linkage

App Momentum

There seem to be so many great mac apps available now that it can be tricky to figure out which one is best for any given purpose, especially in areas where several apps seem to be just as good. You can looks at features, reviews, price, etc. but there’s another metric I’ve been thinking about that can be just as important. Let’s call it “momentum”.

Momentum is about the popularity of an app but also about how engaged its developers and users are. If an application is getting regular updates then it might be worth buying on the assumption that however good it is now it’s also likely to get substantially better. This may be enough to recommend one app over another that is otherwise comparable. Of course this is about the quality as well as the quantity of development - many open source projects see regular updates but each iteration doesn’t represent the kind of improvement one often sees in a app made by a small team with a clear vision.

Another component of momentum is the size and involvement of the user base, especially with apps that scriptable or extensible in some way. Sublime Text 2 is a great text editor made much better by the huge number of plugins developed by users. There are also numerous guides, tips, tricks and tutorials you can find online that have been posted by the user community. This breadth of functionality and support just doesn’t exist for every text editor.

For years I’ve been using LaunchBar, a terrific app launcher and general productivity booster. I’ve sung the praises of the app to anybody that will listen and have happily used it and extended it through hooking in AppleScripts that can be used to create additional actions the app can perform. Now I’m looking at Alfred, an app that does pretty much the same things as launchbar. I don’t know that Alfred is a better app (although it is a bit prettier) but it seems to have momentum behind it right now. A new version 2 has just been launched that supports user created “worflows” - essentially plugins - and folks have already created a bunch of them. Although there were gaps between Alfred and LaunchBar in terms of features those gaps have been closed and workflows represent an area where Alfred has now gone beyond what Launchbar can do (Launchbar can access scripts as actions but doesn’t have its own UI for creating and accessing plugins the way Alfred now does).

Alfred now has all the elements of momentum: rapid delivery of updates, an involved user base and more and more attention being paid to it by bloggers, online media, etc. I don’t like it much more than launchbar right now but I have a hunch that I will fairly soon.

Momentum is a funny thing though. It can swing another way fairly quickly and today’s hot app can be tomorrow’s barely supported dinosaur. TextMate suffered this fate, as did another launcher, Quicksilver. Both of those projects are now open source and development continues but without the same buzz as before.

There are exceptions. In the realm of text editors Vim is the stalwart, gathering moderate numbers of enthusiasts all the time even though the application itself has remained unchanged for many years. It’s so extensible that the functionality continues to grow even without official development. The learning curve is such that once you master it there’s little chance of wasting that investment by switching to something else. It seems invulnerable to the shifting winds of momentum.

For me, at least, momentum has been a significant factor. I often wish that I could stay satisfied with the tools I already have but hot new apps continue to turn my head and exploring them is just too much fun to give up.