Many consider the software industry a young man’s business. I was certainly young enough when I first became an Apple developer in 1982. Now it’s 30 years later. I am no longer a young man. Still, I remain in the software business, running the same small, but innovative company, for the last 18 or so years. Over the course of the last 30 years, I have seen numerous companies, big and small, come and go. However, I have also witnessed Apple, Inc., a pioneering niche player (and the one company that I have stayed involved with since the beginning), transform from a company struggling for survival, into the largest and richest company in the world.
Throughout the last three decades I have tried, sometimes with greater, and other times with lesser success, to marry my two greatest passions: history and technology. I began writing CD-ROMs on history, and moved on to create our mammoth history web site. In the latest adaptation of our business, I have evolved into an author of iOS apps on history. None of the methods have proven everlasting. We have devoted a great deal of effort over the years, not as much to changing our content, but rather, to changing its method of delivery. Developments in technology and the resultant changing economics of the business required these continued transformations. Throughout this same period, I kept teaching history at different academic levels, continuing my mission to better understand how students, of all ages, learn and how to best present history to these students. This helped us remain connected to the realities in the field and effectively expand and improve our program’s content.
I first became involved in combining history and computers during the first years of CD-ROMs. Apple had developed an application called HyperCard, the first hypermedia program. HyperCard seemed like the perfect platform for combining sound, text and photos in an interactive manner. Over the next few years we focused on developing HyperCard-based multimedia history products. Although we quickly moved from working with Apple’s HyperCard to developing programs with Macromedia’s Director, as our prime-authoring tool, it seemed back in the early 1990’s that computers might actually revolutionize how we disseminate information.
Unfortunately, the business side of the history/software project did not match up well with the technology that was available. There was a serious problem of distribution. When CD-ROMs first hit the market, they were the hot technology for a brief moment. Barnes and Noble set up CD-ROM sections in their stores. The major book distributors followed by setting up multimedia divisions. Unfortunately, they jumped the gun. At that time, most computers were yet to have built in CD-ROM drives (The only way to effectively deliver multimedia at that point in time.) In addition, back then; the penetration of computers was nowhere near what it would become later. So, as quickly as “New Media” divisions were initiated, they were closed.
Still, we continued to sell CD-ROMs. Almost all of those sales, however, were to the school market– through three large school software distributors, who had large catalogs and sold directly to schools throughout the US. Again, for a short time, educational software was hot. Before long companies were being bought and sold. The first big sale was the purchase of a company called MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium; later “Corporation), makers of the original Oregon Trail. MECC was sold for $700 million in 1994. (An article on Wikipedia alleges the price was $350 million, but I distinctly remember that $700 was the number).
Over the next few short years, a series of mergers and purchases ended up consolidating most of the independent educational software companies. At the same time, the distributors were being consolidated as well. In the final step the largest group of educational software companies, including what was left of MECC, were sold to the Mattel Toy Company. In short order, Mattel found itself losing so much money on the purchase that it eventually sold the entire enterprise for $1.
But here I have digressed. As all of this was happening, something completely different was emerging. It was called: “The Internet”. By 1996 the World Wide Web was clearly emerging, and as a company, we believed we had to be there. Early in 1996 we put up our first web site. Our initial web content was excerpted from our American history CD-ROM that dealt with US Presidential elections. At first, we saw the web as a means of promoting our CD ROMs. However, in 1999, when we reached an agreement with DoubleClick to serve advertisements on our site, it seemed clear the web was now the best way to distribute content.
Still, there were clear limitations to the web. Due to bandwidth constraints, we could not serve the media rich content we provided our CD ROMs over the early Internet. Our love of the web, at least financially speaking, did not last all that long. In 1999, at the start, we received $30 CPM for the banner ads that ran on our web pages. That means we received $30 for every 1,000 people who saw our ads. The math was very favorable. It looked like it would be very easy to sustain our business solely from the advertising revenue. So we pushed full-speed ahead, moving content from our CD ROMs onto our fast-growing website. Unfortunately, the year 2000 was not the best year for the web. It was that year the bubble burst. For us, that meant we went from earning $30/CPM, to receiving $.50/CPM for the same advertising. This was not a sustainable business model.
Being flexible, we quickly sought and found a new way to generate income from our content. We initiated a new division of our company, enter: Historyshopping.com. The idea was to monetize the site by selling items related to the history content on our web site. We ended up concentrating on items related to the Naval history section of our site. For seven years we grew that business. Before long, we began actually manufacturing many of the products we sold. However, despite the fact that this a definitive profit center for the business, Historyshopping.com was taking us further and further away from my two main passions: teaching history and developing software. Four years ago we sold that division of the business to free up time for more teaching, more content development, as well as, more software development.
In life, timing is everything. However quickly technology has been moving, in some ways, it has not changed all that fast. As we were negotiating for the sale of our Internet shopping business, Apple was busy transforming the world of software and computing so profoundly, that I do not believe the significance of these changes are fully understood, even today. The first major transformative milestone was the development of the iPhone– the first widely used pocket computer. However, when Steve Jobs first announced the iPhone he made one of his very few missteps. Jobs did not initially provide a means for people to customize their phones. One year later, in 2008, Jobs corrected that mistake. He announced that Apple would allow “Third party” software developers to sell applications for the iPhone. Even more importantly, Apple would sell the software for Third party developers, taking 30% portion of the profit (considerably less than traditional software distributors or retailers required). Apple also provided a development environment for outside developers to create new iPhone software.
In October 2008 Apple approved our first iPhone app. Our first iPhone app was a much improved rewrite of a software package I had produced in the first year of the Macintosh (1984) computer called, MacFinance. Since 2008, we have released 52 (and counting) products for the iPhone and the iPad, (including successfully releasing our first iPad products on the day the iPad went on sale.)
Today, our company enjoys worldwide distribution for our iPhone, iPad and Mac apps through the App Store. We also have a road map for developing close to an additional 40 applications– scheduled for release over the next four years. We continue to maintain our web site: Historycentral.com, which boasts about 10,000 unique visitors a day. Finally, we have also produced a number of custom software applications for other companies over the course of the past four years.
All of this is a long introduction to what I will present in the coming weeks and months, as I share my views on the state of computer software industry– as well as my unique views on Apple, a company with whom I have worked with since 1984; and Google, with whom our company has worked since 2002. It has certainly been an interesting ride. As I said at the start of this piece, I am no longer a young man. However, I have not lost my ambition, or my dreams of using technology to teach what I care the most about. I was born a few weeks after Steve Jobs. His death, together with the recent deaths of both of my parents has made me all too aware of my own mortality. At the same time, those occurrences, combined with the awareness that, statistically, I should have another 30 years ahead of me to keep creating. These events and realizations have given me a new sense of purpose, and the determination to take my craft to the next level.
I hope you will join me in the coming weeks as I share my perspectives.