Support & Reviews

One of the things an author doesn’t have to worry about, once his/her book has been published, is that the plot will squirm out of the book’s grip and transform from a tense thriller to a story for the under fives, or that the heroic but broken hardboiled detective with a failed marriage and a drink problem will run away and found a sanctuary for destitute cats.

For a software developer things aren’t quite so nailed down. Software can fall over in a multitude of ways, at any time after release. This can be due to a previously undiscovered fault in the logic, or the code, or a change in the environment it is run in, or because the person using it didn’t hold their mouth just right or the wind changed. Software is only bug free until someone finds a bug. At that point, and with some priority, it should enter the process of being fixed, retested, and re-distributed. This happened to me fairly early after the release of version 1.0 of Become: Debt Free. I got a support e-mail (To the support address listed on the iTunes site, which takes you to the support area of the website that you are required to have in order to publish an App via the iTunes store), from a lady in Canada saying that the app had locked up on her. I wrote back in courteous and sympathetic tones that I had re-tested the app, couldn’t replicate her problem, and made some suggestions as to things she might try. I was bothered though, so I tested the app again, trying more and more out of logical sequence data entry, and out of bounds data until, about three hours later, I managed to get it to lock up. It turned out that if you created a new card without filling in any data, then returned and edited just one particular field, then came out of editing, you could engender a division by zero and lock up. This was not by any means an irrational thing to do, to go through and create blank entries for your cards, returning later to fill in data as you come across it, it had just never occurred to me that someone might do it so I never tested using it that way. I also found out that if you tried to get back into the app two or three times you could, and if you then either edited that field after another, or deleted the record and started again it would work fine and all your other data remained intact so the problem wasn’t a showstopper. I e-mailed the lady, apologised again, told her of the work around and promised that the bug would be fixed forthwith and her App updated as soon as the App store approved the upgraded release. She wrote back saying that she had already discovered the work around and had pressed on using the App.  Apart from my slackness in not testing every possible pathway, this is pretty much the way software development should work, problem reported, worked around until fixed, period of quiet until next time.

After a long silence, I have this week received my first two reviews, one for each App. The free App got four stars, and a helpful suggestion that I might want to add passworded access. The paid-for App got a single star, a heading “Waste” and a review of “Freezes”. This was a review against version 1.1, the version in which I fixed the lock up reported above, so is either mis-categorised or I have another possible bug. Now don’t get me wrong, my customer is entitled to any opinion he cares to form about the software he bought from me so I have no gripes there. What I do have is an information vacuum, and a bad review on the iTunes store. I can’t, of course, identify or respond to the reviewer, or post a rebuttal so I am stuck with a single star review.

Had my customer e-mailed for support with some detail like how he got the App to freeze, what he was doing at the time, or even posted the crash report his iTunes host collects when he synchs his iPod/iPhone to Apple who will pass it anonymously to me I could investigate and if necessary correct any fault found. As it is I have no crash reports  from either App (They share much of the same code) in some six weeks of sales and use. I know quite a number of copies of the free App are in regular use as I get feedback from iAds as to the number of iAds requests they are sending out. Apart from the lady in Canada, I have had no support e-mails.

So … when does a bug become a bug?


Become Apps

Living in Hay it is easy to be reminded of the many people who make a living writing books, indeed one of my favourite living authors (Jasper Fforde) lives nearby and can often be seen around and about. Hay is peculiarly receptive to a bohemian lifestyle and the Welsh climate conducive to working outdoors for only half the year at most. Wanting to live somewhere with a bit of land to it, but unsure how to make a living from it, it seemed only logical to consider writing over the winter months as a source of income. Not having a gift for literary efforts proved an overwhelming obstacle until I considered software development, something I had done on and off for 25 years or so. Adopting and adapting the aspiring author’s mantra of “Write what you know” I formed the idea for a coherent set of Apps for the iPhone/iPad suitable for people arriving at that stage in their lives when they start thinking about how it is all going to pan out in the long run.

Firstly, as I remember it, the main task is to get to grips with ones finances. I was never one of those people who stuff bills and statements in a drawer unopened, but had applied absolutely no critical thought to financial planning. Step one for me was to clear a bit of elbow room by eliminating unnecessary and unproductive expense and saving instead. I became an avid lurker on the Motley Fool message boards, absorbed a lot of common sense, and took a fair measure of control over things. To that end, and knowing that things have got a lot worse for young people in the interim, I expect that many people would like to efficiently clear even perfectly serviceable debts so I wrote Become: Debt Free. This was the first App I had written, the first time I had used a Mac, or Objective C so it took a while but I was pleased with it when it was done.

The next step for me was to start making better use of my time, so my next App was to be a sort of Project Planning App but without the tedious complexity which most of them come with. Believe me I have used Primavera and similar for over 20 years and they don’t need to be anywhere near so complex and capable as they are except for about 5% of their users. The conceptual design for Become: Organised was for an iPad App where as much as possible was done by dragging things about the screen and data entry was kept to the minimum. Development is ongoing but I got a bit sidetracked for a while.

Sales of the first App were sluggish and having no inclination to spend money advertising it, or the foggiest idea how to do so effectively even if I did, I decided to release a free version to attract attention and possibly engender some upgrade sales should people like it and want more. Whilst producing this, it occurred to me that I could produce another free app in broadly the same area which did the sort of calculations I used to horse around with on spreadsheets when I first fell under the spell of the Motley Fool. These mostly centred around the ideas that a) when you have debts, everything costs you more, and b) concentrating on gradually improving your net worth is a lot more productive in the longer term than ‘rate tarting’ with savings and loan accounts. It took longer than I expected to produce Become: Savvy to do this but I am happy with the end product and I learnt a fair bit of new stuff which I will use now I am returning to Become: Organised. Both these last two are free Apps, and both carry iAds which are supposed to earn the developer revenue to replace the lost sales revenue. Needless to say this has not been a path to unimagined riches, but I remain hopeful once Savvy is approved and on ‘sale’, and iAds are available outside the US, as at least half my sales are elsewhere.

The last App in the original plan, Become: Whole has yet to completely crystallise, but I envisage a sort of time machine interface (Like the Mac backup software I mean) where you can scrub back and forth from the present to any future date and see what current investments and expenditures become, and what needs to be done and when, in order to achieve future outcomes. As with all these Apps, the complexity required is not the problem, it is the simplicity required that takes the time. Doing the maths and taking all the factors into account is just calculation, making it straightforward and engaging is the real task. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had it, and I paraphrase a little here, “The thing is not complete when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

What a world this is that has such things in it …

I used the Universum image some time ago when trying out ideas for my website. I had uncharacteristically tidied up since, and couldn’t find a copy of the image, or its name, or the artist. All I had was an edited monochrome fragment in an old draft webpage. What I want, I said to myself, is the visual equivalent of one of those iPhone apps where you can record a snatch of a song and it will tell you what it is and where you can get it. After a brief google I came across Tin Eye ( where I uploaded my image fragment and it pointed me to the very image at Wikimedia Commons which, I now remember, is where I got it from in the first place. I currently prefer the colourised version, but may use the original again sometime now I know where to find it.

I am sufficiently old to be overawed by the utter cleverness of this whole process, especially the guys at Tin Eye.

Visions of the beyond

Flammarion woodcut, Paris 1888

Universum – Flammarion woodcut, Paris 1888, colored by Heikenwaelder Hugo, Wien 1998. Original for Flammarion’s 1888 L’atmosphère : météorologie populaire (p. 163).

All due thanks to Wikimedia Commons.

The image is described, in my brutal translation, as “A missionary of the middle ages tells that he has found the place where Heaven and earth meet”. If so, I am convinced, it was somewhere near Hay, in fact I think I know where. About 8 miles from here is Capel-Y-Ffin where the artist Eric Gill and his followers lived in some notoriety in the former monastery in the 1920’s. It was here that he designed the Gill Sans typeface which I use a lot. Capel-Y-Ffin was described by a Victorian clergyman who lived there as a place where the boundary between the two worlds was “Thin”. There is definitely a splendid feeling of calm and grace about the church when you visit.