Here are three relatively recent interactions I have had with independent software developers:

  • In November 2020,1 I suggested a separate display of the optional external_url property for JSON Feeds in NetNewsWire. I was not sure how to program this, but I thought it was a reasonable idea and, fortunately, Maurice Parker and Brent Simmons agreed. Within a week, it was part of the application. (Because this is open source software, I feel comfortable being precise.)

  • A reader emailed me with questions about iPhone photography. That gave me an idea, which I sent off to a developer, who responded positively to the suggestion.

  • I encountered a strange bug in a Safari extension. I emailed the developer with specific conditions and a screenshot, and received a reply mere hours later asking for more information. A busy week got in the way of my reply, so the developer emailed again several days later to follow up. I was no longer able to reproduce the bug but it was nice to be reminded.

These are just a few of the numerous pleasant experiences I have had with independent software developers. I cannot say the same is true of big corporate developers — not even close.

Of course, to expect otherwise would only be lying to oneself. The biggest companies in the world do not have the time or staff to handle the feedback from millions — billions — of customers on a personalized basis, so they need to triage. Common questions are handled by a voluminous collection of help desk articles. Bug reports are filed in some database to be compared against known problems. Feature suggestions are evaluated in the context of their effect which, on the scale of millions of users, will always be significant.

All of that is understandable. You all know that. And you also know I am totally preaching to the choir when I say that the more you experience that, the more it sucks the joy out of using a computer. When I buy and use software from an independent developer, it feels like I am establishing a relationship with the person or small team that built it; it feels like we both have a stake in the success of the product. But when I use software made by a massive company, I can feel the power imbalance in the pit of my stomach.

It seems unlikely that we can eschew software made by industry giants, and it may be unwise to try. There are advantages to using the same product as millions of other people for collaboration, common understanding, a common ecosystem, and security. While someone may be able to breach a Gmail account, the chances of them hacking into Gmail are vanishingly small. But just as these products may give us a sense of stability, the best of the independents indulge in the fun, the spirit, and the experimental side of software. They are the soul. The time I spend using any of my computers and devices would be so much worse without the indies.

  1. Okay, so only two “recent” interactions. ↥︎