Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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Entitlement and Acquisition

development & business 4 min read

Sparrow (a popular Mac and iOS email client) has been acquired by Google. The apps are essentially being put in maintenance mode, with no additional features planned for the future.

Cue predictable squawking on the internet. The same thing happens every time there’s an acquisition of a smaller, indie dev company or product by a larger company.

People try to dress their reaction up as a principled stance or a community cause, but that’s at best wrong-headed thinking, and at worst wilfully egocentric bullshit.

Here are some of the usual batch of responses.

I invested in this product!

You paid $10 for the Mac version, or $3 for the iOS version. Go ‘invest’ in a magazine and a coffee. They owe you nothing.

I chose to support development!

Thanks for that $10. It did indeed keep the lights on between 09:30 and 09:35 this morning. So if you’ve used Sparrow for more than five minutes, I guess we’re even.

I bought on the promise of future updates!

Sparrow’s guys apparently promised some future features like push notifications. But you’re saying ‘promise’ like it’s a reason for you to feel upset; it’s not. It’s actually a reason that two people were stupid.

  1. Sparrow’s guys publicly promised a future thing. Stupid. Never do that.
  2. You made a buying decision based on a promise. Really, really stupid.

Supporting customers is a matter of honour!

If you read the surrounding thread of tweets too, you’ll see that this guy then says “If you want to get rich, do it without slighting others”. Yes, slighting. This is about him personally feeling upset.

Cole wants you to keep developing the app he bought forever. You can take a buy-out, as long as the app continues to be developed somehow. If you can’t arrange that, you can’t take the buy-out. It’s a matter of honour.

Get the fuck out of my ready room, Lt. Worf. And take your pseudo-moralised indentured servitude with you.

I feel betrayed!

Yes, you do feel that way. You weren’t betrayed, though, so why should anyone care?

What you really mean is “You have disappointed me and/or hurt my feelings”. Yeah, sorry about that. You’ll find that it’s relatively common in life. Deal with it.

If you’re a developer, then you really need to get your head straight. You’re probably being a hypocrite. This is you:

  1. YESTERDAY! “I hate how people feel entitled to future versions of my app after paying $10.”
  2. TODAY! “I feel betrayed that Sparrow won’t be updated anymore after I paid $10.”

Pick one.

I’ll never buy their products again!

You’re right; they’ve been acquired by Google, and Google doesn’t tend to charge for products.

If the same guys later leave and start another company and make another great product, I’ll enjoy seeing you not using it “on principle”.

This sucks, and they suck!

Glad to see all the goodwill they thought they’d earned has been spent so quickly. Thanks for being happy for them. You’re an inspiration to indie developers… to quit and take up knitting.

They should have open-sourced the apps!

Sigh. I bet they even asked if they could - but Google would certainly have said no. How exactly do you think this works?

Google grabbed Sparrow’s guys for their talent, and also to gain some more control of Gmail clients on iOS. It would be a poor business decision on Google’s part to let the app itself become open source. It dilutes the value of the acquisition for them.

The apps should have been open-source/GPL from the start!

Good solution. You’d indeed still have access to the app (and future improvements of it) forever, in that situation. But not the same app. It’d be a shitty, reduced, pale imitation of what Sparrow actually was, because the developers would have had to take so much time off to attend the funerals of their families who had died from starvation.

Not everyone can just commit their lives to an open source project, complete with vastly reduced potential for commercialisation. Sparrow worked, in part, because it wasn’t open source. No, Firefox isn’t a counterexample - it’s funded by a huge corporation.

This is a blow to indie developers!

No. No it’s fucking not. It isn’t as if there’s a limited supply of indie devs, and Google has just whittled another critical few into the bosom of corporate employment. We’re not an endangered species. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, another fifteen kids launched Xcode for the first time.

Indie devs are an endlessly replenishable resource. Good indie devs are similarly replenishable. This acquisition has no effect whatsoever on the rest of us, except for further legitimising the practice of big companies buying us up. That cannot possibly be a bad thing.

Towards a more reasonable reaction

Sparrow’s acquisition is a success story. Indie devs make a great product, build a customer-base, and are rewarded with a buy-out from a big company and they get new jobs with that company. It might not be what your particular goal or end-game is, but it is a success. I’m really happy for them.

Selling out isn’t a dirty choice. It doesn’t matter what the deal’s details are, or the amount of money, or who you’re selling to. It’s fine. It’s business. If you want to take the money, take the money. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Acquisitions are (at least potentially) good business. In this case, Google wants people to use Gmail, and for their Gmail apps to be good. Killing Sparrow and acquiring its developers makes good business sense. It’s a sound and reasonable business decision. Google doesn’t owe you anything either.

It doesn’t even matter that it’s Google. It doesn’t matter what others apps or teams have been acquired and/or killed. It’s business. Google has a lot of money. They can do what they want with it. End of story.

The Sparrow guys have homes, and families. They have every right to cash out and take new jobs. They’re winners.

You should be cheering these people on, not yelling “traitor” in impotent fury like a jealous, confused teenager.

Disagree? Amuse me by telling me (@mattgemmell) on Twitter.