Updates on Myrme, notes on mobile development, and a mini book review

A few updates.

I.

Last week I wrote that I'm starting to work on Myrme— a social network to promote cordial civil discourse. I feel uneasy about a small cabal of companies controlling all the internet. This problem is so important to me I've committed to working on it full time. On Wednesday I put out a call to recruit the first ten users:

I'm recruiting the first 10 users for Myrme. This group will help set product direction and influence the cultural tone for the next billion users. If you're interested in becoming an early user, e-mail your resume to coffeemug@gmail.com with the word "Myrme" somewhere in the subject. Note: this is not a job opportunity (yet). The makeup of this group is extremely important, so the selection process of initial users must by necessity be rigorous.

You sent over 150 resumes, and most of them are really good. I apologize for being unable to reply— sending a thoughtful email to over 150 people would be too time consuming. Instead I put all that effort into building the first version of the app. I have one working on my phone, and only have a few more things to add before the first release. For example, I have to secure the backend— right now anyone can get unrestricted access. I expect to start inviting the first batch of users this week.

(Many people pointed out that Myrme is a bad name— nobody knows how to pronounce it or what it's supposed to mean. It was meant to be somewhere in between murmur and myrmex, but we'll change it in the first iteration of updates. For now consider it a codename deliberately picked to dissuade the insufficiently committed 🤠)

II.

Speaking about apps, here are a few things I learned in my one week career as a mobile app developer.

The number of hoops you have to jump through to get an app deployed to your local phone (let alone the App Store) is insane. Both Android and the iPhone are equally guilty of this. I didn't keep precise track of the time but I think it took me a full two days of installing software and chasing obscure error messages before I could write code unimpeded. And the process is sloooow— unless you have a top of the line machine, you end up spending a lot of time waiting. There is no technical reason for the development process to be anything other other than "ssh into the phone and go". The experience reminds of the olden days of writing bank software in Eclipse on top of some convoluted implementation of the already convoluted J2EE standard.

I'm using React Native, and once you get past setting up the bloated toolchain, React itself is incredibly easy and fun to use. The React team deserves all the praise it gets. React with hooks is a work of art, and they do the best they can in getting around the bloat of native app development. Zuckerberg has a reputation for running a tight ship compared to Google and Apple. The development tools give you a small glimpse into the engineering internals of their respective companies, and if that's any indication, React blows Google and Apple's tools out of the water.

Styling in React Native is much cleaner and easier than CSS, but it's still hard. Making functional apps is easy. Making beautiful apps requires superhuman effort. All this said, I'm pleased with the progress and excited to invite the first batch of users. I think we can start iterating on the experience and growing the user-base as early as next week. Stay tuned— more updates coming soon.

III.

Last week I finished reading Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing by Randall Stross. It's a well-researched, well-written book and I recommend reading it. It covers Steve Jobs's time at NeXT by pulling together a huge trove of publicly available details and countless private interviews conducted by the author. I didn't know much about NexT and Jobs's time there other than basic information. I feel much better informed having read the book.

While the author did a great job, the best aspect of the book is incidental. It was published in 1993— eight years after Jobs founded NeXT in 1985, but four years before Apple bought it in 1997 (did you know Jobs ran NeXT for over a decade?) The story goes like this: Jobs gets kicked out of Apple, bounces around for a year, starts NeXT, after four years of work ships the oversized, overpriced, underpowered NeXT cube, and then pivots the company over and over and over again for ten years, trying and failing to find a market niche while alienating customers, investors and employees.

This is Stross's vantage point. He paints Jobs as a has been who uses his power of persuasion, capital and leftover celebrity from Apple to satisfy stratospheric egoic demands. Jobs keeps trying to prove he can pull another magic rabbit out of a hat with NeXT like he did with Apple, but instead he fumbles and basically publicly fails non-stop while Microsoft, Sun and IBM eat his lunch.

You get a lot of book in 352 pages. It covers the development and sales of the Apple Macintosh, Jobs's relationship and fall from grace with Ross Perot, the culture of Xerox PARC, the rise of Sun Microsystems, and NeXT itself in considerable detail. Stross doesn't yet know of Steve Jobs's return, so you get a look at the man without rose-colored glasses. And what does he look like? Actually, he makes the same mistakes every entrepreneur I know makes. Sure his are made to more fanfare, but it's all the same stuff in essence— not paying attention to customers, overspending, difficulty shipping the product and delivering late, etc.

I wish the book did less psychoanalyzing and gave jobs more credit. Shipping products is hard, shipping great products is even harder, and Jobs demonstrates immense grit over a very long period. It's obvious that Stross never ran a technology company. If he did he would have cut Jobs some slack. But given how informative the book is, this aspect is easy to overlook. Stross has books on eBay, Thomas Edison, Google and Microsoft, and I liked Steve Jobs and the NeXT Big Thing enough that some day I may read them all.

An important part of the story you don't get to learn about is how Jobs made his turnaround. For that you need a companion book. I don't know which one yet. Let me know if you have a recommendation, I plan to read a cluster of books on Apple in the second half of this year.

Some select quotes from the book:

  • The NeXT story could well have turned out to be a short one-act play, a pallid variation of Godot, starring only Jobs, as the solipsist in black turtleneck, waiting for customers that never would appear.

  • My own interest in NeXT originates in Jobs' revolutionary ambitions to take the world by storm, ambitions that seemed to me to be audacious enough when one is young and has never tried before, but especially audacious when attempted when one is more experienced, worldly, and scarred.

  • The Macintosh higher-education marketing group consisted of a grand total of four people at a time when annual sales on campuses were running $50 million a year.

  • The extraordinary success of Macintoshes on college campuses was a compound of these many elements: a new model for personal computers, in the form of the Macintosh itself; a new system of distribution, in the form of college bookstores; and a new kind of customer loyalty, in the form of evangelical Macintosh partisans.

  • What excited the university community and the Macintosh marketing people was the idea that the Macintosh was contributing in important ways to teaching and learning.

  • The idealism of Apple's Stacey Bressler illustrated the rush of adrenaline that the participants in the story experienced. (p. 68— Stacey was in sales, camping out in campuses, working 100 hour weeks, acting as a missionary)

  • "Steve Jobs doesn't sit around short-circuiting his effectiveness by wondering if he's on the right course."— John Nathan

  • In his passionate attention to small details, Bechtolsheim resembled Steve Jobs. They differed in that Bechtolsheim knew that the perfectionist impulse is not the manifestation of greatness but a compulsion that needs to be reined in.

  • "I'd rather have a live dream and a dead company than the other way."— Ernest Prabhakar

  • "Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular future seem inevitable in retrospect."— Stephen Jay Gould


I will dedicate this week to shipping Myrme to the first five users. I'll tell you how it went next Monday. I'm also starting to read Ashlee Vance's Elon Musk biography. Expect another mini book review in the near future. Have a wonderful and productive week!