I recently found out about Let.ter, a tiny app that does one thing: it sends mail.
I want to specify: it doesn’t receive, store or sort mail. All you can do is write the mail, and send it. To quote their page:
No notifications, no inbox zero to achieve, no folders and tags and complexities. Just you and your email.
It looks pretty cool. The funny thing is that for the past six months, I’ve been writing something incredibly similar.
I started MailSend1 sometime in July of last year. It’s the next step in my quest to learn Objective-C/Cocoa, both because it’s cool and because it will presumably make me hireable at some point in the future. It’s been an on-and-off struggle against weird bugs, learning curves, obscure documentation, buried priorities, and failed motivation, but it’s been something to return to.
I’ve currently got a bit of downtime2 and I’ve been doing some more work on it - I’ve finally integrated the wonderful MailCore for sending email, and my next task will probably be to address previewing markdown.
And now as I’m ramping up progress on the app, someone’s beaten me to the punch. Which is not to say that I would have created something as well-polished as Let.ter appears: this is, after all, my second attempt at making an OS X application. But it’s still a bit of a blow. What I’m doing is no longer novel: it’s derivative, it’s been done before.
I’m reminded of a point in the second year of my Ph.D., when I finally got some novel results. My advisor was pretty proud of what I’d done, and was showing it off to colleagues. It wasn’t ground-breaking, but I still felt a warm glow whenever he mentioned what I’d done. We were busy turning it into a paper, to send off to the journals and hopefully get a publication somewhere nice. One month later, while we were still completing the final pieces of analysis, the same results were published by researchers working at a university in China. Suddenly, the work we were doing wasn’t novel any more. I wasn’t a special snowflake.
Ultimate lesson: life doesn’t stand still, I guess. People are working just as hard as (probably harder than) you are at the same things you’re doing. I’m lucky that MailSend isn’t a planned source of revenue, or I’d have to quickly re-think what I was doing with my spare time. Instead, it’s a personal project, good for learning a skill and maybe something to crow about on the internet. Even with Let.ter out there, it can still do that for me.
There’s a couple of silver linings to this cloud, too. Sometimes I’ve wondered if anyone but me would use an app like MailSend or Let.ter. I’ve wondered if maybe I should give up on this little two-bit app, and try making something that Real People™ might care about some day. Obviously, at least two other people in the world think an app like this is worth making. Maybe my ideas of what would make good software aren’t that crazy after all. The second thing I can feel good about, is that Let.ters is produced by two pretty talented people: one is an employee of Hog Bay Software, who make WriteRoom (to my mind one of the first “distraction-free” writing apps) and TaskPaper (which I regularly recommend to my friends who want to dabble in to-do listing). The other is a professional tech writer. So, these aren’t people starting out in software. If I’ve been beaten to the punch, it’s by professionals.
So what’s the plan now? I’ll continue to work on MailSend. It’s still going to be a good learning tool, after all. Once it’s done, I’ll publish it on here like I’ve done my previous coding projects. I’m purposefully not going to try Let.ters until I’ve completed at least 1.0: I want to see what I generate on my own, before seeing how other people do it. Who knows? I may even be able to cover a niche they’ve left off.
Even if it’s not novel, it’s mine. And I think that’s worth something.