Yesterday it was announced that Google had acquired Mac and iPhone Gmail app Sparrow, and that the Sparrow team would be joining the Gmail team, and Sparrow would be receiving no further updates.
And that led to some push back from some developers. Matt Gemmell best framed the push-back, so not to single him out, but to provide context for the discussion, I'll link to his framing. Here's a brief excerpt of what he posted on mattgemmell.com, but do go read the whole thing before continuing here:
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.
This is one of the most classic blunders in customer relationship management. No, not "never get involved in a land war in Asia...", but "never take up an equal and oppositely wrong headed, egocentric position in an argument".
The crux of this argument is that Sparrow doesn't owe users anything. Users paid, got the version of the app they paid for, the transaction was one-time and completed. And that users have no right to complain now.
The first few points are completely accurate. The last one, that users have no right to complain, is flabbergasting. (Yes, as someone who worked in software marketing for years, my gasts are literally flabbered.)
Certainly there's a segment of the user base that is outrageously entitled. There are those who believe that they shouldn't have to pay for software, even though they themselves get paid for their work, or who run beta operating systems or jailbreak and then leave negative reviews for apps they themselves broke, or that once they buy one version of an app, they're forever owed all future versions, for free. All of which is nonsense.
However, there's also a segment of the developer community that's just as outrageously entitled. That believe their success is detached from their user base. That they can act anyway they like, and that any negative reaction by their user base should be dismissed at best, attacked at worst. All of which is also nonsense.
Both beliefs do a disservice to the developer-user relationship, a relationship that can be powerfully beneficial for all parties involved.
There's a middle ground here. We can be thrilled for the Sparrow team's success and thrilled for Google for acquiring their talent. We can look forward to everything they'll bring us in the future. But we can also mourn for Sparrow,for an app we enjoyed and recommended highly, that we made part of our workflow and may soon need to replace, that now has no future.
A developer is no more obliged to keep updating an app in perpetuity, for any reason, than a user is obliged to purchase every update a developer ever releases, forever. Apple can stop making iWork and I can stop buying iWork updates. Adobe can stop making Photoshop and I can stop buying Photoshop updates.
If something happens beyond a developer's control, however, and they can no longer sell their app -- if it's rejected or removed from the App Store, if an API they depend on is threatened or denied them, if they're copied by the platform owner - they have every right to be pissed, or sad, or to complain about it. (Just look at the complaints about sandboxing and Twitter uncertainty) -- all well justified.)
And by the same token, if something happens beyond a user's control, and a they can no longer buy an app -- if it's removed from sale due to litigation, if it's discontinued, if an intermediary like Apple refuses to sell it -- they have just as much right to be pissed, sad, and complain.
A passionate customer base should be humbly nurtured, never taken for granted, or worse, arrogantly dismissed. If you're a developer, understanding that can be the difference between amazing customer relationship wins and detrimental public relations gaffs.
The reaction to Sparrow is no different than than the reaction to Tweetie being replaced by the new Twitter for iPhone. It's no different than the reaction to Firefly being canceled.
Humans become invested in what we enjoy. We feel connected to it. We share pride in its successes and take issue with its failures. The benefit to those who develop or produce such things is enormous -- continued revenue, powerful word-of-mouth advertising, popularity, and support.
Our passion for products is infectious -- we tell our friends, our families, and our colleagues, and we spread word on Twitter, Facebook, forums, and more. We recommend what we love and we feel responsible for what we recommend.
And the flip side of that passion, the reaction to it being lost, the price paid when it is taken away, is that we voice our displeasure just as loudly, in just as many mediums. We mourn. And then we move on.
If you break up any relationship out of the blue, own it. Anticipate the reaction. Plan for it and handle it with grace and respect. The Sparrow team did just that. They sympathize, thanked, acknowledge, and used the opportunity to build even stronger support for the future.
But whatever you do, don't ever tell users -- customers -- that they don't have the right to complain, because then you're turning them into opponents. And how much opportunity does that future hold?
Response to: Matt Gemmell