Tragedy of the Uncommons

Today, I will show you how choosing good keywords for your website can forestall competitors entering your market.

Have you ever noticed those little utilities and niche softwares that invariably seem to evolve more than once, even in open source, and especially in the small shareware vendor market (where “small” refers to the size of the business, not the market)?

Here’s an example:

  1. AppZapper (commercial)
  2. AppDelete (freeware)
  3. AppCleaner (freeware)

They all do the same thing. They remove applications and associated files from Mac OS X. Spring Cleaning incidentally has been doing this for longer than any of them. (For further examples, try this and this.)

Is this simply an example of a “me too” program, like localised versions of popular web apps like facebook and twitter (niches work, too), where a third party is trying to cut in on the dough? I don’t necessarily think so, since in the above example, two of the apps are free. Unless we’re going to assume that there are particularly zealous individuals out there who will go a long way just for an app to be available for free (remember, if you consent, it’s not slavery!), we’ll have to look for another explanation.

Let’s look at the amount of information available to agents in this system. Everyone has access to the information that there is functionality missing from the computer. But does group B know that group A is also already working on a solution? Quite plausibly not. How likely is one small team of programmers to hear of another working on a similar application, especially given that one of them may have decided to work in “stealth mode”? Not very likely?

But let’s not forget the consumer. John goes looking for an application that will remove his programs completely. Which will he find first? And if it does what he wants, he’ll stop looking. And so even John, the consumer, will remain unaware of the choice he could have exercised, between a commercial and free variant, in this case. And several companies can continue to exist alongside each other in little niches, each slowly building their own network of customers, mutually exclusive with the other. Until some magazine picks up on the fact and publishes a comparative review article. The situation would be different, of course, if VC money and heavy marketing were involved, but that’s unlikely for niche software that doesn’t do anything hugely clever and isn’t targeting a growing market.

How can this dilemma be solved? Well, eventually search engines will become sufficiently clever to know that when you’re looking for “remove programs”, an answer to “delete apps” will also satisfy you. (Which, btw, isn’t really that hard, which I can say because I have a solution; I suspect Google does, too.) Until that happens, only diligently seeking for every possible keyword to put on your website will help you. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a selfish endeavour, and your own effort makes your gain.

Update 1 February 2008: I forgot to mention AppTrap , CleanApp and Yank.

Seven Mac OS X applications I would fork out for

  1. NetNewsWire (have actually bought): only client when I last checked that allowed archiving feeds for an arbitrary period of time – never miss or lose the news!
  2. Little Snitch – essential for anybody who cares about privacy.
  3. Path Finder – if you tweak Mac OS X Finder, you can make it usable, but Path Finder is the real enabler.
  4. Pixelmator (beta) – can’t wait for this to come out; from the looks of it, they are combining ImageMagick (which I regularly use on the command line) and CoreImage capabilities topped off with GUI goodness. Could be amazing, wait and see…
  5. Parallels Desktop – if you need to run Windows, this is the way to do it; beware, though, that you’ll need to add £80 (UK) to the bargain for your copy of Windows XP, so the real cost is closer to £120. I’ll be buying this when integration with Linux guests is as seamless as currently for Windows.
  6. SubEthaEdit – been wanting to try this for a while now – it looks and sounds amazing. Realtime collaborative editing over the internet without a server.
  7. Mathematica – version 6 finally has syntax highlighting; I may upgrade soon. After the gradual demise of Fortran, this may be the future of scientific computing. Very, very expensive though. It may be necessary to start an open source implementation from scratch – Maxima doesn’t seem to accumulate capability fast enough, and is even less usable than Mathematica.

And if I ever got serious about web design, I would add the following:

  1. Transmit – gets you out of the world of code regressions that is Cyberduck
  2. CSSEdit – elegance incarnate
  3. Coda – hyped but possibly actually useful