Those of you who know me from my work on Elgg or building the platform powering Latakoo are possibly not aware that I also write application software. Not as much as I’d like, the lure of web services and the long tail is seductive, but while web services solve some problems they create others. In many ways, traditional application software is simpler, for one thing it’s a heck of a lot easier to charge money for.

Anyway, recently I wrote an application which lets NPPL pilots manage their pilot logbooks and keep track of the various currency requirements. The NPPL Pilot Logbook is written in Java and runs on Windows, OSX and Linux. I went from idea to product in a couple of weeks, here are some notes on what I did, in no particular order, which may be of use to some of you…

Setting the release date

Something I try and do with any of my projects is set a very short time frame for having something out of the door. The reason is that I find enthusiasm inevitably starts to wane (often this starts to set in remarkably quickly). Once this starts to set in, the chances of the product ever getting released drop exponentially until inevitably the project gets canned or it gets sucked into months or years of internal chrome polishing, which is startup death (generally this is down to fear of putting their assumptions to the acid test of the market).

Anyway, many others have written about this far more eloquently than I can, but as a rule of thumb I set the following milestones for a project wherever I can:

  • End of day 1: First runnable (it doesn’t have to do much, it may crash all the time, but you have something that runs).
  • End of week 1: First public version.

Of course, you’re not done after week one. You’ll get feedback, good and bad, you need to roll this into the next version and release that. Rinse repeat. But crucially you’ve moved your project from possibility to reality, and it’s only in one of those that your project can be called a success.

Sure, you’re going to get users complaining that feature x doesn’t work or that the software crashes, maybe you’ll see a few negative blog posts. But all these people are using your software, and taking their feedback on board is a very successful way of turning them into very loyal customers.

But remember, nothing built by humans is ever perfect and the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

Language and platform choice

My target audience uses a variety of different computers, often without an internet connection (hence why I decided to build this as a desktop application in the first place). So, I was aiming at building something as multi-platform as possible. My development environment is entirely Linux, with an Windows XP VM I keep kicking about primarily so I can sync my iphone on itunes, so I also wanted something I could build natively.

I considered C/C++, but while all multi-platform stuff is going to be write once, debug everywhere, the trad C/C++ route seemed to be the most painful. Certainly when it comes to decoding the Win32 API or trying to link to wine libraries.

So, the choice was between Mono/.NET or Java. I picked Java, for no reason other than it seemed to present the fewer hurdles and it seemed to have the more mature tool chain. That said, I’m watching Mono with a keen interest.

Writing the code

I wrote some code, I leave this as an exercise for the reader. Under the hood, the NPPL Logbook is not a terribly complicated piece of software, I used Swing for the UI put together with netbeans and using their UI extensions.

A couple of very specific points:

  • Home directory: there seems to be no reliable way of getting a home directory location in a multiple platform context, and you can’t rely on user.home being set. So, writing configuration files can be interesting, especially if the user chooses to install in program files under windows.
  • Give the OSX dock bar a nice title

Deployment

I admit that this is still a little bit of a work in progress for me. Windows has by far the most mature deployment tool chain, with many good free installer construction kits.

Mac works from directly running the .jar archive, intelligently extracting the .zip file to a seemingly sensible location. Linux is still a little fragmented, although I do remember that .deb archives are pretty straightforward to build. Since the Linux demographic is highly technical I figured a .jar archive and a linux launcher would work for them.

The Website

My requirement for the website were that it should look (reasonably) professional given my limited time and graphic design skills, and that it should not be a time sink (as they often are). So, I got an appropriate domain (nppllogbook.com) and deployed the latest version of wordpress with a businesslike free theme I grabbed from wordpress.org.

It took a couple of days, off and on, to tweak the theme, install plugins, do basic SEO, write pages and get the site to a state where people could actually download my software (and as a by-product I open sourced a handy tool).

Next comes…

Having a way to get paid

I leave this until last, but it is obviously not the last in priority. From the beginning I had a simple business model; build something that solves a problem, sell it to people who have the problem it solves. To do this you need to be able to accept money (obviously), and if you don’t have an easy way for your customer to give you money you have problems.

As a non-US based company, this actually proved somewhat problematic. The new best of breed payment systems that world+dog seem to be using these days (Braintree et al) are pretty much US only, unless you want to slap some cash down up front to get a traditional merchant account with a bank.

This basically leaves you with Google Checkout or *gulp* Paypal. I tossed a coin and lumped for Paypal, which isn’t too painful providing you avoid their tight integration. I wrote another tool to generate registration codes, and use Paypal’s notify api to trigger an endpoint, which emails a registration code to the customer.

The headache I get every time I have to implement a payment system was mercifully small.

What next?

So, the NPPL Logbook is out there, you can download it and even pay for it (and if you’re a private pilot, I would encourage you to do both!).

Right now I’m spending time promoting it, as well as processing feedback to feed into the next version, and working on other product ideas. That’s another take home – you’re never done, and that’s a good thing!

Anyway, hope this rambling stream of conciousness will be useful!

2 thoughts on “Building the NPPL Pilot logbook: Idea to launch

  1. Marcus this is a super cool post! I love your strategy to move from idea to baby business. Now, one minor disagreement: why a desktop app? I agree that it has some “tangibleness” that may increase sales but it is also plagued with obstacles natural to desktop app development, like the ones you mention. I used to be a desktop app developer back when the Internet was a toddler and programming a form-to-mail required a genius, but then one day web pages became dynamic and most every business requirement could be programmed to run inside a browser, especially data logging apps like this one. Now, you may argue connectivity and I would reply offline persistent storage.

    I think only x% of pilots will travel with laptops but 99.999% will travel with phones or tablets, so in my opinion your idea has a better fate as a mobile app, in particular a shell app programmed in web tools using some framework like Phonegap. Bonus: put in the app stores and have them help you monetize :-)

  2. Hi Ricki, thanks for your feedback!

    You raise some very good points. I had a number of things in my mind when I decided to target desktop: firstly, that many clubs (thinking of mine) have very limited computing facilities, secondly that people seem more used to paying for physical software than web services (which they often expect to be able to use for free).

    That said, I think your points are valid, and I am considering an online version.

    As well as the potential for a much larger market there are also support issues associated with a desktop application which I think I had underestimated when I embarked on this venture.

    As for whether people want to pay for a web service, that is something I’m going to have to test but this is a specialist tool which I think is something that counts in its favour.

    Additionally, I think the landscape regarding web services has changed recently, and more and more companies seem to be charging upfront for services in order to differentiate from the “user data as product” services which are widespread.

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