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Daring to Defy Software Extinction: A Limited History of Development Tools

In 1998 Steve Jobs was the interim CEO of Apple and trying to keep his unprofitable company from sinking into bankruptcy. Just the previous year, when asked what he would do if he were in charge of Apple, Dell CEO Michael Dell said, “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

The Mac had single digit marketshare. Creating a development tool, independently of Apple or any company that makes a platform such a tool would support, was considered a fool’s errand. There were plenty of tools available from large companies. Apple made MPW (the Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop). Symantec created THINK C. Metrowerks developed CodeWarrior.  IBM’s VisualAge. Macromedia Flash. If you needed to create a cross-platform desktop app, you’d be told to look no further than SUN Microsystems Java: THE cross-platform language. We were all promised that Java was going to run on everything from our computers to our cars to our can openers. Java was the safe and popular choice. Developers made up only about 5% of computer users anyway. Honestly, who would be crazy enough to launch a new development tool in a  market crowded by giants?

We were.

On July 4th of that same year, in a 10′ x 10′ booth at MacWorld Expo, the four of us that made up the fledgling company that is now Xojo, shipped version 1.0 of a new development tool that did one thing and one thing only: made it easy for regular people to create apps for the Mac.  It was not the most auspicious start but it didn’t matter to us. We believed in what we were doing. We believed that we were creating something that would enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

That our highest revenue days each week were Saturday and Sunday told us that our initial users were mostly hobbyists. Over the next year it shifted to the weekdays, telling us that people were building solutions for their jobs. Eventually commercial applications began to appear. Once we had a decent-sized user base, some prospective users, who were planning to make serious investments of their time, started asking the inevitable question of software extinction, “What happens if you guys go out of business?”

As much as I didn’t like hearing it, at the time it was a very legitimate question without a great answer. They would point to all the other development tools and propose that it would be safer to choose of them. Of course it would take much longer with one of those tools and if we didn’t go out of business that “safe” choice of theirs would end up being a very expensive insurance policy.

While it can be argued that the question of software extinction is always a relevant one, we have been providing and improving Xojo for almost 19 years. And in that time it’s gone from a development tool that built only Mac applications for System 7 running on a 68000 or PowerPC processor, to supporting an entirely new MacOS, multiple versions of Windows and Linux, console apps, web apps, iOS, Raspberry Pi and of course both X86 and ARM processors.  The framework has been through many updates to modernize its underlying systems while users have been mostly abstracted from these changes. We are rolling out a new framework that is mostly like the old one but makes some important modernizations to prevent common problems users face, including making it far more consistent and utilizing more OS-level functionality so that apps automatically use the latest libraries for functions such as HTTP, SSL and more. This Xojo framework is designed to allow you to migrate parts of your app as you need to do so. It’s an incremental process rather than a monumental one.

Part of the success of Xojo is not just its continued existence and evolution, but that those of us who had the original vision to bring it to life are still continuing to nurture it, help it grow and keep it modern. Though more have joined us along the way, there’s tremendous value in the consistency of vision.

What about those other development tools that were such good bets back in 1998?

  • Visual Basic 6 is dead and has been replaced by Visual Basic.NET which is so different that many VB6 users began calling it “Visual Fred” as a way of mocking it.
  • Macintosh Programmer’s Workshop is long dead.
  • Symantec’s THINK C is dead.
  • Metrowerks CodeWarrior was purchased by Motorola and is now focused exclusively on the embedded systems market.
  • Borland Delphi is still around but was sold to another company and has become very expensive.
  • IBM has discontinued VisualAge
  • Java is of course still around but few use it for desktop applications after it proved to not be a good solution but a far better one for server-side applications. However, it’s no longer in the hands of original visionaries that brought it to market as SUN Microsystems was purchased by Oracle in 2009.
  • Flash has been acquired by Adobe and while it is still in use, it’s clearly on its way out

If back in 1998 you chose to write your app in Xojo (then REALbasic), you have been able to continue to improve it and keep it running – not just on the latest version of the desktop OS you care about but several new operating systems and platforms as well. 19 years after that MacWorld Expo, we are still here and still providing the vision of what Xojo will be in the future. We continue to improve and modernize Xojo so that you can do what you do best: focus on what makes your application unique.

While the question of what you should do if you find your development tool of choice extinct or perhaps not properly cared for will always be a relevant one, we have shown that not only has Xojo stood the test of time, but that we have done so far better than most of our competitors who are an order of magnitude or more larger than we are.

No one can guarantee a product will be around forever. Even open source projects survive only as long as there are enough interested parties willing to donate their time and energy to continued development.  One of our engineers once said that, “Source Forge is littered with the corpses of open source projects.” Having said that, I can tell you that the people who bring Xojo to you are extraordinarily dedicated and talented. Our annual turnover rate (the rate at which people come and go at Xojo, Inc.) is only 5% which puts us amongst the best of the best in this area. This is not a happy accident, but very much by design. We have learned over the years to hire mostly users. In fact, nearly every member of the team began as a user. Those that didn’t, have been on the team for an average of 12.5 years. In an industry that sees people come and go through companies like a revolving door, the fact that people tend to stay at Xojo is a fact of which I am immensely proud.

It is our continued privilege to bring Xojo to you, to be a little part of your dreams, your aspirations, and to have you as a member of the Xojo community. Our next reunion will be April 25th-27th, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. We hope to see you there.