A Sparrow leaves the nest

As a user of Instagram, Pulp, and Sparrow, you can imagine my disappointment at their recent acquisition by giants like Facebook and Google. These ever-hungry beasts ‘hire talent’, while the customers and users of the acquired parties’ applications are left with software which may or may not continue to be developed.

These three cases are quite different from one another. Instagram indeed seems to be going along rather smoothly (and I haven’t quit using it, despite my deep hate for Facebook; I think I’ll go when Facebook does some stupid move that may ruin the experience), as if it had never been acquired. Pulp and other Acrylic Software apps, according to the Acrylic blog, “have not been acquired by Facebook, and while there are no plans for further development on them, Wallet and Pulp will continue to remain available for download and purchase in their current form”, so basically they’re remaining in a sort of functional suspended state. As for Sparrow, well, the plans are quite clear. From an email Dom Leca sent to Sparrow users:

We will continue to make available our existing products, and we will provide support and critical updates to our users. However, as we’ll be busy with new projects at Google, we do not plan to release new features for the Sparrow apps.

The reaction on the Web and on Twitter has been obvious: angry users who feel seduced & abandoned. My reaction has been similar, but after a initial burst of anger, my feelings have turned more into disappointment and sadness. The afore-linked tweet, which I fired as soon as I got wind of the news, is harsh (“If you let yourself be acquired, you don’t give a shit about your product or your customers. Only about money. Screw you.”) but I’m not writing this article to retract any word of it, only to expand and explain further.

Meanwhile, Matt Gemmell has voiced his opinion on the matter in a piece called Entitlement and Acquisition. In it, he shows his support for the Sparrow developers, calling Sparrow’s acquisition “a success story”, and examines various different reactions from users, after making this preliminary remark:

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.

It’s true, some of the examples he makes are a bit over the top. As for me, I’m not angry because I feel ‘entitled’ in any way. I’m perfectly aware that the risk involved when buying software from small companies is that development can end or change direction for whatever reason. I definitely don’t feel that the Sparrow guys owe me anything just because I spent 10 Euros on their software, neither I am the kind of user that demand free updates forever. I also don’t recognise myself in the other reactions Gemmell published in his article. I don’t feel betrayed. I don’t feel like “I’ll never buy their products again!”. But well, perhaps, yes… yes, I thought “This sucks, and they suck”, and yes, let users vent their frustration, non-constructive as it is. Remember that some of them indirectly helped the applications get better, by providing useful, detailed bug reports and feedback (I’m not making this up. When Sparrow was in beta stage, here’s what the developers wrote on their blog: The feedback and support we’re having on Sparrow is fantastic. Tons of great ideas and precise bug reports. We can’t thank you enough for taking the time to help us improve the app.)

What I do feel about all this is simply lack of respect, both towards the product itself, and towards those who bought it. Gemmell’s position is crystal clear:

Selling out isn’t a dirty choice. It doesn’t matter what the deal’s details are, or the amount of money, or who you’re selling to. It’s fine. It’s business. If you want to take the money, take the money. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Acquisitions are (at least potentially) good business. In this case, Google wants people to use Gmail, and for their Gmail apps to be good. Killing Sparrow and acquiring its developers makes good business sense. It’s a sound and reasonable business decision. Google doesn’t owe you anything either.

It doesn’t even matter that it’s Google. It doesn’t matter what others apps or teams have been acquired and/or killed. It’s business. Google has a lot of money. They can do what they want with it. End of story.

The Sparrow guys have homes, and families. They have every right to cash out and take new jobs. They’re winners.

Gemmell is a reasonable, pragmatic guy. I’m fundamentally an idealist. So, in my view, “what the deal’s details are, or the amount of money, or who you’re selling to” matters indeed. And “If you want to take the money, take the money. It doesn’t make you a bad person.” Well, actually to me it says a lot about you as a person.

It’s this whole ‘hey, it’s business, it’s money, it’s all fine’ attitude that, however pragmatic, ultimately saddens me. It’s this game of treating software as a bargaining chip. Hey, we made it, we made the big bucks, who cares about the product, who cares that now we’ll be vacuumed inside the Google machine where we’ll be just some new meat in the faceless “Gmail Team”. We got the money. We could have refused the offer, and kept working to make a great application in a field (email clients) which really needs some cool, fresh ideas. The path would have been tough, perhaps, but satisfactory. But we took the easy way out. Money wins over all.

I have a home and a family too. If a big company made me a handsome offer for a product I created or something I’ve written, I would be incredibly flattered and it would be as if I won the lottery. And, of course, the whole thing would be tempting as hell. Undeniably. But I’d also consider what I would lose by accepting such a deal. The control over my product. Its identity. Maybe even my identity (in the sense of being recognised as an independent individual and not yet another number in a massive organisation). The consequences of such buyout. So, to me, who makes the offer matters a lot. And all these other things I’ve just listed, they would matter as well, which would lead me to refuse, or at least to propose a different deal. I would probably look like a fool in the eyes of a lot of people, but I wouldn’t think of myself as being stupid or a fool. 

So, I don’t know what happened between the Sparrow guys and the Google representatives who knocked at their door. I don’t know whether the Sparrow guys just threw themselves at the first interesting offer, or had received many other less interesting (lower) offers before. I don’t know whether this was a difficult decision for them or not, whether there was some kind of ‘moral’ internal struggle or not. Perhaps they’ve always loved Google and were genuinely thrilled to leave their little shop behind — so to speak — and go work for the giant retailer. Yes, Gemmell is right, from a financial standpoint the Sparrow guys are winners: they created something that ultimately sold exceedingly well and changed their (financial) lives for the better. 

The real winner here is money. And call me idealist, call me naïve, call me ‘not cut for the Business’, call me a fool, but this whole thing makes me really sad overall. As a Sparrow customer (I use it on my PowerBook G4 — it started as a Universal Binary app, in case you didn’t know —, on my MacBook Pro and on my iPhone), I don’t feel betrayed, just treated somewhat disrespectfully.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!