Interview: BBEdit’s Rich Siegel on making a text editor for creatives and programmers, and shifting App Store models


I hope you’re all staying safe and taking care of yourselves right now.

Things have been a bit hectic over here! A while back, I’d set out to start interviewing people in tech and media about how they’ve adapted to quarantine and what the future of work might look like. Things have changed since then, though, and the context around those interviews has shifted. It didn’t feel entirely appropriate to keep publishing them while our attentions were all on something much more important—namely the national protests against police brutality and systemic racism..

Medea and I talked a lot about this, and we’re going to start doing something a little bit different in lieu of standard interviews. Instead, we’re going to start publishing small profiles of BIPOC in tech and the work they’re doing. (In addition to our regular newsletter every other Tuesday.)

That’ll be starting up soon, and I can’t wait to share it with y’all. Until then, I still have a few interviews I conducted pre-revolution that I’d still like to share, and I hope y’all find them interesting!

This week we hear from Rich Siegel of Bare Bones Software, the company behind the text editor BBEdit. We talked about the logistics of the App Store (before the Hey kerfuffle), developing a text editor that’s used by scientists, developers, and creatives, and so much more!

First, how are you? How has quarantine been for you? Have your parrots adapted well to quarantine life?

We’re all well, thanks. The various lockdowns and restrictions haven’t affected our work very much. I’ve been working out of a home office since 2006, so my own routine hasn’t changed much. The birds know that things are different since my wife is working at home now as well; but they’re highly intelligent and quite adaptable.

Our place of business was closed for a while, but as a tech company, we’re very flexible and the work we do can be done anywhere there’s power and Internet; so the effect on our tech support and customer service operations was negligible. We finished and shipped a major feature update to BBEdit (13.1), and we’re hard at work on an update to Yojimbo (our personal-use “shoebox” application), so you can tell that engineering has just kept rolling right along.

A lot of developers rely on BBEdit for their work. Have you been thinking at all, as even companies like Facebook and Twitter are adopting long-term remote work policies, about ways that shift might affect the way developers work in your app? 

Because BBEdit is a “creative endpoint” – our customers use it to make things from scratch – as well as a power tool for processing data, I think geography really doesn’t matter.

What really matters to us, and always has, is that we keep maintaining the highest possible standards of not only performance and reliability in the product, but also for customer service and technical support. That way, even with everything else going on, our customers don’t have to be distracted by the tools they’re using to get work done.

BBEdit has been around since 1992, and there have been a lot of changes in the way code’s written, how it’s distributed, and how users access and interact with your software. How do you make sure that your app’s keeping up with the times and adapting to the changing needs your users might have?

Because plain text is such a fundamental concept, and the entire Internet is built from plain text, sticking to the fundamentals is the best way to ensure that BBEdit is able to do whatever work our customers need it to do.

That means what we keep focusing on performance and reliability, staying abreast of major platform changes, and making sure that we provide our customers with the tools they need to get the job done.

It also means that we don’t spend a lot of time chasing after trends and fads. We watch emerging technologies very carefully, and think about how we can make BBEdit work with them to serve our customers better. Sometimes they have enduring value and benefits that we can use to improve BBEdit’s utility (such as AppleScript and Automator), sometimes they don’t (like the Touch Bar).

Something I’ve always found interesting about BBEdit is that while it’s a tool for developers, I know writers who swear by it, too. Have there been any challenges in developing an editor for two, oftentimes, vastly different audiences?

More than two, in fact: BBEdit is very popular with scientists, as well as with IT administrators, both of whom use it very heavily to hammer large quantities of data into a manageable condition.

Managing the balance of complexity and usability in a richly featured product whose audiences crosses multiple disciplines is definitely a challenge. For each audience, there are going to be parts of the product that they never use. We do our best to make sure that those parts are unobtrusive, and provide the customer with tools to help them manage the complexity, if they wish. For example, there are controls for hiding unused menus and menu commands, as well as unused interface elements.

As more people are having to get used to working remotely, they’re going to start looking for new tools to make doing that work easier. At the same time, many apps have made a shift away from a one-time payment to a subscription model, often met with mixed reception. Do you think that model will need to change as more people start trying out different apps and services?

Product sales are the means by which we’re able to pay the rent, feed our families, keep the product moving forward, provide customer support, and produce comprehensive support resources like an actual user manual. So I think it’s very important to provide a product that the customer wants to purchase, and to empower them to decide how they do so.

We provide a “perpetual” license, in which the customer buys a license that’s good for the major version shipping as of when they purchased. There’s an upgrade path for major upgrades and a generous free-upgrade window. (For example, if you bought BBEdit 12 after May 1, 2019, you’re eligible for a free upgrade to BBEdit 13.)

In the Mac App Store, the “perpetual with upgrades” license model isn’t sustainable, because the store doesn’t support the necessary mechanics. So for those customers, we have no choice but to provide subscription pricing: $3.99 a month, or $39.99 a year.

What sets BBEdit apart here, I think, is that if you let your subscription lapse, the product doesn’t stop working. It will continue to work with a powerful core feature set, at no cost, forever. And since BBEdit works with plain text files, there’s no loss of access to a proprietary document format.

We’ve found that some customers strongly prefer one model, and some strongly prefer the other – so we’ve provided the means for them to decide.