All Posts Filed in ‘My Own Software

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On Life In The Mac App Store

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Back in September 2014 I released John’s Background Switcher to the Mac App Store. The idea behind the Mac App Store is that you pay £60 / year to Apple so that you can sign and distribute software for the Mac and submit apps for sale there. Apple host it, handle shipping updates to customers via the standard software update mechanism and your app appears on the App Store application bundled with OS X. Oh, and Apple take a 30% cut of every sale you make.

John's Background Switcher on the Mac App Store

It sounds great. The App Store is built into every Mac. That’s potentially millions of customers wanting to buy your software! And unlike the iOS app store there isn’t an expectation that apps are priced unrealistically at $0.99 where there is no hope of ever covering the development costs, never mind making any money. However I had more modest goals than becoming rich and giving up my day job. I just wanted to cover the bare cost of building JBS. So I figured I’d break it down and detail how it’s panned out over the last 9 months.

The Costs Of Building An App

But first, development costs. I already mentioned the £60 / year to Apple. In addition JBS is built using Xamarin.Mac which for the cheapest Indie license costs $300 / year (call it £200). The website you’re looking at here costs £60 / year to host on WordPress.com and Amazon S3 hosting (not all directly related but a cost I’d want to cover) is maybe another £30 per year. I also support Interfacelift (a lovely photo site that has a paid-for API) and that costs me £19 / month or £228 / year. So that’s £578 per year recurring fixed costs.

Next is time. JBS for Mac took me 4 months of evenings and weekends (often very late into the night) to build. I’d conservatively estimate (knowing it was higher) an average of 4 hours, 4 nights per week and 8 hours at the weekend, which is a total of 384 hours work. Apparently an average hourly rate for a developer is £37.50, so let’s say to hire someone to build it for me would have cost around £14,400 (or $22,000 USD). Plus I’d have still had to spend my time managing, testing, designing, etc. Fortunately I could re-use a good portion of code from the Windows version of JBS, otherwise those numbers would have been a lot higher. However I had no expectation of ever making a dent in those costs – JBS is something I’ve loved building for years so it’s never been about the money. Instead my goal was to cover the fixed annual costs of £578 (around $880 USD). If I could make that I’d be happy.

I decided to take the same marketing approach I did with JBS for Windows which is to not advertise it, chase reviews, hound techie sites for kudos or such like. I’d leave it to grow organically, which meant I could iron out bugs while the number of users is small and if it ever gets successful then it’ll be a lot more stable and solid. In short, this is what happens when you build an app for the Mac App Store and are too lazy to do any marketing or advertising – the “build it and they will come” philosophy. (My brother works in marketing so will likely cringe at this approach). If you put in any marketing effort then expect to do better than me – this is like a baseline case study.

The Numbers

So come on John, how much did you make? Are you rich? The answers are “Ok…” and “no”. After some tinkering I decided to set the price at £6.99 / $8.99 as it felt about right compared to other apps out there. And without further ado, here are my sales from launch mid-September 2014 to June 1st 2015:

JBS Sales Figures

I average around a sale of JBS per day and over the past 9 months I’ve earned $1840, or £1200. Knock off tax at 40% (worst case scenario) and that’s £720. So that pays the development costs for a year with enough for a couple of meals out – yay! Although if I never write another line of code again for JBS it would take me 15 years to recoup the initial development costs alone. Clearly I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon! It’s fortunate that JBS is a passion project rather than a source of income. When you look at numbers like this and understand the amount of work that goes into building what seems a pretty simple app, it can be particularly galling to read reviews like this:

A 2 star review of JBS

Which leads me nicely onto…

Why The Mac App Store Kinda Sucks

Ah yes. So 30% cut aside, there are a lot of downsides to selling on the Mac App Store. The first of which is the review time. It varies, but on average it’s taken around 7 days from submitting my “ready to go” app to Apple before it’s actually reviewed. And if it’s rejected (which it can be for a vast array of subtle reasons) you go to the back of the queue and have to wait another 7 days for the next one. This has happened many times with me and their rejection explanations can be so vague that it takes several go-rounds before you get to the bottom of it. Here’s the process for the next version (it’s currently June 3rd as I write this):

JBS Review Stages

So if you’re used to being able to ship updates quickly, you’ll find the Mac App Store infuriating.

Update: As of January 2017 the review time is around 1-2 days which means rapid releases can be achieved through the Mac App Store – certainly a good thing in my book. However…

The next problem is that the App Store app itself is truly awful. It’s difficult to discover applications, the search is next to useless and it highly favours apps that have been “Featured” by Apple. I’ve no idea what gets an app “Featured” and that’s part of another problem – it’s a black box. If you’re not featured you have no control at all over your app page – and since the app pages make finding the support link difficult you often end up with app reviews like the one above. If you sell direct you get an angry email you can actually reply to and help the person out. And with no option for people trialling your app, if it turns out someone bought it thinking it was something else, all you’ll get is a 1 star review for your troubles. For a company that prides itself on attention to detail, Apple have done a really shoddy job with the Mac App Store.

But I guess investment goes where the money is. As Sam Soffes wrote, it doesn’t take a lot of sales to get to the top of the charts which shows that despite shipping on every Mac, the percentage of people who actually buy on the Mac App Store must be very small indeed. You can see the app store charting for JBS here.

Time To Sell Outside The Mac App Store

Having no control at all over the presentation and sales process, not to mention glacial release times and no direct contact with users who’ve bought the app, I felt I really should explore selling outside the Mac App Store. So I’ve set up a shop with FastSpring who do this sort of thing for loads of other app vendors. While their commission is lower than Apple (which let me drop the price a bit), my primary motivation is to provide the best service to users of JBS.

To do that I need them to get a personal email when they buy a copy that gives them a point of contact should it not meet their expectation. If they hate it, I want to see if I can help them by making JBS better and if not give them a refund, no worries. I don’t want to be seen as some faceless corporation which is partly why the app store mentality can kick in with perfectly reasonable people who end up leaving reviews like the one above. I also need to be responsive by fixing issues and adding new features quickly. Having to wait weeks to release an update in the 21st century is just unacceptable, so by using Sparkle I can push out updates whenever they’re ready to go.

I’m leaving JBS for sale both in and out of the Mac App Store. I wouldn’t want any of the 285 people who’ve bought it to miss out on updates, it’s just they won’t be shipped to them as quickly as for people who buy direct. Of course if anyone bought it from Apple and want a non-sandboxed copy I’ll happily sort out the license for them since happy users is my primary motivation, not making sales. And being outside the Mac App Store gives me more flexibility to make that happen.

I’m planning on adding trial functionality so you can try out JBS for free and if you like it you can then buy it, but that’ll take a little time to implement. However at least it’s now an option outside the Apple walled garden.

Next Steps

Firstly I’ll see how sales go outside the app store and if being more responsive helps spread JBS by word of mouth in the same way the Windows version has. But it does show that it is possible to sell an app without doing any marketing at all, just not necessarily to make a decent amount out of it. I’d be foolish not to look at marketing JBS to see what impact that has, so any suggestions welcome. 🙂

Further Reading

If you fancy filling your Mac desktop with beautiful photo montages then you can now either buy it on the Mac App Store or directly from my store. You’ll find the latter is a bit cheaper, you’ll get updates faster and… Wait, if you’re here you’ve read all of the above so no need to repeat it! And if you want to read a bit more about JBS and what it does in general, here’s the product page.

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John’s Background Switcher for Mac Goes Live!

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John's Background SwitcherWhile John’s Background Switcher has always been a Windows application, I’ve actually been a full time Mac user for the past 7 years. In that time I’d almost forgotten why I originally wrote JBS as I wasn’t using it myself. Also, frequent calls for me to write a Mac version fell on deaf ears as I knew it took me years to write the Windows version and I’d have to start from scratch again. Plus I’ll be the first to admit that working on JBS for Windows in my spare time and giving it away for free was becoming harder and harder to justify and motivate myself to do given competing demands on my time.

However all that changed in May and I decided enough was enough, it was time I built a Mac version. It’s taken countless late nights and weekends, waking up at 3am with an idea knowing I’ll never get back to sleep so walking to my desk and starting coding. I even spent a 2 week work trip in the USA coding into the wee small hours in the hotel while fighting jetlag. It was the last thing I thought about before sleep at night and the first thing I thought about when I woke up in the morning.

Mac applications are held to a higher standard than Windows apps so I took the opportunity to rethink a great many parts of JBS. Any photo sources that couldn’t give beautiful high resolution backgrounds were dropped and I made sure that every picture shown is presented at its highest possible resolution and as crisp as possible. JBS on Windows chooses a source at random (e.g. Flickr or Facebook) then creates montages from that one source, whereas JBS on Mac chooses from all active sets in all sources at once. It just makes more sense that way. I took dozens of similar decisions along the way.

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Every piece of user interface, every button you click, action you take, every detail has been scrutinised again and again until I was happy with it. There are countless little details nobody will ever notice but I know they’re there and I resisted any temptation to compromise on anything. Except the name. I’ve never had much imagination with names so I just stuck with “John’s Background Switcher”.

To the many beta testers who helped me make JBS for Mac as good as it is by giving me honest and at times brutal feedback, I offer my most sincere thanks and promise that I owe you an infinite number of beers for all time. You know who you are!

JBS for Mac is currently only available on the Mac App Store and rest assured that if you buy a copy you’re not just buying John’s Background Switcher for Mac version 1.0. You’re investing in a host of cool updates I have planned in the future (which will be free) as building JBS for Mac has re-invigorated my enthusiasm for software development. Plus, if you want to make JBS better, tell me what you want it to do and I’ll build it! Windows users need not be too upset however. JBS for Windows will always remain free and where appropriate I’ll back-port fixes and enhancements from Mac to Windows. But the Mac version going forwards will be my primary focus – I’m a die hard Mac user after all!

So go read all about John’s Background Switcher for Mac here or get it directly from the app store. 🙂

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How To Show The xkcd “Now” Live World Clock On Your Desktop

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If you haven’t come across it before, xkcd is, to quote the site itself “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language” and it’s highly entertaining (my personal favourite is this one about security). Anyway, a recent comic, titled “Now” shows what is effectively a world clock that live-updates so you can see, anywhere in the world, if it’s a good time to phone a friend or colleague. At the time of writing it looks like this:

xkcd-now-23h30m

Now what if you wanted that clock on your desktop, live updating so that all you need to do is look at your desktop and know if phoning your friend in Bora Bora will wake them up from their peaceful slumber? If you’re a Windows or Mac user then it’s easy with the use of my beloved John’s Background Switcher, and it’s simple to set up.

Just head over to the download page and install it. Then when the settings dialog comes up just choose “Add” then “RSS photo feed” (stick with me, it’ll make sense). Then copy and paste the following URL:

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/now.png#1

Do the same again, but this time copy the following URL instead (note the 2 instead of 1):

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/now.png#2

If you have more than 1 monitor, add some more feeds, just change the number at the end of the URL accordingly. In case you’re wondering why, it’s that JBS doesn’t want to show you the same picture twice in a row, but this tricks it into treating them differently each time. Note to self: fix that in a future version.

Next set up JBS so that it centres the picture and switches every 15 minutes like so (the Mac version is slightly different, but you get the idea):

jbs-for-xkcd

If you’re already a JBS user and on Windows, go to “More” then “Picture Sources” and make sure you uncheck “Save all full-sized downloaded pictures” (so that it won’t cache the pictures). JBS will automatically pick a complementary background colour (usually white here) but if you want to hard-wire it to a particular colour go to the “Picture Handling” section and choose “Use a custom colour for picture borders” then pick white.

Since you patiently looked at the screenshot above you’ve already set JBS to change every 15 minutes and centre the picture, so that’s it, the world clock will always be up to date! How cool is that?!

Thanks to JBS user Mårten for suggesting the idea in the first place!

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How I Learned To Ship Software (And Leave My Ego At The Door)

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I’ve been writing software professionally since 1996, although I started writing code many years earlier for fun. I’ve never been interested in getting professional qualifications or certifications in software development, I’ve always figured the best way to reach your potential is to work with people better than yourself (so you can learn how they work) and actually build and ship software to real people, then deal with the fallout that brings (the try, fail, improve, learn cycle I’ll get to later). A piece of paper is no substitute for experience.

However some of the most useful lessons I’ve learned have not been doing the work I’ve been paid to do, they’ve been learned working on software I give away for free.

John's Background Switcher (3.5)I’ve been very fortunate that my freeware software John’s Background Switcher has been dramatically more popular than I could have imagined back in 2004 when I first created it – I stopped counting at the point when hundreds of thousands of people were using it. Fortunate not for the reasons you might think – it’s definitely not a case of “whoa! look how many users I have! I’m awesome!”. It’s been great because I’ve learned more about software development, shipping software and above all humility working on JBS than I ever have professionally.

Prior to JBS it was easy for me to forget that real people actually used the software I wrote. I would focus on writing the code for a feature, being as clever as I could be to impress my developer peers, completing it, then moving onto the next thing. I would pretend all that mattered was the thing I was currently working on – “leave me alone, I’m in the zone!”. I thought that users didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and if they complained then it was them who were in the wrong, it was “user error”. WHY DON’T THEY UNDERSTAND?!

The Techie User Phase

JBS was originally written for exactly one user – John Conners. I wanted a simple tool to periodically change my desktop wallpaper (and recover from my friend Ben setting my wallpaper to that of a monkey whenever I left my desk) – I was scratching my own itch. Then I released it for the world and… nobody cared at all. Later I added Flickr functionality and suddenly I had a bunch of people I’d never met, mostly techies like myself, using JBS.

They had suggestions of how to make JBS better. Since JBS didn’t do a great deal it was easy for these technically savvy people to pick up how it worked and the more ideas and suggestions they came up with, the more I added. Sometimes I’d break things, the users would tell me and I would fix them. It was great to be able to just do what I wanted without having layers of managers to persuade feature X should be in the next version. It was freedom!

Soon JBS supported several different picture sources, had lots of options to do things like exclude certain pictures, view the originals, change the way pictures were selected and so on. Things were great! Until it got popular and my ego took a battering.

New Users Aged 8 to 88

Thanks to word of mouth and some write ups on big technical sites, more and more people started trying out JBS. While early users were technically minded like myself, a lot of people with comparatively little computing ability were starting to try it out. And they were getting horribly confused.

In my haste to add functionality I’d stopped trying to keep JBS simple to use so when you first started it up it was by no means clear what JBS did, how to configure it or just what the hell was going on. So people would often email me with one line sentences complaining. I’d then have to reply and find out what the problem was and to me it would be incredibly obvious what they needed to do, but to them it may have well as been written in Klingon. However that was only scratching the surface. A great deal more people installed it, tried it, uninstalled it and I never knew anything about it.

I’m John Conners, What The Hell Do I Know?

Deny it all you like, but developers have egos. I’m no exception. You think you’re smart, you create things with your mind and hands and when you hit “Build” people should kneel before you in awe. But the reality is people just want to do their job, whatever that may be, and they don’t want things, like your software, getting in their way. If they want something that changes their desktop wallpaper, they just want it to do it and work the way they want without them having to think about it. End of story. The best software is the software you don’t even know you’re using – because the software itself isn’t the objective, it’s the task someone wants to accomplish (like writing a blog post like this) that matters. It took me a long time to realise this fact, but let’s rewind a bit.

I decided to add a feature so that if you uninstalled JBS it would show a web page that asked you if you’d like to tell me why you’re removing it. It was both a great idea and a tough pill to swallow. Because what happened is people actually told me why they were uninstalling JBS. And it turned out it was all my fault.

By this stage if JBS crashed it would send back a crash log to my FogBugz instance so I could figure out any bugs in JBS or any of the components it depends on and fix them. This taught me to write the simplest code possible. There’s a tendency for developers to try to show how clever they are by writing needlessly complex code and I was no exception. But overly complex code is likely more prone to bugs and when you come back and look at that code to figure out what went wrong the fact that you wrote it is no help, you look at it and think “why the hell did I write it like this and what is it doing?”. Lesson learned – write the simplest code possible so that when you later come back to fix it (everybody creates bugs) it would be easy to figure out what it was doing.

Uninstall feedback was a revelation. All of a sudden I was getting into the mind of the people who’d tried JBS, been confused by it, not been able to get it to do things it actually could do, then uninstalled in frustration. Some of the feedback would be, shall we say, tetchy. I quickly stopped taking it personally as when software doesn’t do what you want and gets in the way, it can be frustrating.

I actually changed the feedback page to say “Remember, I’m a real person called John and not some faceless corporation so be nice!” which snapped people out of being particularly mean and the feedback became a lot more useful. To those who say you should make software impersonal, you’re talking nonsense!

It didn’t take long before I could see patterns. What I thought was intuitive was clearly not. I could explain to those who left their email addresses how to do what they wanted (since JBS was loaded with features by now) and that helped them out individually. But the real problem was people running it for the first time and getting lost. I needed to rethink how I did things.

Try, Fail, Improve, Learn, Repeat

So I had a reasonably successful software product. I had tens of thousands of users. I had a large number of feature requests. And I had a lot of feedback telling me I needed to make it simpler for new users to use, but I didn’t want to sacrifice functionality. I decided to take a step back and do some planning. So I contacted a bunch of the most passionate JBS users (i.e. the ones who complained the most) to run some ideas past them in a bid to get into their heads, understand what they were expecting and see where that led me.

One of the main problems was that JBS had a whole bunch of different photo sources and it treated each one completely differently. It was not obvious for a new user what to do and even if they added some picture sets (some folders, Flickr sets, etc.) it still wasn’t clear what was actually happening. I’d originally built JBS to use local photos, then added Flickr, then a bunch more sources and had just bolted them on one after the other. People just wanted to choose some photos and get on with it, and no messing around!

So I started by doing the exact opposite of what I was used to. I started removing features.

I knew this would inevitably annoy some JBS users, they’d complain and might stop using it. But I suspected that if I did my job right it would alienate a few users but help a great many more. I had to go with the majority because much though I enjoyed answering emails and helping people out, it would be easier for all concerned if JBS was so easy to use that it required no help from me.

By now whenever someone emailed me I would ignore anything positive they’d say and focus on anything negative, always assuming that their problems were my fault – if you can’t use it it’s because I didn’t make it easy enough to use. This approach has the useful effect of disarming people because many would start by saying “I must be stupid because…” so me telling them they weren’t took that frustration away. I was now learning how to be a support person.

So I completely redesigned the user interface of JBS in consultation with the people who actually used it. I opened up early beta testing for anyone who was interested and would let them try it as I developed it, putting up builds every couple of days, seeing how my changes came across and letting them guide me how to go from there. I was quite happy to work on a feature for days only for it to fall on its face and end up deleting it completely – I took my ego out of the picture. I would try something, see how it worked and either remove it, change it or keep it depending on how it worked for real people. I would start from the position that I didn’t know best, I would let the JBS users tell me what they wanted and try to do it to provide the most benefit to the most people without compromising the simplicity I wanted it to have.

I also learned to start saying “no”. An idea can be a great idea, but if it made the software more difficult to use for 99% of users just to help 1% then I wouldn’t implement it. But rather than throw it away I’d see if there was another way to achieve what the person suggesting was after. Quite often there would be since as any sales person knows, people may know what they want, but might not know what they actually need, you just have to make them realise it and provide it. So I wouldn’t say “no”, I’d say “how about if I did this instead?”.

The Proof Of The Pudding

So after a hell of a lot of late nights and long weekends I released JBS 4.0 and an interesting thing happened. The feedback was initially very quiet. Which to me was perfect. As I had come to realise, good software doesn’t jump out and shout at you and make itself noticed. Good software should be practically invisible, quietly doing its thing and letting you get on with your primary tasks (which I assume is posting on Facebook, which JBS supports of course!). I took it as a great compliment that while user numbers kept increasing, the number of uninstalls and uninstall feedback dramatically reduced.

Over time though I’ve received a flood of correspondence that makes all those countless hours of work for no financial gain more than worthwhile. People telling me how they hate their job but when they’re down they look at their desktop to see a montage of photos of holidays with their family, they smile and get on with their day. People who’ve installed JBS on their parents PCs pointed at their Flickr feed so they can keep up to date with what their grandchildren are doing. Even people who’ve lost a loved one but remember happy memories when they pop up on their screen. Touching people’s lives in a profound and positive way is rewarding in a way money can’t buy and thanks to all the lessons I learned above, I was able to make it happen.

A Summary In Neat Bullet Points?

Normally I’d write a bullet point list summarising the lessons I’ve learned from JBS so that anybody could use them but it doesn’t work that way. Remember how I said I never bothered with certifications and such like? It’s because there really is no substitute for experience. There’s no substitute for learning by screwing things up, figuring out where you went wrong and ensuring you try to do better next time. No substitute for seeing how much pain and frustration decisions you’ve made have caused normal people (and lots of them), then figuring out how to win them back, turn it around and make the software better. No flowchart you can build that determines when you implement a feature, or build something else that indirectly but more usefully solves a problem, or even when to remove a feature entirely because it’s the “right” thing to do, or when to completely change direction and try something completely different.

You have to learn by doing, and the best lessons are those born from failing, trying again and ultimately succeeding. Leave your ego at the door and learn lessons from everything you get wrong (pobody’s nerfect).

From doing this again and again and again I’m now much better at making judgment calls. Knowing what questions to ask to find out if a software release is going to be late before it actually is and what to do about it. Knowing when to push a release vs drop features. Recognising that instead of trawling through a bug / feature list and implementing them one at a time, when to take a step back and see if there’s something completely different you can do that renders chunks of those issues obsolete. When to look at the big picture and when to focus on the tiny details. I don’t always get it right, and frankly if I ever thought I did then I’d know I was deluding myself.

And if you write software for a living and work in the 99% of companies that are stuck in the dark ages of software development, just do what I did. Find something interesting and build it on your own time, even if it’s as trivial as a desktop wallpaper switcher. It taught me an incredible amount, and the funny thing is when you build something you’re passionate about, you magically seem to find extra time and energy to work on it.

Finally, the one piece of advice I would give is to use a tool like FogBugz – the best defect tracking / project management / source control / customer support system I’ve used. Without FogBugz I’d have been completely lost at sea both working on JBS and professionally. It’s the perfect example of what I aspire to build – software that is so good you don’t even think about using it – it just works.

And to think, JBS was all kicked off by my friend putting monkey pictures on my desktop when I left my machine unattended. Thanks Ben!

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John’s Background Switcher Adds Dropbox Support, A New Photo Collage Option and More Languages

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I know I know. I keep saying I’m stopping work on John’s Background Switcher and building a Mac version, but like the addict that I am I keep crawling back. So without further ado, please welcome John’s Background Switcher 4.8 to the world!

Dropbox Rocks

Following on from adding 500px, Last.fm, Pixabay and Tumblr integration back in May, one much requested service a lot of people (myself included) use, Dropbox is now a supported photo source for JBS. I’m an Android user so every photo I take on my phone is automatically uploaded to Dropbox. What could be cooler than a lottery win? Eh, I mean what could be cooler than being able to see those photos scattered over your desktop? Well now you can:

The past few months of my life!

The past few months of my life! Yes, quite a few of the dog…

All you need to do is authorise JBS to view your images on Dropbox, you pick a folder or folders to choose from and leave JBS to it!

Collages Are Cool

Speaking of photo montages, I thought it was about time I added a new option to the mix. So I came up with a photo collage and, since I have no imagination with names (example: John’s Background Switcher) I called it a “photo collage”. It means you can create awesome desktop backgrounds like this:

A Pixabay Photo Collage

And if cute dogs are more your thing:

A Lhasa Apso Montage

Yes I know, Lhasa Apsos are very cute dogs – that’s why I’m so obsessed with mine! More of a kitten guy or girl? We’ve got you covered!

A Kitten Photo Collage

English Is Not The Only Language

Ok, back to John’s Background Switcher. Next up, since JBS is used all over the world by a lot of people whose native language is not English. Some of those people are particularly awesome and have offered to translate JBS into their language. So in addition to being available in English (duh), French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Japanese, I’m delighted that as of version 4.8, JBS also supports Russian, Finnish, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. Yay!

Other Shiny Goodness

Another oft requested feature is to support webcams for desktop backgrounds. Now you can simply use the direct URL to a webcam (so long as it returns an image) in the ‘RSS Feeds’ dialog and get your wish!

There are a bunch of bug fixes including getting SmugMug working again (JBS was using an old version of their API that was deprecated when they made an awesome update to their site) and Pixabay (my bad!) along with performance improvements to Flickr integration (it’ll be a lot less heavy on the number of calls it makes to the Flickr API which should speed things up somewhat). And while we’re talking about Flickr, you can now authenticate JBS to Flickr via a Facebook or Google login. Oh yes.

Message Ends

Right, enough talk! Go to the download page and get yourself upgraded, peruse the full release notes and enjoy! 🙂

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John’s Background Switcher Adds Support For 500px, Last.fm, Pixabay and Tumblr Blogs

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I know I’ve said before I wasn’t able to spend a lot of time working on the Windows version of John’s Background Switcher, however I lied and I simply couldn’t resist. If that makes me a bad person then so be it! Following on from adding Instagram integration last year I decided I needed to add a few more sources, fix a few bugs and add stop making excuses and add some translations again – after all there are a great deal more non-English-speaking JBS users than English-speaking. Anyway, I digress.

As always with John’s Background Switcher I let the people who use it decide what to add to it in a reasonably democratic way (the more people ask for something the quicker I do it, pretty much). So if you don’t like it and are a JBS user then take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why you haven’t complained to me about it!

500px Photos

For a long time Flickr was the place to go to see the best photography and best photographers on the internet but since Yahoo! took over and development ground to a halt it opened the door for other people to come along, innovate and do great things. 500px is the pick of the bunch. If you’re a photographer or a fan of photography then you’re already on 500px but if you’re not then you have to check it out, even if you don’t use JBS. It’s full of simply amazing photos, is free to sign up to and now you can use the photos for your desktop seamlessly. I’ve been testing it for a while and I’ve never seen a photo from 500px that hasn’t made me think “wow!”.

Last.fm Integration

Last.fm is a service that keeps track of the music you listen to. I’m a big Spotify user so as well as annoying my friends on Facebook with the music I’m playing I also send that data to last.fm. I know what you’re thinking: what has music got to do with my desktop? Well the answer is you can now authenticate JBS with last.fm so that you can see the top artists, albums and recent tracks you’ve listened to, right on your desktop. Since last.fm artwork isn’t that large it works best in one of the montage modes and you’ll end up with awesome backgrounds like this:

Pixabay Photos

Pixabay is a really cool and useful site that not only has a great collection of high quality photos, but every one of them is a public domain image. This means if you use Pixabay photos for your desktop, see one and want to use it for your next advertising campaign you can go ahead and do so! It’s free to sign up and use Pixabay and even if you like boring, static desktops but are still interested in public domain images then go check it out!

Tumblr RSS Feeds

Tumblr is a blogging platform that currently hosts over 100 million blogs and it’s fair to say that there are a very large number of Tumblr blogs that are dedicated to photography. Up until now JBS hasn’t been able to get photos from Tumblr blogs which has meant not being able to laugh at White Men Wearing Google Glass or Awkward Stock Photos, follow interesting projects like Humans of New York or look at cool photos on blogs like the Hipstamatic blog. All you need to do is find the ‘RSS’ link on the Tumblr blog you like and select ‘Add’ > ‘RSS photo feed’ in JBS, copy in the link and you can produce cool montages like this:

Multi-Lingual UI

I speak excellent English, despite being Scottish. However it’s a big world out there – I hear the web is world-wide – and a lot of people’s primary language is not English. It turns out that a lot of these people, like me, hate having a boring, static desktop and so want to use John’s Background Switcher and indeed used to. But then I started complaining about not having enough time to coordinate translations so the last two versions have been English-only. Not this time. JBS is now available in English (obviously), French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. So if you install JBS on a French version of Windows then the JBS UI will appear in French and so on. You can manually override the language but it will pick up your language automatically. Also, like I always say, everything looks cooler in Japanese!

Oh, And One More Thing…

So snapshot scrapbooks (postcard and Polaroid piles) are pretty cool. It’s like taking a bunch of photos and throwing them on a table. However what’s even cooler is that you can now tell JBS to throw even more of them on the table (desktop) by reducing the spacing between them. Go to the ‘Montages’ section of ‘More Settings’ and change the ‘Spacing Between Snapshots’ slider to a value below zero and you’ll find them more tightly packed.

A Postcard Pile With Loads Of Overlapping

A Postcard Pile With Loads Of Overlapping

Enough Already, Go Get It!

Ok, so those are the highlights of John’s Background Switcher 4.7 (there are also a bunch of bug fixes and performance improvements but they’re boring) so if you’re a Windows user (Mac version coming in a few months) then get yourself over to the download page and give it a try! Plus, if you don’t like it you can have your money back (it’s free).

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Put Instagram Photos On Your Desktop Wallpaper With John’s Background Switcher

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I promised myself when I released John’s Background Switcher 4.5 a couple of months ago that I’d take a break and go build some iPhone applications I’ve been thinking about. I’m primarily a Mac user now so JBS (currently Windows only) isn’t something I really use and after 8 years working on it in my spare time I figured I’d taken it as far as I could. In short, it was time to work on something else.

Then, while taking a photo with Instagram (you know, that iPhone / Android photo app that Facebook bought for $1 billion), it struck me how cool it would be to add Instagram as a photo source to JBS. Instagram forces you to take square photos and JBS has a few options that make square photos look awesome. With JBS you can make it set your desktop background to a single picture (with a different one on each monitor if you have more than one) and that’s fine, but it can also create cool montages like a mosaic, postcard pile or a polaroid pile like these below:

Since Instagram was cool enough for Facebook to acquire I figured it might be cool enough that people would want to see Instagram photos on their desktop. So following a weekend’s work I’m rather pleased to release a new version of John’s Background Switcher that supports Instagram! (Those montages above were in fact created by JBS using Instagram photos).

Once you’ve installed JBS and brought up the settings window you can click ‘Add’ then ‘Instagram photos’ where you’ll be prompted to authenticate with Instagram:

You’ll need to have an Instagram account to use the JBS integration, so log in and you’ll be able to let JBS (on your computer only) read your feed. You can revoke access at any time from the Authorized Applications page on Instagram. Once you’ve authenticated you can create ‘sets’ from any of these options:

  • Your own photos
  • Your photo feed (the one you see when you fire up the Instagram mobile app)
  • Popular photos (the same photos from the mobile app)
  • Photos you’ve liked
  • Tags (add a tag and JBS will choose photos with that tag)

You can add all of the above and create as many sets as you like (so if you like photos of sunsets, sunrises, cats, lhasa apsos and hamsters, create a set for each tag).

Since Instagram photos are pretty small it won’t work very well if you use a single picture for your desktop, instead choose either a mosaic, postcard pile or polaroid pile for best results. You can select the picture mode here from the settings window:

Anyway, go to the download page, get yourself a copy of JBS (which is completely free) and enjoy! If you want to help me keep staying up late by drinking coffee and making JBS better, there’s a donate button right on the download page.

Update: Note that as of June 2016 Instagram disabled API access to your own photo feed. This means JBS and apps like it can only show you your own Instagram photos.

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John’s Background Switcher 4.4 Released!

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It’s been far too long since I last released a new version of John’s Background Switcher and that’s mostly been as a result of my having precious little free time to work on it. I guess the problem with developing freeware is that working on things that pay the bills (i.e. my normal job) will always be the higher priority. Anyway, my New Year Resolution this year was to dedicate more time to JBS and to build a Mac version so to start making good on that promise 4.4 is now live.

What started out as a bug fix release turned out to include a few new much-requested features and several more languages. Firstly, if you’re running on Windows 7 you can now opt to override the logon screen with your current background (have a look in ‘More Settings’):

Set The Windows 7 Login Screen

You can now customise the fonts on postcards, polaroids, the calendar and anywhere else JBS uses fonts. Since you might want to use different fonts in different places you’ll see font buttons in all the right places in ‘More Settings’. While you’re there take a look at the ‘Montages’ section and the drop-down list highlighted below:

Straight Montages

Also you can opt to have the postcards / polaroids placed at random angles (the default) or all straight (although still at random positions). It’s strangely refreshing to have them straight after all the years of them being at different angles!

Since you could choose a random picture mode I thought it would be handy to choose random processing effects, random snapshot scrapbook backgrounds and so on. Look out for the rolling dice – you’ll find it in most places:

Random Effects

In terms of languages JBS is now available in Russian, Finnish and Hungarian in addition to Japanese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese-Brazilian, Spanish, Traditional Chinese, Polish and Slovenian. Oh and English!

There are a host of bug fixes and other tweaks and changes so check out the full release notes for details. And then go and download John’s Background Switcher!

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John’s Background Switcher 4.2 Released!

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John's Background SwitcherEvery time I start work on a new version of John’s Background Switcher I’m full of optimism that I’ll be able to add hundreds of new amazing features, take it to previously unheralded levels and of course fix all the bugs in the previous version. And of course every time life gets in the way.

I maintain a list of every idea and suggestion I get for JBS along with lots of things I’ve thought of and would like JBS to do and my ultimate plan is to implement all the good ideas and quietly brush the bad ones under the carpet. However since I have this unfortunate financial situation where I have to work during the day to keep a roof over my head it leaves only my spare time to develop JBS. So unless I win the lottery I have to pick and choose what I spend my time doing to JBS and in this version I’ve concentrated on bug fixes (shed loads of bug fixes), performance improvements (particularly when using folders of pictures on your machine) and three very useful features.

Firstly, I’ve added support to what has now become my favourite wallpaper site – Vladstudio. Vladstudio wallpapers are created by digital artist Vlad Gerasimov and once you start using them for your desktop you won’t bother using any other picture source if you’re anything like me. If you’re a registered Vladstudio user you can enter your credentials into JBS and benefit from the full-sized non-branded wallpapers. If not you’ll still see high resolution wallpapers and I’m sure soon enough you’ll be signing up yourself! Speaking of which, if you sign up for a lifetime Vladstudio account using the code ‘JBS’ (without the quotes) you can get it for $19.99 instead of $29.99 – a bargain! (Note: I don’t benefit financially in any way from the offer, I just love the wallpapers and I’m sure you will too!).

Next I’ve added support for downloaded Webshots pictures and collections. If you’ve previously been a Webshots Desktop user you’ll no doubt have a large number of pictures and collections either downloaded or created with the application. You’ll no doubt also have found that without Webshots Desktop there’s not a lot you can do with them. No longer. If you add either Webshots pictures or collections to a picture list in JBS, or if you add a folder containing any of these files then JBS will magically start choosing from the originals as if they were just regular pictures. Pretty cool huh?

Finally, JBS is now available in English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese-Brazilian and Japanese (even thought I don’t understand a word, the JBS user interface looks very cool in Japanese). I’d like to take a minute to thank the JBS users who’ve taken the time out to help translate the 750 phrases JBS uses into their own language for the benefit of all the other people out there who can now use JBS in their native tongue. So maximum respect to Albert, Sidnei, Erix, Thierry, Niels, Lorenz, Nico, Asabukuro and the other translators who helped out when they could. It’s very much appreciated!

Anyway, if you’re a current John’s Background Switcher user then it’s a recommended upgrade – just run it over the top of the current version. And if you’re bored of the same old background on your Windows PC or you’re a Windows 7 user who wants more than just local pictures that the built-in desktop slideshow offers, then go and download John’s Background Switcher now!  And for the full details you can read the full release notes too.

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John’s Background Switcher 4 Goes Live!

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John's Background SwitcherJust over 2 years ago I started designing a major revamp of John’s Background Switcher. My goal was to take all I’d learned from tens of thousands of people using it, hundreds of pieces of feedback about what was good, what sucked and what was just plain confusing to produce a much better product. It didn’t take me long to write a short spec with a couple of diagrams and I was ready to go! So why has it taken me 2 years to make it happen you might ask? Well, I spent longer working on the existing versions of JBS than I’d have liked adding new features here and there knowing that to start work on JBS 4 would mean quite a big revamp and a long period of sustained work. Also, being part of a start-up meant my free time was somewhat limited. But after being acquired that settled down quite a bit. So on the 20th of May 2009 (that’s 4 months ago!) I started work, dedicating my evenings and weekends to creating JBS 4 and at long last it’s ready to go live to the world. Oh yes, and it’s still completely free!

I’ve redesigned virtually every aspect of JBS in ways you can see and an enormous number of ways you can’t. I’ve added dozens of cool new features, fixed countless bugs and tweaked loads more things to hopefully make this version by far and away the best – and fastest – ever. It also gives me a better base to take future versions of JBS to another level. If you’ve ever sent me an email or posted on my discussion forum suggesting a feature or filled in the ‘uninstall feedback’ page you get when you remove JBS then rest assured I pored over what you said to make JBS 4. Anyway, click on the screenshots below to see a few of the highlights of the new version and follow the link to the main John’s Background Switcher page here.

I must give thanks to the beta testers (you know who you are) who made sure JBS 4 didn’t come out riddled with bugs and ensured that it’s ended up even better than I’d hoped it would be! Cheers guys! 🙂

Anyway, go and get John’s Background Switcher now! Oh, and you can read the full release notes here to see what I’ve been up to…