Sparrow, Promise, and Feelings of Betrayal

Google has acquired the development team that produces the excellent Mac and iPhone email app Sparrow. Development of the app is being stopped so that the developers can “[join] the Gmail team to accomplish a bigger vision.”

I Believe in Sherlock Holmes

Like many, I find this news disappointing. I bought both the iPhone and Mac versions of Sparrow. I use it daily on my iPhone, and intermittently on my Mac. It’s a great app on both platforms. I’ve been very happy with my purchase so far, but I have to admit I felt a little betrayed when I heard the news of the acquisition.

As a developer myself, my feelings disturb me a little. We do not know, of course, what the offer that the Sparrow folks accepted was, but I’ll freely admit that I could imagine selling Sparrow if I were in their place, with a good enough offer. I can certainly imagine accepting the right offer for Eucalyptus and its associated code. It’s hypocritical of me to feel betrayed.

With Eucalyptus, I’ve always tried to maintain the idea that what I’m selling is the app as it is. If it’s not what you want, don’t buy it, and we’ll both be happy. This doesn’t work, of course. We now buy software based on assumptions of what it promises to become, as well as what it is now. I still get emails complaining that Eucalyptus doesn’t have certain features, or doesn’t work in a certain way. The ones that unsettle me the most are the ones explicitly saying something like “I bought Eucalyptus to support its development, and you’ve let me down”.

I now feel like this about Sparrow, and I don’t like it. I was waiting for undo support, for example. I really expected that it would come. That made me feel better about my purchase. Now I know it’ll never come, I feel let down. Sparrow is a lot newer than Eucalyptus - the iOS version was released just in March - so perhaps this feeling has more validity when attached to Sparrow. I have a hard time justifying that idea rationally though.

The constant, free, updates associated with online software sales in general, and Apple’s App Store specifically, have led us to expect bug fixes and new features in a way that we did not before. We now expect them even if they’re not explicitly promised. As a developer, I understand that I should, really, have no right to feel this way, so I can suppress my annoyance. I can only imagine how someone who doesn’t think this way and bought Sparrow explicitly to ‘support’ further development feels.

Updates serve another purpose too. For all Apple claims binary compatibility between OS versions, apps often need changes to continue working (I’m getting an iOS 6 ready Eucalyptus that fixes a few glitches together now, for example). I hope and expect that Sparrow will continue to work as well as it does now on iOS 6 and Mountain Lion, but after that? Nowadays, I don’t hold out much hope. It’s fine saying that I got what I paid for, but I had the expectation of being able to use the app for quite some time into the future, even if I didn’t expect new features. I probably won’t get that now.

I feel like this article should have a better conclusion: a point to be made, or a solution to offer. I seem to have neither. These things will continue to happen. People will continue to feel betrayed. These feelings of betrayal are perfectly justified in the abstract case, but somehow never in the specific. Our experience-conditioned expectations are out of sync with any specific circumstances.

So, to the Sparrow people: My heart is heavy. I send bittersweet, although genuine, congratulations to you. I’d probably have done the same.


I too have both the Mac and iOS version of Sparrow. I personally was looking forward to the update that allowed Sparrow to act more like Apple’s default Mail client on iOS. They claimed they were going to add push notifications to Sparrow iOS very soon. Now, I will never feel like Sparrow is as good as Apple’s Mail client. It’s a great app, but it needs a little more work to truly be better than (both iOS and Mac)

This bigger company swallowing up little companies is getting way out of hand this last year. I’m worried that I won’t have any decent software anymore because they will all be sucked into Google, Microsoft, Apple and possibly Yahoo! (Thanks to Yahoo’s new CEO).

The trouble is that often developers and end users are playing a different game. If the goal of a developer is to create, support, and maintain a genuinely useful app long term and something utterly unexpected happens to disrupt that plan, then fair enough. But often it seems that developers are creating apps with short term goals in mind from the beginning. Of course that’s not the vision that they sell.

The fact is that promises are made. It’s an unavoidable part of marketing and advertising. Eucalyptus for example promises ‘20,000 books. The price of a paperback’. So the implicit promise is that I can read as many as 20,000 books for the price I pay for the app. Of course if I wanted to do that it would take me a while. So I will feel let down if the app stops working for me, at least as well as it does on the day I bought it, while I’m reading book number 50.

Meanwhile, Apple is always evolving their platform(s) and pulling support for older iterations of products and services. A couple of months from now I might have little choice but to update to the next version of iOS. If that breaks some of my apps then it’s easy to make an argument that the developer has an obligation to fix them — to restore at least the same level of functionality that I was sold when I bought the thing. New features are different.

To be safe, would-be users should evaluate apps based on what they do today not their potential. Of course, that probably makes it more difficult for small developers to get worthwhile products off the ground. Not to mention invalidating ideas like Kickstarter ( It also goes against common wisdom like ‘ship early and often’. Not buying into an app early based on promise can send developers (and those who control the money) that there is little interest in the idea. As a result they might pull the project before it has a chance to establish itself.

Personally I believe in investing in promise and potential. But then I feel justified in being pissed off when a developer sells out. Selling out used to be widely considered to be a bad thing. Now we sort of accept that it’s just the way things are. That probably suggests bigger, more fundamental issues. Maybe that’s why it feels so bad.

But maybe they’re not selling out. What does that even mean?

Definition: a betrayal of one’s principles for reasons of expedience.

I suppose it all depends on what those principles are.

Maybe that’s what potential users should look for — more than a list of features.

I really like the blog.


Thanks Rob - I agree with all you say.

If I were to nitpick, it would be with the idea that "I will feel let down if the app stops working for me, at least as well as it does on the day I bought it, while I’m reading book number 50". That’s true, but it doesn’t happen much; it’s rare that an app just stops working. If it does, I’d say that’s a defect worthy of a refund.

As you say, what’s more likely is that the user of the app will upgrade their hardware, or just OS software, and the app will stop working because of changes that the developer didn’t - and probably couldn’t - foresee. Most users nowadays expect updates to the app to keep it working. Is that attitude justified? I don’t know - although in some ways whether it’s justified doesn’t matter, it’s what the market expects. In a circular way, if it’s what the market expects, perhaps that makes it justified.

Eucalyptus, by the way, does continue to work on new hardware and OSes - I just submitted an update to Apple yesterday to cope with unforeseen (and, I’d say, unforeseeable) changes in iOS 6. It doesn’t work ‘natively’ on iPads (they weren’t even around when it was first conceived of!), and sometimes I get complaints about that - but whether those complaints are justified is another quandary altogether…