Sparrow, Promise, and Feelings of Betrayal

Posted on Jul 21, 2012

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.