I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Learning from competition

I experimented with custom fonts in Instapaper last year, but my efforts fizzled out. Before iOS 5, rendering custom fonts in a UIWebView on iOS was extremely buggy and slow. And nearly all of my licensing inquiries to font foundries went unanswered, so I couldn’t legally ship any of the fonts I wanted even if I could get them to work well. So I tabled the custom-fonts idea.

But I tabled it for too long. When Readability launched their competing app last week, their custom fonts received high praise and Instapaper’s looked pretty tired by comparison.

I could have interpreted this defensively and complacently: “Georgia and Verdana are great, versatile, highly screen-readable fonts! I don’t need to do what competitors do! Newer isn’t always better! My crusty old fonts have some technical advantage that you don’t care about!” And so on.

That would have just made me look stubborn and out of touch, failing to understand (in fact, trying very hard not to understand) why newer fonts could be attractive to customers, and failing to admit that I should have done it first.

Instead, I’m taking this misstep as a wake-up call: I missed an important opportunity that’s necessary for the long-term competitiveness of my product. So I’ve spent most of the last week testing tons of reading fonts, getting feedback from designers I respect, narrowing it down to a handful of great choices, and negotiating with their foundries for inclusion into the next version of Instapaper.1 And the results in testing so far are awesome. I wish someone had kicked my complacent ass about fonts sooner.

Reacting well to competition requires critical analysis of your own product and its shortcomings, and a complete, open-minded understanding of why people might choose your competitors.

They’re not fanboys. They’re not brainwashed by “marketing”. Your competitors’ customers aren’t passing on your product because they’re stupid or irrational.

They’re choosing your competitors for good reasons, and denying the existence of such good reasons will only ensure that your product never overcomes them.

One of the reasons Apple has been able to quickly dominate so many markets is that their competitors have largely reacted defensively.

Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 are interesting and relevant because, after years of denial, Microsoft has finally (and only very recently) started to admit to themselves that Apple had some very good ideas and products that Microsoft needed to take seriously.

I honestly can’t tell whether Google thinks Apple’s ideas are good. (Except the ones they copy. I guess they think those are good, at least.) But Google has — publicly, at least — always seemed to think that Android is the best at everything and its dominance everywhere is inevitable. I wonder: do the higher-ups at Google really not see the flaws in their products?

That’s why Microsoft is so much more interesting today: while Google seems to think they don’t need to change anything and Apple’s customers are brainwashed by marketing, Ballmer has shut up about Apple publicly and Microsoft is making radical changes.

  1. Mini-spoiler: Only one of my currently chosen fonts is in Readability. ↩︎