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Interview: 10 Questions for Big Robot

1. Where did the Big Robot name come from?

Pete: Big Robot is actually my middle name.

Ryan: Yeah, we thought the company would have that personal feel to it if we used something close to us for the name, so we went with Pete’s middle name. His mother is very proud.

2. Who makes up Big Robot? How’d you come to work together?

Ryan: Big Robot consists of myself (Ryan Perry) and Pete Rossi. Our wives moonlight as opinion consultants for us because of their very reasonable fees. Pete lives in California and I live in Maine. The distance keeps our relationship alive, I think ;) .

Opinion Consultants, huh? Wonder how my wife would dig that title…

Pete and I worked at our first programming positions together at a little company called Nombas while we were still in college. It wasn’t long before we were working on our own projects outside of school and work.

3. What got you into developing software for OS X?

Pete: Ryan is to blame for getting me into Macs. He was always trying to get me to switch. Finally I made what I thought was a foolproof ultimatum: I’ll buy a Mac when Apple gives me a Unix shell. Who knew?

Ryan: Before Pete and I worked together, I did a little time as an intern for Mark of the Unicorn, a maker of music studio software and hardware. I was a phone tech support lackey, and being on the front lines made me realize that making a truly great product could change the way people work, and make interesting things more possible, and that MOTU and Apple and the rest of the Mac platform were focused on just that.

It also helped that another friend of mine from college was a serious fan of the Mac, as well as a great programmer. He gave me a lot of encouragement, both about working on the Mac platform and about starting a little company. He works for Apple as a software developer now.

4. Was Meta your first foray into the OS X software scene?

Ryan: Yes, it was. Although Pete and I both had plenty of experience writing software for various platforms, neither of us had worked on any sort of GUI application before. So naturally, we dove right in. I mean, how hard could it be, right?

Pete: That was a fun way to learn Cocoa. We had our share of frustrations along the way, but overall it was an enjoyable experience.

Ryan: After working on Meta for a while, we realized that for our next project we needed to make a smaller application, so that we could focus more on getting everything just right. That’s a big reason why you see TagBot the way it is today. It’s the smallest possible application that does its job well. At least, that’s what we’ve aimed for.

5. Meta is a much more easily accessible way of creating deeper searches for Spotlight. What are some of your favorite uses or tips – Things we may not have figured out on our own – for Meta?

Pete: We put a ton of effort into writing the Help Book for Meta, so we like to believe everything you need to know is fully documented. But there are still some little-known tricks floating around. My favorite: some aspects of the Meta query language are defined in .plist files that are installed in ~/Library/Application Support/Big Robot. If you were so inclined you could edit these files and add your own shortcuts to the language.

Ryan: Yeah, that’s a powerful one. I actually like the sidebar and the Metafolders for pulling stunts. For one thing, you can combine Metafolders by selecting multiple Metafolders in the sidebar, by holding down Shift or Command while clicking on them. So you can save smaller search chunks as Metafolders and combine them that way for a mix-and-match effect.

Also, I like to use Metafolders as search templates. Say I’ve got a search that I find myself typing in over and over again, but each time one or two parts are different, such as the folder in which to do the searching, or the keyword I’m looking for. Well, when you click on a Metafolder in the sidebar, the search query it runs will show up in the search text field. So if you save one of these searches as a Metafolder, you can use it as a template by just editing the query string that comes up when you click on the Metafolder. It saves me a lot of typing.

Yeah, I figured that last tip out on my own – I’m lazy and generally like to find all the shortcuts for doing something…

6. Now with TagBot, it’s quite clear you guys have a thing for metadata. What’s the background on that interest?

Ryan: Well, we’re not formally-trained metadata specialists, or anything like that. But metadata is a relatively new feature of Mac OS X, and we see a lot of potential for it to be utilized to effectively change the way people get things done. I think it’s also a really fun and interesting way for people to work with their stuff. Right now with Meta and TagBot we’re hitting on a couple of obvious metadata targets, but the potential for some really fun and interesting interaction between the user and their stuff is here now. We just need to tap into it.

Pete: At the time we starting working on Meta, there were not many applications making use of metadata. There was a lot of wide open space to play around in. As a programmer, that is hard to resist.

7. TagBot is your latest product and offers users an extremely simple way to “tag” their files.
What was your inspiration for creating tagbot?

Pete: We actually wrote the original tagging code as part of Meta 3.0, which we never released. We were really excited about the tagging feature and we realized it would make an extremely useful stand-alone application. That is one of the neat things about being such a small company – we have the freedom to change directions when an opportunity presents itself.

Ryan: The thing is that we realized at a certain point that tagging files shouldn’t be a feature of some larger app, but that it should be its own thing, accessible from Meta, or from the Finder, or iPhoto, or wherever. So that’s when we understood that we needed to break that feature off of Meta and make TagBot.

I’d say that was a smart move. It would have been a shame to have the tremendous functionality of TagBot be potentially lost within the folds of Meta.

8. Do you worry that similar functionality will be offered in the upcoming Leopard?

Ryan: Well, I think that the answer to that is a bifurcated one. (Someone’s reading their Word of the Day toilet paper… ;) ) First, will tagging be one of the secret features of Leopard? Maybe. Only a few people at Apple probably know that for sure, and Apple has proven that trying to predict their feature sets is a pretty fruitless endeavor. Second, are we worried about it? Nah. With every revision of Mac OS X, some doors are closed and others are opened. Maybe there will be more for us to do with tagging, or maybe there won’t be and we’ll figure out another gap to fill.

Pete: No matter how good a job Apple does, there are always going to be opportunities for creative third-party developers to do really neat things. And the Mac community welcomes these endeavors with open arms – which makes working on Big Robot so much fun.

9. From previous conversations, you’ve mentioned your desire to keep a clean and intuitive interface with TagBot. I’ve had a bit of Human Factors Engineering experience and your comments ring true to that way of thinking – do you have any formal training in that area?

Pete: No, neither of us have any such training. We set out to make tagging accessible to all levels of users, and the interface plays a large role. We wanted to write an application that our Moms could use. Now if I could only get my Mom to buy a Mac, we’d be in business.

Ryan: We go by two guides when designing our interfaces: the Apple Human Interface Guidelines (when applicable), and the concept that good design is about taking things out of the software, until you are left with the core of what it should be. As you may be able to tell, Meta is more a product of the former than the latter, while we think that TagBot is a decent balance of the two.

10. Who in the software development world (OS X or otherwise) do you look up to, or inspires you in the work that you do?

Ryan: I think the person I look up to the most, both in terms of being a good programmer and in terms of attitude about making software and having a business, is Brent Noorda. He’s the founder and President of Nombas, and a good friend of myself and Pete.

Pete: I second that. How Big Robot conducts business is directly influenced by our experiences at Nombas. We take pride in our customer support, which is something we borrowed from Brent’s playbook. We’ve had people purchase our products simply because we took the time to answer their questions, and we have Brent to thank for that.

Ryan: In the context of Mac development, I see the products Wil Shipley makes as kind of a gold standard of what can and should be done. And I appreciate his willingness to be fairly open about how he thinks new Mac developers can make good products and build a business. Besides Wil, the Mac development community itself is inspirational. I think they’re a great group of developers trying to make good, fun products. Seeing what these other folks do, and how they approach different issues, prods us to go further, ourselves.

Couldn’t help myself, one last question…

11. Got any previews of what to look forward to in future releases of Meta, TagBot, or anything new we haven’t heard of yet?

Pete: We are in a constant struggle when it comes to adding new features to TagBot. We really like the streamlined simplicity of the product, and we try to avoid cramming in features just because we can. But we also get lots of great feedback and feature requests from our customers, and we want to make TagBot as useful as possible. Our goal for future versions of TagBot is to hit that elusive sweet spot between simplicity and functionality.

Ryan: And honestly, we really try not to mention features to people that we haven’t released yet. Because once you tell somebody about a feature you’re planning, you’ve set an expectation that you’re going to deliver on it. But what if it turns out that getting that feature right isn’t going to be possible, or would require some incredible amount of effort and genius? Then you’re letting folks down, which is, to use a technical term, a bummer. But rest assured that we are working feverishly on the stuff we can’t tell you about.

Any last words?

Ryan: Yeah, check out our new web rocket at, designed by Rory Prior of ThinkMac Software! Now with less content and more colors! (We’ll be putting in some more content soon. We just need to get it back from the pawn shop.)

Pete: While you are taking a look at the new site, keep your eyes peeled for a new version of TagBot. We have a release planned for the near future. Unless something goes terribly awry, in which case I will deny we ever had this conversation.

Thanks for taking the time guys, and keep up the good work!

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