The real reason we’re upset about Sparrow’s acquisition

When the news hit that Sparrow has been acquired by Google, you could almost hear the collective sigh from those who use and love this wonderful iOS and Mac OS X email client. Many people (myself included) took to Twitter to voice our disappointment with this move, especially about the fact there there will be no additional development on the app:

We will continue to make available our existing products, and we will provide support and critical updates to our users. However, as w’ll be busy with new projects at Google, we do not plan to release new features for the Sparrow apps.

The response from many others was that we should just get over ourselves:

Matt is right, of course — Sparrow doesn’t owe us anything. The Sparrow team did everything right: they had a great idea, they worked hard on it, and they executed well. That’s why Sparrow is a great app that serves a real need, and why it’s so successful. This is how software development should work: make a great product, and sell it to people for money. The Sparrow team deserves enormous credit for doing that.

But the issue is not that we think Sparrow “sold out.” I don’t think any of us would have turned down Google’s offer if we were in their shoes. The Sparrow team deserve their success, and it’s their software — they can do with it whatever they want. It’s also a great strategic move by Google. If the Sparrow team end up making Gmail better, Google wins. If they don’t — well, at least they’ve eliminated a competitor, and they still win.

We need to reframe this argument. The real issue is much deeper than this specific acquisition. The real issue is the sudden vulnerability we feel now that one of our theories about independent app development has failed.

You see, for a long time we’ve chanted this refrain wherever we could: If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. We point to Facebook and Delicious and ad-supported sites and lament the fact that we’re all just a set of eyeballs being sold to advertisers. So we came up with a solution. We decided that we don’t want to be free users any more. We decided that we want to pay independent developers directly so that they can have sustainable businesses and happy lives.

The philosophy is perfectly summed up in Don’t Be A Free User, a great post on the Pinboard blog:

What if a little site you love doesn’t have a business model? Yell at the developers! Explain that you are tired of good projects folding and are willing to pay cash American dollar to prevent that from happening. It doesn’t take prohibitive per-user revenue to put a project in the black. It just requires a number greater than zero. [“¦]

So stop getting caught off guard when your favorite project sells out! “They were getting so popular, why did they have to shut it down?” Because it’s hard to resist a big payday when you are rapidly heading into debt. And because it’s culturally acceptable to leave your user base high and dry if you get a good offer, citing self-inflicted financial hardship.

This is why I am a paid subscriber to services like Pinboard and Instapaper. It’s also why I paid for the both the Mac OS X and iOS versions of Sparrow. I believe in this philosophy. I believe we should pay people for the things they make, so that they can make it even more awesome.

But with Sparrow’s acquisition the cracks in the philosophy starts to appear. Marco Arment (creator of Instapaper) posted his response to the deal in Talent acquisitions:

If you want to keep the software and services around that you enjoy, do what you can to make their businesses successful enough that it’s more attractive to keep running them than to be hired by a big tech company.

But… that’s what I did. I paid full price for every version of the Sparrow app I could find. I told everyone who would listen to buy it. I couldn’t have given them more money even if I wanted to. So, as a customer, what more could I have done to keep them running independently?

This is the core of the disappointment that many of us feel with the Sparrow acquisition. It’s not about the $15 or less we spent on the apps. It’s not about the team’s well-deserved payout. It’s about the loss of faith in a philosophy that we thought was a sustainable way to ensure a healthy future for independent software development, where most innovation happens.