Tue 01 Jul
I have a soft spot for utility software — especially for the Macintosh — because the authors, engineers and publishers who work in this niche almost always seem to be real fans of the computing experience. The very nature of utility software — those little add-ons and enhancements that subtly or significantly alter the behavior of the operating system — is one of tweaking, of altering the way of things in a particular, sometimes obscure way so that the universe seems just a tad bit more in order… and it’s usually the most devoted computer geeks who will tweak.
Utilities make computing more efficient and personal, and especially with those programs written for the Macintosh, they make things more fun. Which is why I’m so sad to see longtime Mac utility publisher Casady & Greene shutter its operations.
Casady & Greene were around for nineteen years, which is hard to believe because I’ve only been working with their products for the past ten or so. But during that time, I grew quite fond of Spell Catcher, still the best spell checking utility ever, Conflict Catcher, an indispensable machete for cutting through the thicket of Mac OS 8 and 9 extensions and control panels, and SoundJam MP, the literal progenitor of Apple’s very own iTunes.
These were somewhat geeky utilities, loaded with preference panels full of options, settings and methods for tweaking the tweaks, but they were well-written, stable and really, really enjoyable. They became such an important part of the way that I worked that I was extremely reluctant to make the move to Mac OS X without them, and in fact much of my delay in upgrading could be laid down to the fact that I was holding out for a modern release of Spell Catcher that I could run under Jaguar.
Now C&G have decided to call it a day, citing “a series of economic disasters from which we were unable to rebound.” That sounds painful. This is more or less the same fate that’s befallen most of the other utility publishers whose products I’ve adored in the past — Now Software used to publish a full line of really powerful utlities and programs before they were reduced to selling just Now Up-to-Date and Now Contact. Even their fiscal and spiritual successor, Power On Software, has lost much steam in recent years.
Why did this happen? From the perspective of innovation and quality, the Macintosh utiltities market is remarkably robust; I’ve seen some of the best Mac software ever released in the past year or so. And yet, I think the market is suffering desperately at the same time. Apple’s market share continues to dwindle precipitously, and the increasingly widespread abundance of software engineering skills and tools, in combination with the anyone-can-play distribution capability of the Internet means that there are more utilities in competition for user dollars than ever, and they’re cheaper than ever. Software — as an art and a business — keeps changing, and change has victims.