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mac.column.ted: Happy Anniversary to Default Folder

The venerable tool is twenty years old.

[Friday, February 15th]

Ted Landau

February 2008

Default Folder (with and without the X) is one of the most enduring utilities ever released for the Mac. The first version dates back to 1988. That's right. 1988. Even Apple doesn't have much software that dates back that far. This means that 2008 is Default Folder's twentieth anniversary!

My recollection is that I started using Default Folder soon after its initial release and have been a more than satisfied customer ever since.

For those of you unfamiliar with this great utility, here's what you need to know: Default Folder X modifies the way Open and Save dialog boxes work. Its primary feature, which is the one that gave the utility its name, is to have these dialogs rebound to the last file and folder location you selected. It does this for each application each time you access one of the dialogs. The idea is to have the dialog automatically open to where you most likely want it to be, rather than having to navigate through a folder hierarchy and long list of files each time. Should you wish, Default Folder X also allows you to easily move to any other location. With the newest 4.x version, you also get access to "Get Info" window attributes, full-screen previews and a tres cool translucent display.

To honor Default Folder's anniversary, I asked Jon Gotow, the creator of the software, for an interview. Happily, he agreed. Here's how the conversation went:

The need for a utility like Default Folder seems obvious now. But it wasn't so obvious back in 1988. How did you come up with the idea?

I wrote the very first version of Default Folder when I was in graduate school. A friend and I were frustrated with the fact that the file dialogs never seemed to show you the folder you wanted. I told him I thought I could hack the file dialogs to work better. He was skeptical, so I stayed up that entire night to prove I could do it. What eventually resulted was the very first version of Default Folder (then called DFaultD).

Default Folder is intimately linked to the Mac OS user interface, as it works within Open and Save dialogs. In fact, I've gotten so used to having Default Folder that I sometimes forget, until Default Folder is disabled for some reason, that its features are not actually part of the OS (which is probably one of the highest compliments a utility can receive). In many cases, with similarly successful utilities, Apple eventually "copied" their functions and included them in the OS, effectively putting the utility "out of business." This has not happened with Default Folder. Do you have any theory as why Apple has left it alone?

Perhaps I'm insanely lucky? Or Default Folder X does become such an integral part of the OS that folks at Apple also forget that it's not a part of OS X. In all seriousness, I think part of it is that the Open and Save dialogs aren't a particularly glamorous area where users focus a lot of attention?from a cost/benefit perspective, it's not a place where Apple sees a "big win." File dialogs are one of those little annoyances that can be made better, but the benefit is something realized over time.

Popular utilities often spawn competitors, even if not from Apple. For example, if you want a utility to replace Mac OS X's Dock, you can probably choose from at least a half-dozen excellent third-party alternatives. Yet, Default Folder (at least to my knowledge) has no competitors. Any theory on why this is so?

Making something like Default Folder X is hard, and explaining and marketing it to the average user is even harder. As a small developer, I've been able to allow the utility to grow over time. Many sales are by word-of-mouth. Larger companies want to sell programs they can push hard with advertising. Default Folder X, because it's really the sum of lots of smaller features, is hard to sell that way. I think the fact that it's hard to explain and that users don't necessarily "know they need it" has kept other companies from giving it a go.

Is your shareware business a full-time job for you?

St. Clair Software has been my full-time job since 1997. I actually started out in Mechanical Engineering and taught myself to write software. After getting a Mac Plus, I became totally hooked and began writing software for fun. I eventually got a job with a software company in Pittsburgh. I soon discovered that I didn't like being in management, and "returned to my roots" by starting St. Clair Software.

Running the business does takes a lot of time and energy. I often spend more time doing tech support and administrative functions than I do on development, and that can be frustrating. It's definitely much more than a 40-hour-a-week job, but I love doing it.

Speaking of St. Clair Software, where did this name come from?

I used to live in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania. One Friday afternoon, I received my first really big order from a Fortune 100 company. They asked for a quote on company letterhead and all that. This was just a little side hobby at the time, so I hurriedly picked a name out of the air and designed a logo. The name stuck, though the logo fortunately didn't.

Moving to the present, you could have made version 4.0 of Default Folder just an incremental update. Instead, it is so vastly overhauled as to feel almost like a new program. Where do you get the ideas for new features to add?

Leopard provided both the impetus and opportunity to really improve Default Folder X. Default Folder X's appearance was getting dated, and the great graphical capabilities and HUD-interface style in Leopard inspired me to come up with the new translucent theme. (As an aside, I've gotten email from some people who like the old look better, so I've added an option in version 4.0.1, now in beta, to go back to a more traditional interface). I also took advantage of Leopard's new QuickLook feature to include previews and file information.

Can you tell us about what new features to expect in the next major update?

There will be further improvements to the preview and Get Info features. I'd like to track recently used files as well as folders (that's a huge change, actually). The user interface for the settings will get an upgrade. I'll also explore more sophisticated Spotlight tagging options, using different metadata tags rather than storing all keywords as comments. And as always, there will be new features I haven't even thought of yet.

Leopard reportedly contains many more "under-the-hood" changes than previous OS X versions. Was it more difficult to upgrade Default Folder for Leopard than for Tiger?

Yes, Leopard includes some major "under the hood" changes to the Open and Save dialogs. On the plus side, this allowed me to streamline things to speed it up significantly. However, it was also more difficult to implement these Leopard-related changes. Prior to 10.5, there were actually two completely different sets of Open and Save dialogs?one for Cocoa applications, and another for Carbon applications. In Leopard, Apple merged these (but still has two different programming API's calling them), and that required rethinking and rewriting some significant parts of Default Folder X.

Any advice for users that have a problem with your software?

I'd like to emphasize how important it is to give developers feedback, both positive and negative. If something doesn't work correctly, don't assume that the developer knows about it. You may have a unique configuration or some really oddball situation that our testing didn't uncover. We can't fix things that we don't know are broken, and just because it's broken on your system doesn't mean it's broken on any of ours (as a matter of fact, it probably isn't, or we wouldn't have released the software!) Yes, some software companies won't listen, but there are many of us that do, and that truly care that our software works well.

I'd like to talk about a couple of more general shareware-related topics. Let's start with money. Back in the early days, getting paid for shareware was much more problematic that today. At least it seems so to me. There was no Web, no PayPal, or anything similar. Basically, people had to mail you a check or you didn't get paid. Do you find that the shareware model works better now that users can pay simply by making a few mouse-clicks?

Oh definitely! Being able to set up a Web store or integrate an Internet-enabled sales process right into the product is far more efficient for the developer. And of course the ease of payment makes it much more likely that users will actually purchase the software they're using.

These days DRM (digital rights management) is a hot topic. As I am sure you know, Steve Jobs has stated that he believes all music available on the Web should be free of copy restrictions. DRM is also relevant to shareware. That is, after one person purchases your software, they could give a copy of it (with the serial number, if needed) to anyone and everyone. Do you believe you lose a a significant amount of sales to such piracy? If so, what, if anything, do you believe should be done to minimize the loss?

Yup, that's a very hot topic. I do lose a significant number of sales to piracy. Or let's put it this way: A significant number of people use pirated registration codes; I don't know whether they'd actually purchase the software otherwise. That's the flip side of everything being so accessible on the Internet?it's not only easier to pay for software, it's easier to steal it.

The problem is that I personally find the more secure licensing/activation schemes pretty onerous. Developers have to strike a balance between getting the revenue we need to stay in business vs. burdening our customers with ridiculous licensing and activation schemes. With Internet connections now ubiquitous, I think we're going to have to get used to "phone home" methods?where software checks periodically to make sure that it's legitimately licensed and that there aren't 6000 copies in use with the same serial number. At the same time, application X darned well better not yell at me if I reboot my computer from a different hard drive and run it again. Fight the big stuff, but cut all the honest, paying customers some slack.

I couldn't agree more! Thanks again Jon for taking the time from your busy schedule to do this interview. And happy anniversary to Default Folder.

Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions, and for the time you took in putting them together.

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