My Nightmare App

August 22nd, 2006

The My Dream App web site opened this week to a great deal of publicity. Reaction from bloggers and the press has been mostly positive, I think because it’s a truly novel concept. This is an innovative gimmick that will generate a great deal of publicity for everybody associated with it, and that’s about where my admiration for the idea ends.

Am I just a cranky developer who wishes he had thought of the idea first? No! Well, cranky, yes. But I know at least a little bit about how good software gets made, and it doesn’t happen when a small team of developers is forced by contractual obligation to implement three separate projects, none of which came about from their own inspiration or passion.

Summary of the official rules: lots of people send in ideas, they get whittled down to 24. Then these ideas get narrowed down to three winners whose app designs get developed and marketed as shareware. The winners get 15% of the profits while the rest is split up somehow by the My Dream App team. Now, it would be one thing if the team got to pick their own burden, but the decision will be made by popular vote:

Registered users of the Contest website will narrow the field of twenty-four (24) Finalists to three (3) Winners through five rounds of popular voting.

The three winners give up any rights to benefit independently from their idea (a shaky legal restriction, if I ever heard one):

If a Submission is Accepted (and thereby becomes MDA’s property in accordance with Section 7), You do not use any information or material in the Submission for Your own personal gain.

Ideas can become property? Only if they’re patented, and you can’t patent something after it’s been made public. But the worst part is what’s in store for poor Austin, Jason, John, and Martin, the contest’s software developers. Who knows what motivations they had for agreeing to participate in this event, but it looks like a raw deal from where I’m sitting:

MDA Has the Obligation to Develop an Accepted Submission. After a Submission is Accepted (the 3 Winners), MDA has the obligation to put forth all reasonable effort to develop a product based upon the Accepted Submission and release it for commercial gain.

We can’t see the contents of their legal agreements with My Dream App, but it would appear that they, or somebody else in their stead, will be compelled to develop three applications whose specifications are unknown, without pay and in exchange for notoriety and a cut of future profits. If there are any. If somebody came to me with a contract like that I’d tell them they were out of their freaking mind. If they’re lucky, they’ll end up with three winners that the team can actually get fired up about. If they’re not, then the fulfillment phase of this arrangement will be a nightmare, indeed.

My Dream App celebrates what I think is an utterly false notion in software development: that ideas are golden. Ideas are practically free. They run like flood-water through every conceivable channel of the internet. This contest will do nothing except put a heavy burden on a small development team to turn somebody else’s ideas into the type of application that can usually only be inspired by the developer’s own dreams.

Even when a team pursues a dream – their dream – success is far from assured. Good luck to the My Dream App team!

21 Responses to “My Nightmare App”

  1. David Young Says:

    I kinda feel like the legalese is just a part of MDA for completeness sake. For any of the legalese to even come into play, someone would have to file a lawsuit, which means lawyers, court fees, et cetera. Fifteen percent of even a really good shareware application is probably going to only buy you a few hours of a (cheap) lawyer’s time, which means it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to litigate unless whatever comes of MDA is *really* successful. (In many ways, success — combined with the murky ownership of the IP — could be a curse for the MDA apps…)

    Just so you don’t think I’m totally missing the point, as an engineer, I feel like ideas are indeed cheap. It’s connecting the right ideas (ie, eliminating the crap ideas) with the right people (which is why MDA lined up some good dev talent) and executing brilliantly (???). I think the novelty of MDA is proving/disproving whether or not the public can be harnessed to help with the first bit. Next step would be a democratically-elected engineering team. :)

  2. paul Says:

    Ditto on your feelings on the ideas being cheap, curious though what people are going to submit. Thinking in my head what sort of idea has not been at least attempted by some developer already. :)

  3. Manton Reece Says:

    I was thinking the same thing after reading the web site earlier today. Sounds like a bad deal for the developers. What happens if the top 3 submissions are extremely complicated apps that consume many months of development time?

    Still, it’ll be interesting to watch, and I wish them luck with the effort.

  4. » Blog Archive » My dream app or my nightmare app? Says:

    […] While the competition is a purple cow, I’m not sure that the offspring will also be purple: the final choice of the application resides with the participants rather than with the developers. Seth points out that remarkable products don’t survive focus-groups or committees. So, what’s in it for the developers? Writing a great application takes time, dedication and passion, which only occur if the developer is truly sold on its idea. If the result is lackluster, it will not compensate the developers for their time… […]

  5. John Says:

    I agree with your points but when I first saw this ‘contest’ I had a negative reaction for a different reason.

    At first I thought. “Hey, kinda cool” but then I thought “Hey, what if someone posts an idea that is never acted upon by MDA but then I decide to do it (irregardless if I knew it had been submitted to MDA or not))

    Now the original idea-guy comes around and say’s “You stole my idea, pay up” and points to his contest entry as proof — Even if I never saw the original entry I’ve got a problem

    This is bad for everyone…. I’ve pretty much decided that I will pay NO attention to MDA (and I’ll make a point of saying it publicly and loudly)

  6. Mark Says:

    You old cynic you.

  7. Jason Harris Says:

    (I’m the Jason who’s one of the developers of this groovay thang)

    I don’t think it’s a bad gig at all – in fact, I volunteered to do it because I was so excited about the idea!

    I think maybe the part that’s confusing you is this: We, the developers, are the ones responsible for whittling the original influx of ideas down to the 24 finalists. And we’ll be whittling down to ideas that are both feasible and compelling. Which means that we’re pretty much guaranteed to be able and willing to write any of the winners.

    The really compelling thing about MDA to me is that the community is involved all the way through. I elaborated a bit on that with my first blog post.

  8. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    John: I wouldn’t worry too much about the “stealing ideas” problem. My response to that is simply I’ll steal a good idea if I see it and I get passionate about it. Nobody is going to stop me from “building a mouse trap” just because they came up with the idea of “something that kills mice.”

    Jason: thanks for chiming in, here. I appreciate that you have some control over getting the application to the “24” stage. But 24 is still a mighty big number. I do wish you luck in coming to a situation where the list of 24 ideas is filled only with ideas you’re fired up about, but you’re going to decide as a committee. Somebody on your team is going to be unhappy with some of the ideas on the list, and they’re going to be bummin’. Maybe this is overly pessimistic of me.

    I agree that the idea of having many, many customers constantly on your tail about problems in the app might be productive and reassuring. But at some point this “too many cooks” cliche could kill the potency of a small team.

  9. - Worldshots Says:

    […] Nem akartam foglalkozni a MyDreamApp versennyel, mert a Megasztár szoftverfejlesztÅ‘s verziója elsÅ‘re csak furcsának tűnt, érdekesnek viszont nem. De Daniel Jalkut annyira jó postot – csak most csak önöknek van induló vita is – Á­rt arról, mekkora pofonba szaladhatnak bele az ÁlomAppot megvalósÁ­tó programozók, hogy azt linkelni kell. […]

  10. gdw Says:


    Jason, if you’re still here (or if anyone else knows what they’re talking about), could we get some detail on the actual development of the apps? Will just one or two people be working on just one app, or will the whole team be building all three of them together? I seem to get conflicting stories from the website.

  11. Jeff Dlouhy Says:

    Wouldn”™t MDA be doing a better service if it helped people learn how to make better applications or just program in the first place? I think the idea is semi-novel, but hinders real creative talent from possibly spawning.

    Now for example say an individual has a really great idea for a new application. Traditionally if the person does not know how to program for the Mac they would go buy a book and a few months down the road start work on their “dream app.” I know that”™s how I got into Cocoa programming, and I think that”™s how many programmers out there started. Now MDA is promoting laziness in the Mac software community. Why try to learn a new skill when you could have someone else do it and get a free Macbook in the process?

    All I am really saying is that many people have great ideas. It”™s the ones who exploit them and put them into action that reap the rewards. So you can have this killer idea and not know how to program, so my answer is learn how to program then make it happen. I believe that the only people benefiting from this “contest” are its creators.

  12. Stripes Says:

    Jeff, there are people who have good ideas for applications that don’t program at all. For them a Cocoa book and two months won’t get them to the point where they can write an app. However they may well have an idea for an app that will sell very well and sell at $600 a pop. For example anyone in a specialized field that has a fair bit of domain specific knolage. A Realtor might have some very good ideas for a doable app that other Realtors will buy for “big bucks”, but no real ability to write it.

    Daniel, it sounds a lot like getting handed somebody elses dream app when you work at a big company. Not the end of the world, many programmers do it, but not the kind of inspired environment most people choose a small development shop for, but livable.

  13. Coplan Says:

    I think you hit the problem on the head:

    “This contest will do nothing except put a heavy burden on a small development team to turn somebody else”™s ideas into the type of application that can usually only be inspired by the developer”™s own dreams.”

    I’m a web-developer, so my angle is a bit skewed…no experience in software programming. But I have learned a long time ago that it is much harder to develop based on someone else’s ideas than it is to develop your own. Sure, once the application exists *somewhere*, it isn’t often a problem to add features per the request of the populace. And, to be honest, it’s sometimes rewarding to do so. But having to develop an application around someone else’s thoughts…it’s terrible. Especially if the person doesn’t understand a damn thing about application development in the first place.

    As for legal: I agree with you 100%. The legal restrictions on this site cause serious problems, in my opinion. I’m a big advocate of the Open Source model. This seems like an attempt to bring open-source to proprietary scene.

  14. Team Murder » Contractual Obligation May Be The Killer App Says:

    […] Of course my summary of perceptions is clogged with bitterness and a little anemic on real solid criticism other than my usual mission in life further spreading the unconfirmed rumor that Horatio Alger was a child molester or at least pedophile. Lucky for me some of the sharper knives in the drawer immediately saw most of the potential problems with an arrangement like My Dream App and have written them down and expanded on them to the benefit of news skimmers with serious time deficits like myself. I didn’t realize earlier that the developers saddled with the task of bringing half baked ideas to life in code pounded out by people hoping to garner some reputation for doing such. Jesus. What an awful fucking idea. I’m sort of glad that I missed that aspect of the process on the first go-round because it sounds like not only the aforementioned worst idea in the history of software development but a fabulous opportunity for those poor bastard developers to get a bad case of burnout trying to craft feasible code out of fucking pipe dreams. Perhaps they could add a crippling RSI or early bout with alcoholism clause to the contracts as well just to perfect the insanity. Oh, and there is the ‘no money’ thing. That definitely adds to the ‘huh’ factor of this project. Go read the post on the Red Sweater Blog. Really. […]

  15. Chris Thomas Says:

    I didn’t read the legalese, but I immediately had some of the same thoughts when I read about this contest: (a) that’s no way to fire up a developer’s passion and (b) ideas are easy, execution is where the magic happens.

    I hope for the sake of everyone involved that it all just works out.

  16. Primordial Soup » Blog Archive » Cambrian House vs. My Dream App Says:

    […] The Mac portion of the blogosphere has been rife with commentary on My Dream App, a site which likens itself to Pop Idol for apps for the Apple Mac (well, actually American Idol, but I like to go with the original ). I had a chat with Daniel Jalkut on Freenode the other day, after his less than complimentary blog post about My Dream App, and he suggested I write a comparison between CH and MDA. So here it is – totally biased, but I don’t care – this is my blog, not the BBC. […]

  17. Kerri Says:

    I can’t help but wonder now…who’s going to be responsible for ongoing support for the apps, and documentation, and such? Is that the 15% idea person, or the developer, or someone else?

    Or will it be one of those situations where it’s a HOT HOT HOT app that has a lot of community support for a year or two, and then the folks in the community realize that someone else is making money off their support time, and the community moves on to the next hot thing?

  18. Conor Dearden Says:

    Getting the developers hyped on the ideas doesn’t seem to be a problem; they all signed up willingly and Jason for one seems to have jumped into the water head first; he has already created one application to judge the entries Dream Slapper. Which bring me to my next point, these developers have talent. Whatever ideas they end up working on they can get exited about them and do a wonderful job and be incredibly successful or they have enough talent to throw something together in a couple of months and with the marketing My Dream App will generate it will be successful enough to cover their time. Now my negative reaction is the same that John had, I have a couple of ideas on the back burner and I am scared they might come up with something similar. Updates to DVDpedia have kept me very busy and given me no time to start another project at the moment. With 2250 entries I am sure my idea is in there somewhere, now the question is will it be picked? If my idea is chosen I will have to find time to start that new project. Competition is a good thing, maybe My Dream App is the push we are missing to get of our ass and start coding.

    P.S. Or I could submit my idea and let Jason do the hard work, while I sit back and reap 15 percent.

  19. Jason Harris Says:

    Just came across this post again and thought I’d drop in a few updates. At this point, we’ve begun the process of pruning the 2700+ entries down to the 24 finalists.

    There seems to be a lot of doubt on this blog that the MDA developers are going to be fired up about working on somebody else’s ideas. Pretty sure it’s not gonna be an issue.

    So far, we’ve picked 6 of the 24 finalists, and, speaking only for myself, I’d be completely thrilled to code any of those 6. The other two developers seem to feel the same. They’re all either “damn, wish I’d thought of that!” ideas, or ideas that present interesting technical challenges that will make working on them fun, or ideas that are just inherently fun, and which will be entertaining to work on as a result.

    To answer a few other questions, the plan is one developer per app, with John acting as development manager, and with at least one graphic designer dedicated to each app. However, since we don’t yet know what the winners will be, we’re hedging our bets a bit by not setting this in stone.

    It’s likely that the devs will collaborate on bits and pieces of things. For example, let’s say Martin winds up coding something collaborative, which would make sense given his SubEthaEdit background. But let’s also say that the app has some component that involves heavy math work or physics simulations. I’d probably code that bit since I’ve got a background in scientific computing. And so on.

    Basically, we’ll allocate tasks as makes sense. A big part of John’s job as development manager will be to figure out what makes sense. :)

    Support will be handled by My Dream App – the winning-idea person won’t be concerned with it (unless, of course, she wants to be, in which case we forward all the emails to her and go to Hawaii!)

  20. Daniel Jalkut Says:

    Hi Jason – thanks for the update! It sounds like things are going as well as they possibly can, which is great news. I am glad to hear that so far your finalists are proving to be “can’t lose” ideas for the development team.

    It’s great news that you’ll be collaborating if and when appropriate. That makes the process seem less doomed to me, though I’d still be afraid of thoes 18 remaining finalists :)

  21. Red Sweater Blog - Ten Free Ideas Says:

    […] I meant it when I downplayed the value of ideas in my critique of the My Dream App contest: “Ideas are practically free. They run like flood-water through every conceivable channel of the internet.” […]

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