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5 Minutes on The Verge: Growl's Christopher Forsythe

5 Minutes on The Verge: Growl's Christopher Forsythe


Christopher Forsythe, the man behind the Mac notification tool Growl, sits down for a quick chat with The Verge.

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christopher forsyth
christopher forsyth

While most major mobile OS's come with an integrated notification system these days, it's a different story on desktops. An essential install for many Mac users, Growl adds customizable notifications to your desktop, saving you from the need to constantly switch apps to see new emails, incoming chat messages, and even download completion updates. Houston, Texas-based Christopher Forsythe created the app and runs the team behind it, and has also worked as project manager on other well-known Mac projects like Adium and Perian. Chris spared a few minutes from his busy schedule to answer some of our pressing questions on the history of Growl, moving to the Mac App Store, and his first memory of the internet. Follow him on Twitter at @the_tick.

What phone do you use?

I'm using an iPhone 4S. It replaced an iPhone 3G, which replaced an iPhone 2G, which replaced a t68i, which replaced a Motorola m3188 which replaced an old VoiceStream pager.

What's your favorite Mac app? Mobile app?

Well obviously on my mac there is Growl. My absolute favorite outside of Growl is currently Pinna which is still in private beta. Outside of that I think this kind of question could use a few answers so that people can check some neat apps out. I really like Fantastical, App Viz 2, Interarchy, Docerator, and Chuck is cool. Sparrow is one of my favorite apps now. Swackett is pretty neat, just from a different kind of way to look at things.

On my phone I find Twitter to be useful, and I enjoy Deep Green and Prompt.

What's the story behind Growl's beginnings?

So about 8 years ago I was working on a few things and came to a point where I just didn't know what was going on with anything but the main application I was working in. I found this pretty frustrating so I thought about it for a while. At the time I was working in some capacity on Adium. There was a mild argument about the interface at the time with regards to notifications. Jorge, the guy working on the notifications bezel wanted a bunch of options. Adam, the guy who created Adium wanted something simpler, more or less the Colloquy notifications.

To me it didn't make sense that Colloquy had to create this interface, in a different way than Adium had. I contacted both Jorge and Karl (the guy who worked on the notifications for Colloquy) and asked them if they'd be interested in working on a project to create something that a lot of different applications could use. Jorge said no, but Karl said yes.

Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web these days?

I don’t know that it’s truly the web, but to me the web is moving away from the browser for a lot of people. Apps on devices which make the web accessable to people who are afraid of the internet is probably the thing that I'm most excited about. Before apps people who weren't geeks in my life didn't talk about websites at all. Now they talk about apps (frontends to websites or not) in an almost giddy fashion. This is probably the coolest thing that has happened to the web. Web apps do not feel like desktop or iOS apps so to speak, but the lines are blurring for a lot of people.

What do you think of different approaches to notifications on mobile devices?

I think they're OK. I'm not sure that I'm ever going to be utterly happy with them, but at least now they're pretty usable and similar on more than two platforms. My expectation is that notifications shouldn’t interrupt you, but on the phone there’s not really a way for them to not interrupt you. It’s not really the fault of the software. It’s just how it is.

How's the move to the Mac App Store been? Did you have to make any tradeoffs in moving to the App Store?

It's going pretty well actually. We didn't make any real tradeoffs with regards to functionality, there's actually more functionality in the 1.3 line of releases than there is in the 1.2 line of releases. We did need to change from a free to a paid model in order for development to continue. There were a few big issues that caused us to need to switch to a paid model overall.

We had a few big soul crushing issues prior to Growl entering the app store, and the majority of those simply went away when Growl hit the app store.

How was the reaction when you started charging for Growl? Has the response changed since then?

Some people were pretty happy to "finally donate to Growl" (even though we had a donations button in Growl for years). Others didn't like it. The response has been overwhelmingly positive overall, with some negatives. The response has changed slightly, but overall we're still getting a lot of positive responses.

The Growl UI doesn't look like many other OS X apps. What's the give and take between adhering to popular OS X UI conventions and going in your own direction, especially when it comes to custom alert styles?

The UI conventions still somewhat apply. Spacing has to look good, fonts do, colors, etc etc. We've had to make choices to stick to this. I always try to keep in mind that a notification shouldn't be a meal, but an appetizer or even an amuse-bouche.

An example of this would be allowing multiple links in a notification, which happens in some Linux notifications. Keeping it simple is important, if it looks busy then it's distracting. Multiple links in this example does just that. It makes the user have to focus on small details on something which isn’t supposed to be that distracting. So instead we make the entire notification a target. The user clicks the notification as soon as any sort of text jumps out of them that they need to click on it. Keeping that in mind is crucial to the experience. The key to all of this is that it has to be simple and easily accessible. Focusing on the 80-90 percent of end users on the majority of the UI that they use is key to that. So the focus on notifications being easy has been the majority of what we work on. The configuration parts of Growl are going to get the focus in the next release and subsequent releases, and there’s always room for improvement.

The Growl preferences are different, we try to stick to the guidelines in some way, but at the same time it's a place that should be a quick 1) get in, 2) change something, 3) get out. Growl notifications overall are pretty spot on now, so we can go back to working on improving the interface changing Growl to behave in a new way.

What are your favorite Growl styles and style designers?

Usually when a style is pretty awesome looking, we ask to ship it with Growl. Right now my favorite is Whiteboard by George Lambrou, which we shipped with Growl 1.3.2.

When you've got hours of coding to do, what are your go to music choices?

I wish I could code really, but I'm the guy who manages things that happens to also know a smattering of web languages. However, I'm listening to stuff that sounds like Trampled by Turtles or Florence + The Machine.

Email, instant messaging, weather, and local network Growl alerts are enormously useful on the desktop, but there's still the whole world of web-based notifications that's still largely relegated to email filters — or phone notifications. With everything from Facebook and Tumblr to Pinterest and Foursquare spitting out notifications these days, do you plan to integrate this into Growl?

For the last few years we've been working through a new networking protocol, GNTP. Growl supports it on the Mac, Growl for Windows and Snarl on Windows, and I'm sure something does support it on Linux. There are libraries out there in a plethora of languages. We finally have the port assigned to us with the IANA even. Any application developer can use it, whether it be desktop or web based developer.

That's the key, application developers implement Growl support, not the other way around. Once it's implemented, any Growl user will gain additional features, and any developer will gain Growl users, which is a win/win.

It's interesting that notification systems have lagged behind on the desktop, while they've been core to most modern mobile operating systems. Are people less concerned with desktop notifications, or is desktop just playing catch up?

I've really just gone back and forth on this one, and my conclusion is that there were bigger fish to fry. I'm sure that in the next 2-3 years we'll see it all translated back to the desktop from the mobile devices. I'm sure it won't be as cool as Growl, but it'll be interesting.

What books are you reading now?

I have a few in the queue. Right now is Inside Apple by Adam Lashinsky. The Lincoln Lawyer and The Hunger Games are up next. I'm actually paused at book 9 of Robert Jordan's (James Oliver Rigney Jr's) series The Wheel of Time until the last book in the series is out. I'm really happy that the series did not die with the author, so I’m looking forward to finishing that one when the whole thing is done.

What's the best movie you've seen lately?

The best movie I’ve seen recently Limitless. It's a pretty great movie. Generally though I'm more of a serial tv episode kind of guy. The cheesier the plot lines, the better the show. Watching 24 from start to finish for the Jack Bauer Power Hour is something that I finally finished, but that took a while. The one TV show that I watch which isn't cheesy is The Walking Dead. I'd recommend it to anyone, even people who have never liked zombie movies before. It's just different, in a very good way. Seeing how people might react when there is no enforcement of any morals or values is really an interesting concept.

How do you stay focused?

In general it's keeping things that are important in mind. I usually have a checklist going of the top 10 or 15 things that need to be done somewhere, and update that on a regular basis. More than a certain amount of big items and I'm doing too much. That’s really is what it comes down to. Taking smaller chunks of work to build to something bigger is really critical, and it's taken a long time for me to understand that.

What is your first memory of the internet?

My first experience with the internet was with an AOL disc, and trying to figure out what my username would be and thinking "What in the world is a password?" I remember later being super excited about buying a faster modem that was external, which meant that I could try this thing a guy at school called "linux", I think somewhere around 93 or 94 and thought that it was neat but didn't know what to do with it. Memories. :)

What's next for Growl?

We actually have a release almost ready to go, Growl 1.4. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but we did work on something that has been a big problem for the last 4 years or so. We think users are going to love it.

Next is making Growl work with some of the technologies that have come out in the last few years, and provide a way for new technologies to integrate easily with Growl going forward. After that, we'll see what comes up.

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