Interview with Stefan Fuerst, author of GrandTotal and TimeLog

One of the toughest parts of being a freelancer or starting a small business is tracking time and billing. I spoke with Stefan Fürst of Media Atelier (@mediaatelier) about two applications he developed, GrandTotal and TimeLog, that make billing and invoicing a lot easier.

TimeLog.png

What is GrandTotal?

GrandTotal does what most service providers (hopefully) do from time to time: It creates invoices and estimates and keeps track of the payments and due dates. The key feature is that invoices can have almost any look, which is really important to most of my users.

How did you get started developing the application?

I started in early 2008, building the layout engine, which was the most important thing to get done. If I would fail on that my yet unnamed product would never make it to a final release. After 7 months of development I picked some of my TimeLog users to give it a try. Thanks to my users, with their input I could release a fairly mature product in September. Maybe I should mention, that I tried this several times before and failed big time.

Where did you get the idea to create the application?

That’s an easy one. It was #1 request of my TimeLog users. So I knew there is a demand.

One of the features of your application is the ability to have multiple customizable tax rates, domestic and international. Were there any issues or complications dealing with taxes?

GrandTotal is a European product; dealing with international customers is a very common thing here. This required a bit a more flexible of a tax system - which in some cases can make the product look more difficult than it actually is.

TimeLog is one of your other apps, is it difficult to create applications that “play well” with each other?

Not really - being in control of the source allows you to make them fit together. It’s harder to deal with 3rd party integration.

TimeLog.app

What is TimeLog?

TimeLog was my first Mac application I wrote, it was written in RealBasic. I wrote it for myself to figure out where my time going. I submitted it to MacUpdate with no expectations. My first sale was a great experience.

Some invoicing application’s log time as well. Was there a reason you chose to write GrandTotal and TimeLog as separate applications?

Yes there were several reasons. One reasons is that TimeLog can collect working time over the network which means more than one person can be involved.

Another is that a lot of users don’t track time because they work for fixed fees anyway. Last but not least, I did not want to raise the price of TimeLog, nor was I willing to give away the app for 19€.

I love when applications incorporate companion mobile apps. What drove you to develop GrandTotal for the iPhone?

That was a logical step. I love the iPhone, my users love it…

How difficult is it to write applications for a separate platform like the iPhone?

It’s just another product. There is almost no code you can share. It’s more about dealing with the limited screen-space you have on the iPhone. You have to also consider the feature-set. But it’s a very nice experience.

How did you get your creative juices flowing to create such usable invoice designs?

I wish I had. One of my users (hi Frank) provided me with some very nice layouts. Actually the templates are not intended to be used 1:1.

At the beginning, the built-in template had a fairly bright orange typo on it, and instead of modifying it, a lot of users just kept that. Meanwhile I supplied a grayish, less screaming one as default.

How do you go about promoting and distributing your applications?

I should really do more on this part. I was lucky to have a big installed base of TimeLog users and sales where excellent from the first day on.

What are some of the difficulties you run into being an independent developer?

You don’t have to search for a distributor. I just ran across one Belarus site selling an outdated crack of GrandTotal for 8€…

Personally I don’t see the point of selling boxed software these days. My shop is open 24/7 worldwide.

You have several Mac OS and iPhone applications, are there any future projects you have in the works?

I focus on the future versions of my applications. Currently I have no intentions to launch a new product. GrandTotal and TimeLog keep me very busy right now. But that’s how it should be, isn’t it?

Thanks again to Stefan Fürst of Media Atelier for speaking with me.

Stefan can be found at @mediaatelier and http://www.grandtotal.biz/GrandTotal/?lang=en

Do just about anything on your Mac with your iPhone

Air Mouse Home Screen

I used Air Mouse Pro [iTunes  Link] quite often back in the day. In my opinion it is  one of the best mouse/trackpad applications for the iPhone. The setup is  quick, and it not only allows you to use it as a trackpad but also as a  gestures based pointer. You use it like a remote control for a TV,  flick your wrist and the cursor flies up, down, left, right, etc. Before I  had my Roku, I was using it everyday to watch movies on my Mac via  Netflix.

R.P.A. Tech, the makers of Air Mouse Pro, released a  significant update earlier this year. Now not only is it a mouse, but also an application launcher. It syncs with your dock  giving you the ability to launch, switch to and quit any application  sitting in your dock. Air Mouse gives you a visual of your current dock right on  your phone. Toggling the applications is very similar to the command +  tab [⌘+tab], command + Q [⌘+Q] shortcuts.

But what if you  want to launch and application that’s not in your dock? I have been  using Google’s Quick Search Box (gQSB). Right away the gQSB became my  default app launcher. I press [⌘+⌘] to activate the box, type any  application’s name and hit return. So how do we tie the two together to launch any application or command? Well, Air Mouse Pro has a separate  module controlling the the function keys F1-F12 as well as four shortcut  buttons you could use for assigning applications or scripts.

But the  gQSB is set to run in the background so it’s already open, it needs  activating not opening.

Here’s the steps:

Google Quick Search Box Preference Screen

1. Under the QSB  prefs make sure ‘open at log in’ is checked, then assign an obscure  keyboard shortcut to activate.

gQSB Preferences Window

-I used control+grave accent (tilde)  [⌃+~], making sure it was not already assigned to  the system.

Keyboard Shortcut’s

OS Keyboard

-You  may notice ⌘+⌘ is already assigned, but Air Mouse Pro only allows one  modifier key so you must create a new shortcut.

2. In the  Air Mouse server settings go to the ‘Hot Key Setup’, for the name I  chose gQSB, and the action is control+tilde [⌃+~], click apply with Air  Mouse open on your phone.

Air Mouse Hot Key Preferences

Air Mouse Pro Hot Keys Setup

You should now see one of the four buttons on top in the functions  module as gQSB. If everything went as planned tapping it will activate  the box.

Air Mouse Pro Function and Shortcut Module

Air Mouse Fn Screen

From there you can do anything from launching any app, opening  files, Google queries. Best of all QSB can control system commands. Type  trash to empty the trash, shutdown, etc, a couple good article on all the  functionality can be found here and here.

The combination of Air  Mouse Pro [iTunes Link] and the Google Quick Search Box allow’s  you to do just about anything with your Mac from your phone.

Talking with Ruben Bakker, author of Mailplane

I love Gmail, I started using it many years ago and have never looked back. In my opinion, Gmail does the best job catching and filtering spam. I get just as much spam as anyone else, my spam folder is full of entertaining emails but none of messages (ok, very few messages) end up in my inbox. The features are endless. But one of my favorite parts of Gmail is the fact that it’s a web-app. None of messages are ever downloaded to my computer taking up space, yet the interface is as robust and intuitive as any mail client I have tried. But there are disadvantages to this kind of setup. Advanced features such as HTML signatures, managing multiple accounts and drag-and-drop file attachments are sometimes more difficult using a web-app.

Mailplane.app

That’s where Mailplane comes to the rescue. Before I take up too much more time explaining why I started using the application, I asked the developer of Mailplane.app Ruben Bakker (@Mailplane), if he wouldn’t mind talking about his application.

Thanks for taking the time Ruben.

What is Mailplane?

Ruben: Mailplane is an email client for the Gmail web interface. It is a Mac-only application, and it works as a “site-specific” browser for Google Mail. In other words, you get the Gmail web interface plus full desktop integration. For instance, you can drag and drop files, folders, or photos to create email attachments. The attachments are reduced in size when possible: Pictures are converted to smaller JPEG files and folders are compressed to a ZIP file. Another example is email notifications. When you get new email, the user gets Growl and sound notifications. Plus the number of unread messages is prominently shown in the application icon in the menu bar. Another important feature is support for multiple Gmail accounts: It’s easy to switch between accounts as passwords are stored in the keychain. Support for multiple HTML signatures is quite popular, too.

How did you get started developing the application?

Ruben: I loved Mac programming. We had already a “family” iMac we shared, but in 2006 I bought my own MacBook. I played around, tried all tools and loved it. But, then I wanted to create something serious; something users would download and use. The Mailplane project started in summer 2006 on the island of Corsica, France.

Where did the idea of making a desktop version of Gmail come from?

Ruben: I used Email in many different applications (Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail.app and more) for business and private use. But, I never felt happy with these solutions. My inbox was a mess and there was never enough space on the server. Then came Gmail and I absolutely loved it: Enough space, threaded conversations, the “Archive” idea, labels instead of folders and access from any computer. However, I missed some desktop feature traditional applications offered. It was a pain to send attachments and new email notifications required a separate application. I see many advantages in using a web application, but it still needs to be integrated into the Mac experience. This is why I started the Mailplane project.

In March 2007 I published the first version and asked for 200 private users. I never anticipated the response: The 200 seats were taken in just one hour - the same day I already had 1000 users on the waiting list. This was the start of the adventure, which finally led in founding a business and quitting my day job.

What do you enjoy most about being a developer in general?

Ruben: I love to create software; I enjoy the freedom of an indie developer. No boss, no company politics, no fixed hours or schedule, no long meetings, and very little paperwork.

Working on Mac software is great. XCode, Interface Builder, Instruments are great tools and the Mac is a joy to use. As an indie developer, I wear many different hats: I’m the programmer, supporter, marketing person, and accountant.

In the beginning it was rather difficult to make decisions, there’s nobody to blame but you.

Also, I need to actively stay in touch with other persons or I get isolated soon.

How do you go about promoting your products?

Ruben: Try to make the Mailplane users happy, by improving the product and by giving them good support. This hopefully leads to positive word-of-mouth marketing.

Of course it’s important to be on the Apple’s download page, to be on the different download pages and to get product reviews, too.

Finally, I constantly try to improve the website and the store.

What are the some of the difficulties of developing an application in which features are part of another organization’s services and/or technologies?

Ruben: Google constantly improves Gmail and Mailplane needs to keep up with these changes. Sometimes, there are Gmail bugs that look like Mailplane problems, which lead to support requests. But, it’s not that bad and there are very positive aspects too.

For one, Mailplane only stores some configuration data - the emails are all handled by Gmail and stored on their servers. No sleepless nights, here :)

Are you working on any other projects besides Mailplane?

Ruben: Yes, I am working on a second product. But, it’s still secret :)

My thanks again to Ruben Bakker for taking the time.

Ruben and Mailplane can be found at http://mailplaneapp.com/ and @Mailplane on Twitter.