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September 07, 2004

Style Master is 6

This time 6 years ago we released the first version of Style Master into the world. Birthdays are of course a time for celebration but also a time to reflect on where you are, where you came from and how you got there. So here is a brief history of Style Master, westciv and some musings about the software world from then until now. I hope you enjoy.

In the beginning, sort of

A little over decade ago, Maxine and I started westciv, with the aim of developing a powerful, easy to use hypertext knowledge management tool. It was an idea which had been growing for well over a year, and in my mind dates back to my days some years earlier as a law student, when I used to wonder how best to manage the enormous amount of reading and information one should process during a law degree.
[I never finished my law degree, after a science degree majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science, and 5 years at University, a wider world beckoned. It's a decision I have never for one moment regretted.]

Our work from 1994 to 1996 produced "Palimpsest" [you can still download it here], which gained a fair degree of critical acclaim, at Tidbits and elsewhere and some commercial success, but which never quite lit up the imagination of students, academics, and others the world over. Looking back, I can see dozens of mistakes we made in marketing, development, distribution, you name it, and if I had my time over, I probably wouldn't have given up on it quite so quickly as we did.

But you live and learn.
And live and learn we did.

a different world

In 1994, to have successful commercial software you needed physical distribution, shrink wrapped boxes in stores, and almost certainly very deep pockets (we had pretty much no money) or a publishing deal (which meant someone else had almost complete say over your application, whether it was published at all, whether it was discontinued, how it was marketed, and for the privilege you got a 5%-10% cut).
There was also "shareware", back then something of a dirty word among many people, but few if any made their livelihoods that way. Remember, this was long before even a small fraction of your potential users were online. Shareware was mostly distributed on floppy disks, and you relied on the honesty of users to send you a check if they liked your application.
By 1995, we guessed that the future of software was online sales, distribution and marketing. I do, however, remember as Palimpsest approached its first release (which was probably 6 months after it was "good enough") speaking with a pretty senior person at a very large fruit-flavored hardware company which will remain nameless, who totally pooh-poohed the idea that the internet was going to be the medium of choice for software sales and distribution, saying "shareware failed" and so somehow web based distribution would too.

9 years later, I'd like to feel pretty vindicated. We staked our whole strategy on online distribution (we never called our software "shareware", because there was, and probably still is, an issue as to whether time limited demos qualify as shareware, and there was and remains a sense (both fair and unfair) among many that somehow shareware is inferior to "real software". The truth is some shareware is word class, a lo is pretty average at best, which is equally true of "commercial" software). Ironically, all software is in a sense "shareware" these days. From Macromedia's 30 day demos of all their software, to Adobe's pretty tight fisted (they may have changed their policy, but it was long this) demos which don't actually let you save. Someone missed the cluetrain there [though note ironically the first "signatory"].

But this doesn't really have much to do with Style Master. How do we get from a hypertext knowledge management system to a CSS editor?


Obviously, to distribute online you need a web site. So in 1994/5 Maxine and I set out to learn how to do this. Our first efforts are no longer online, though the wayback machine may dredge up some of them. It's proof though that everyone has to start somewhere.
At about the same time, I was doing some teaching at a TAFE college here in Sydney. The TAFE system is a statewide tertiary college system, traditionally focussed on the vocational sector. With a little web experience, I found myself "Johnny on the spot" and became the "web guy", developing and running web development courses.
This kept me in touch with developments in the web world, new browsers, new techniques, and so on. And one sunny day in 1997, while thinking about an "advanced" development course, I stumbled on CSS via Dreamweaver.

Rarely has an idea struck me so forcefully as CSS did. As a software engineer whose education was shaped by Object Orientation, and a formal, as opposed to ad hoc approach to development, web development had always struck me as disturbingly anarchic. I felt time and again we were failing to learn from the lessons of almost half a century of software development and electronic publishing (I actually often feel that still.)
Here, in CSS was a way of cutting the gordian knot. Separating structured content from its presentation. CSS also provided a new paradigm (overused word but accurate here) for the web as a medium. It was like a child's first steps or words, full of promise and possibility.
As a teacher, I felt DreamWeaver's CSS support was not particularly conducive to learning CSS, in essence you had to understand CSS rather well before its was of much help. So I looked further afield to find a good editor to help in teaching CSS, and found nothing any better. Being a software developer, naturally I thought, why not write one? My guess is that this was March or April 1998.

Give and you shall receive

I'm not sure how I convinced Maxine this was a good idea. I'll have to ask her [1]. At any rate, then followed 6 months of hard work designing and developing Style Master, and developing resources for learning CSS. The experience of Palimpsest taught us that if you build it they won't come. Our strategy for getting web traffic was not to market Style Master, it was to provide plenty of resources that potential users of Style Master might find useful, and let them find those. This was long before google had taken over as the way of searching the web, with its results ranked in part by popularity. If our site simply focussed on Style Master, far fewer people would have linked to it, and so its popularity would have been much lower.
It seems to me a lesson that most larger software companies, and almost all small ones simply haven't learned. "Give and you shall receive" as it says somewhere. This wasn't pure cynicism, far from it. I believed, and still do, that CSS is truly fantastic. We recognized that one of the challenges CSS faced was the learning curve to get to grips with different way of doing web development. So we wrote guides, tutorials, browser support charts, answered questions on newsgroups and, mailing lists, wrote magazine articles. I think this is an important model for smaller software companies. Find a technology you believe in, help it grow and prosper, then grow and prosper with it. I see a similar great opportunity with SVG for instance right now.

Thank you

Which brings us to September 1998. Our first sale was on the 9th of September, to someone in New York. Bless you Carl Howard if you are reading.
Much has happened since, which I'll try to write about soon. A Windows version in March of 1999, Style Master Pro about 5 years ago in September 1999, Layout Master in 2001, the complete rewrite for both Mac and Windows in 2002/3, and much still to come, touch wood.

To all our customers, to all our reviewers, to Bert Bos and HÃ¥kon Lie for CSS, to all who have supported us these last 6 years, a huge heartfelt thanks.

Is that all there is?

Joel Spolsky, doyen of software bloggers, writes "Good software takes 10 years, get used to it" [it's a great article, read it]. In this age of supposed "internet time" it is worth stopping for a moment and realizing that all good things still take time. The DotCom boom of the late 1990s [through which I lived fitfully wondering where the gravy train was, I sure didn't see any] ironically teaches us this. The half baked, underdone business models of boo, pets.com, and a thousand other overnight sensations lie in tatters. Good solid technology takes time to get right. It was true a decade ago, a century ago, and it is true today.
And we are far from resting on our laurels with Style Master. Version 4 is due sooner than you might think, and has some very very innovative features.

CSS still excites us, the web still excites us, and Style Master still excites us. We feel very privileged.

[1] Maxine suggests that she thought it was folly all along, she just couldn't come up with a better idea that was legal.

September 7, 2004 | Permalink


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Style Master is six years old already! Hard to believe that six years have already passed us by. It is interesting to look at the world as it was back then too. Back when Style Master was first introduced, the... [Read More]

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Happy birthday and many happy returns! I am looking forward to the cake.

Posted by: Sara | Sep 7, 2004 12:26:45 PM

If it had not been for Stylemaster - and the House of Style - I don't think that I would have taken the leap into CSS so soon, or so easily.
Not only does the software speed up experimentation but it also teaches as you go along. Can't say that about much software.
But more than that, it is the personal help that you and Maxine have given along the way- that is priceless.

Posted by: Carol | Sep 17, 2004 12:21:02 PM