Alfred, as its congenial, obedient name suggests, is like a butler for your Mac. It's an app launcher, a search utility, and a general productivity tool that lets you automate aspects of your workflow without ever having to lift your fingers from your keyboard.
The app was created by Andrew and Vero Pepperrell in February 2010, and they continue to develop it all on their own, with support and feedback from an enthusiastic community. How and why did it come about? We spoke with Vero to learn the story behind the app.
Where did the idea for the app come from? Were you trying to solve a problem you'd experienced, or did the inspiration come from somewhere else
Alfred was born out of both curiosity and necessity. Andrew (Alfred's developer and my husband) and I were spending our days working at our Macs. In late 2009, Andrew got the urge to create his own productivity app to help us get our work done faster. The objective was to develop something lightweight and beautiful to make us more efficient.
The first version of Alfred focused on web searches and file searching on your Mac, which is still one of the most popular features. Since then, every release improves on that objective of efficiency, with workflows, clipboard history, 1Password integration… and the occasional just-for-fun feature like custom colour theming!
How did you choose which platforms to target and which to ignore or wait on?
There was no question here. I've been a Mac user since the 80's and Andrew was becoming increasingly passionate about coding for Mac, so OS X was the obvious choice for us. The Mac community is so enthusiastic and welcoming that it's been a pleasure over the years.
In fact, the sheer amount of brilliant workflows that have been created since Alfred v2 was released speaks volumes for the passion Mac users have for their platform. Whether you're using Spotify, Dropbox, Evernote, OmniFocus or want to achieve almost any task on your Mac, there will be a workflow for it. And if there isn't yet, fellow Alfred users help each other create it. Here are some of the workflows we've featured lately.
We're also making our first foray into iOS development at the moment, with Alfred Remote. We can't wait until it's a little further along so that we can start sharing more sneak peeks of it.
What was your biggest roadblock and how did you overcome it?
We haven't encountered roadblocks as such, just a lot of little speed bumps here and there along the way.
The key is to think on your feet and be ready to respond quickly and rationally. Some larger companies take months or years to react to market changes. As a small team, we'll react within hours or days. For example, when a new version of iTunes affected Alfred's Mini Player, we had a new build in pre-release within a few hours, causing as little disruption as possible for our users.
What was launch like for you?
Our first launch was an informal affair in February 2010; Alfred was at v0.4. In no way did we expect the instant uptake it received, with over 35,000 downloads in the first two weeks. We were blown away and humbled by the level of interest.
Since then, Alfred has grown hugely, with millions of users downloading Alfred v2 since its release. Every release and newsletter gives me butterflies, and the positive response to every release makes me grin until my face hurts!
What was your strategy for competing against a more established similar app, Quicksilver?
There has never been a strategy to "compete" in our mind; our objective is to create an app that is truly useful, stable and always-evolving, regardless of who else is in the market. By staying focused on creating a great product full of useful features, rather than playing a game of tit-for-tat with a competitor, I think we've built a better product and have a happier community of users.
Your pricing scheme is unique — how did you decide on it?
We've offered the free version of Alfred since day one, so that anyone, no matter their skill level, can use the core features to make their Mac experience better. It feels great to hear from users of all backgrounds who tell us that Alfred has made them love their Macs even more.
There's no question in my mind that when something makes your life more productive and happier on a daily basis, it's worth paying for; whether it's a faster bike, a better coffee machine or software that makes you more efficient. The Powerpack is exactly that for many Mac users.
When we released the Powerpack, the Mega Supporter licence was a hat-tip to the staunch supporters who had been flying the Alfred flag high — a buy-once, enjoy-forever licence. It's still a popular option, since users feel they're getting good value when they see just how actively we continue updating Alfred.
How do you handle user requests and criticisms effectively?
We've always been very open and interactive with our community through Twitter and our forum. Andrew has a clear roadmap for the future of Alfred, but we listen to every single bit of feedback. Sometimes, great ideas crop up and we keep them in mind for future releases. On many other occasions, workflows are open-ended enough to allow those users to create their custom actions that way.
What advice would you give to others that want to take on a similar project?
First and foremost, pick a problem you're passionate about. Pick a project you'll eat, dream, and sleep. You'll spend so much time on your particular project that you need to have the enthusiasm to keep you going.
Work on your project in your spare time until you're bringing in some income. If you feel you don't have spare time, make the time; watch less TV, scribble feature plans during those boring meetings (when your boss isn't looking) and make your limited project time as productive as possible. By being less pressured to figure out where the next paycheck will come from, you'll be able to focus better and make the right decisions.
Once you know you're onto something that can succeed, only then, consider quitting the day job or going part-time. Keep the momentum going and remember that your users are your best promoters, so be attentive and involved with them. Love what you do — it's worked for us for the past five years. :)
Lifehacker's Behind the App series gives an inside look at how some of our favourite apps came to be — from idea to launch (and beyond).