So it’s been about a year since my last update email and it seems like it’s high time for another one — a few actual announcements plus a status update on our (extremely delayed) next big iOS update and some other things.
- New «Early Access» Dictionaries
- iOS Update Status
- Current Status
- Website Redesign
- iOS Standalone App
- Windows Phone 8
- BlackBerry 10
1) New «Early Access» Dictionaries
While our big iOS update isn’t quite ready yet (see below), we have released a few of our upcoming dictionaries ahead of schedule. Specifically:
- Gu Hanyu Da Cidian: Classical-to-modern Chinese dictionary from 上海辞书出版社, known as both the 《古汉语大词典》 and the 《古代汉语大词典》。 (same contents, different cover)$29.95. Note that this dictionary was originally written in simplified characters, and while we’ve painstakingly added traditional-character versions of all of its headwords (much more carefully than in most of our previous efforts, checking against multiple sources) and have now done a reasonably good job of automatically adding traditional characters to definitions too, it’s not quite as good for traditional character users as a dictionary developed originally in traditional characters would be. We have at least one other Classical dictionary in the pipeline that should be a better fit for traditional character users, though, and of course if we find any significant problems in the traditional conversion in this one we’ll be happy to fix them too.
- Longman Advanced Chinese Dictionary: 《朗文中文高級新辭典（第二版）》 $24.95. This is a monolingual, traditional-character-only dictionary from Hong Kong, which, rather ironically, only includes Mandarin and not Cantonese readings (does have Cantonese for single characters, but since our software doesn’t support searching that yet we’ve left it out for now); we hope to add Cantonese readings to it ourselves in the future, though. We have no immediate plans to convert anything but its headwords to simplified, but might consider converting the definitions too if there’s sufficient demand.
- Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, a revival of our very first Chinese dictionary ever. $9.95, but if you bought it on Palm/WM years ago and transferred your license you get it for free. (if it’s not already listed that way, go to Settings / Registration ID / Check for new purchases) The return of this dictionary gives us some pretty cool bragging rights, since we can now say that anybody who bought a dictionary from us on their Palm Pilot in 2001 still has the ability to use it on an iPhone 5 in 2013.
- Practical Dictionary of Chinese Medicine by Nigel Wiseman and Ye Feng, $49.95, originally licensed all the way back in 2007 but left abandoned on a shelf for several years thanks to (among other things) the distractions of frantic iOS / Android porting. This is a dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine , and actually it’s more of a «medical reference» rather than just a dictionary; goes into a great deal of detail (often several pages) on the ~6700 terms it covers. A few early testers also seem to appreciate it for cultural literacy purposes (certainly tells you a good deal about that aspect of Chinese culture), though in general it’s aimed at / priced for a professional Chinese Medicine audience.
- Chinese Medicine Term List, another Traditional Chinese Medicine title also developed by Wiseman & co; this is free and covers a lot more words than PDCM, but just gives you the translation without any explanations. (available in the Free tab in Add-ons)
Many more new dictionaries are coming, but we had these couple ready to go now, and most of them also had significant numbers of users and/or very insistent publishers compelling us to hurry up and release them ASAP.
Anyway, you can buy / download all of these new dictionaries right now via the in-app «Add-ons» tab. They’re all available on Android as well as on iOS (though the Oxford has already been out on Android for a little while). We’ve also issued updated versions of the 21st Century / NWP / ABC E-C dictionaries on iOS (much cleaner formatting, especially in the first two) which you can get from the Updates tab in Add-ons.
We’ve also released an experimental version of the built-in PLC dictionary with support for displaying Cantonese (Jyutping romanized) in every entry — you can download that from this forum post (bit tricky to install, unfortunately). Many other Cantonese-related improvements are in the works.
Along with these releases, we have now ceased offering our «Complete» bundle on iOS; in order to keep it «complete» we would have had to raise the price to something like $200 (and even more than that after our next batch of dictionary launches), and as our lineup gets more diverse it becomes increasingly difficult to justify selling them all together — the number of users who’d be interested in both the beginner-oriented Tuttle Learner’s Dictionary and in a dictionary of Classical Chinese is vanishingly small.
We released a pretty significant app update on Android about three weeks ago (with Holo theme support and some cool new dictionary search features, among other things) — if you haven’t downloaded it yet, you can get it from the «My Apps» screen in Google Play, or if you downloaded Pleco directly from our website type «pleco.com/getandroid» in your device’s web browser to get the latest version. Since Pleco’s permissions have changed in this update, it won’t install automatically — you’ll have to go in and manually approve the update in Google Play.
As far as the status of our Android software in general: sales have been a bit less than we might have hoped — strong enough to justify having developed it, but still lagging well behind iOS (running steady at about 25% of our total sales = 1/3 the sales we’re getting on iOS). But in all other respects it’s been a great success; download numbers have been huge, often exceeding those on iOS, and in the last few months especially we’ve also seen noticeable improvements in our iOS download numbers and sales, suggesting that greater awareness of our product from Android may actually be feeding back into our iOS business (backed up by a good deal of anecdotal evidence to that effect).
3) iOS Update Status
Around this time last year I suggested that we were hoping to have our next big iOS update finally out sometime that spring, which clearly didn’t come anywhere close to happening; while we have released some minor updates since then (including a pretty nice upgrade to the handwriting recognizer), iOS users have now gone almost 2 full years without a major upgrade.
This is clearly an unacceptable situation, and one about which I am truly sorry — there are a whole bunch of reasons for the delay, and aside from apologizing, about all I can do is identify some of those reasons, tell you how we plan to prevent this from happening again in the future, and give you as much information as I can about the current status of the update.
- The new «merged multi-dict search» feature. We had thought that that feature was almost finished when we released an experimental version of it in our new Android app back in January of last year, but it turned out that it needed several more man-months of programming work (and some pretty significant changes to our data file format / labor in reformatting our data files) in order to be reliable / fast enough to take over as our default search system; we only finally reached a point where we were happy with it a few weeks ago. (the biggest problem was dictionaries’ inconsistent handling of traditional / variant characters and Pinyin tones, which prevented reliable merging in too many cases)
- Dictionaries. It also became clear pretty soon after we released the Android update that some of our existing dictionaries were really in unacceptably poor shape data-wise, and that some of our our in-development dictionaries would likewise need a lot more work on getting their data into shape than we had originally anticipated. This required quite a bit of programming along with editorial work, again taking away resources from the iOS update, but we didn’t feel we could do anything more with new dictionaries until we’d gotten that settled.
- Android. Slow development of our initial Android version (which ended up occupying most of 2011) had already put us behind schedule, but with that finally out the door we naively assumed that the going on Android would be relatively smooth, and that we’d need at most a couple of weeks of work to get it to a point where we could leave it alone for a while and focus on iOS. That turned out not to be the case, though, particularly not after the more-or-less total overhaul to their UI that Google made in Android 4.0; in many respects we’ve only just now gotten the Android release up to a point where it’s comparable to our iOS app in terms of polish / reliability. While we probably only spent 25% or so of our programming time in 2012 on Android-specific work, that was still a good deal of time that we weren’t spending on iOS.
- High expectations. We had thought that we could get away with making relatively minor changes to our iOS app aside from the cross-platform improvements we had already finished / were already working on (merged / threaded search, crosshairs mode in OCR, etc), but as we talked with users it became clear that any «major update» that did not include a pretty substantial revamp to our app’s design would be considered a big disappointment. This meant a good deal more work to get the app to a point where it would feel like a «big update.»
Fixing the UI has actually been relatively straightforward — most of the big problems are pretty obvious (inconsistently-placed dictionary / tab buttons, confusing / useless bottom bar icons, lack of explanation text in settings, full-screen things that should be popups on iPad, two different ways of selecting text, stroke order function buried beneath a nondescript icon that only shows up at all after you tap on a character to select it) — but getting the app to also look better has been a much bigger challenge. We experimented with a bunch of different themes / skins without finding anything we liked better, particularly with the general trend away from «textured» user interfaces, so we turned instead to the problem of fonts / typography. After a few false starts on that front, we finally found a really great type designer and a really great Chinese font, and while progress on that has been painfully slow (originally expected it all to be done in September), we seem to be closing in on it now. So the new type design should ensure that this is a very satisfying update aesthetically as well as functionally.
- Personal. Not really business- or programming-related, but my wife and I are expecting our first child (a daughter) in mid-March, and the run-up to that has left me personally somewhat distracted from my Pleco-related duties for the last few months at least. (thankfully I’m no longer the only person working on Pleco, but I am generally still the main motivator / pressure-applier for a lot of things and so my distraction has definitely not helped matters)
- Breaking up releases. Long-time customers may remember that this is actually the second time we’ve taken way way longer than expected to release a «big update,» the first being our big Palm/WM «Pleco 2.0» release (which we began work on in early 2006 and finished up in late 2008). The fundamental problem in both cases was attempting to do too much in one «big update» rather than breaking things up into several smaller ones; unless your business depends on charging lots of money for those updates (as Adobe / Microsoft do), it’s generally much better to focus on smaller ones; if a 2-month update ends up taking twice as long as expected that still just makes it a 4-month update.
So while this next update will certainly still be a «big» one, after its release we hope to keep up a schedule of a medium-sized update every 3 months or so for the next few years. Some of these may be centered on one or two big features (perhaps even confined to just one section of Pleco like flashcards), others may involve a lot of little tweaks / refinements, but the basic goal is to never again have development on a Pleco product stagnate as it has these past 2 years. These will be supplemented by smaller bug-fix updates as needed, but hopefully keeping things small will also make every major update less likely to accompanied by 3 or 4 bug-fix ones.
- Fewer pre-announcements. If we promise that a particular feature is coming in our next update, it gets very difficult for us to subsequently cancel / delay that feature, even if it’s taking much longer than expected and holding up the rest of the update. (same goes for new dictionaries) So we’ll also do less of that — we’ll be happy to tell you whether or not a particular feature is in the works, but that’s about as detailed as we plan to get, no more «next update» or «end of the year» or any of that; this way, it’ll be much easier for us to push out whatever’s ready when it’s ready, instead of holding it up in order to live up to a previous «next update» promise.
- Organization. Far too much of our budget now goes to a) licenses and b) hiring other companies to do stuff for us, rather than hiring people to work for us directly; we need to take more control over what we make in order to make sure that it’s ready on time and up to our standards, which means more in-house editing / content creation and a greater separation between those tasks and app development. At the same time, we also need to be more aggressive about farming out the tasks that are less central to our business, like graphic design (far too many of the icons in our current iPhone app were painstakingly designed by yours truly, when someone else could have done better work in less time) and web programming — right now these either serve as distractions (in the case of icons) or simply don’t get done at all (in the case of the website). Pleco has grown considerably in the last few years, and we need to do a better job of using the resources at our disposal in the most efficient way.
- All of the big new cross-platform features that we thought were ready a year ago are actually ready now, including faster / threaded / merged multi-dict search. (simultaneously searching a dozen dictionaries now feels faster than searching a single dictionary did in our old app) Dictionary cleanup / reformatting is also done. Lots of other nice dictionary enhancements too, like frequency sorting of results (particularly useful for full-text), full-text search in user dictionaries, support for multiple English dialects in full-text («colour» will now match «color» and vice versa), a new «browse entries» screen that’s good both for finding random entries and for batch editing of user dictionaries, «dictionary groups» to search a subset of your dictionaries rather than all of them, hyperlinks to explain those confusing ABC abbreviations, and a less ugly font for dictionary abbreviation icons. The main dictionary feature we’re still working on now is merged definition display (show everything in a single scrolling box instead of tapping a button to cycle between them) — much easier than merged search but still a good bit of work.
- OCR has a nifty new «crosshairs mode» (no more box resizing needed) along with support for viewing PDFs. We’ve got some bigger live OCR changes in the works, but we think we need another year or so worth of hardware upgrades (so that the iPhone 5 is now the baseline and the iPhone 6 the state of the art) before we can get them working smoothly enough to be usable — the long-term goal is to eliminate the need for tedious precision pointing altogether.
- The Document Reader now has basic EPUB support and a history of looked-up words, and we’ve almost finished getting our file manager working with Dropbox (a better answer to the ever-troublesome «how do I get documents into Pleco?» problem). Text selection / highlighting in general is much improved now, and with our new TTS add-on (see below) you can hear audio for an entire sentence at once.
- For flashcards, the super-popular «introduce X new cards per day» option is in and seems to work well; iCloud sync of flashcard databases will probably be «experimental» since it hasn’t been very well field-tested yet, but should be available for adventurous users at least. Flashcard *creation* is much improved with an actual indicator icon to tell if you a word is already in flashcards and a more useful options box if you try to create a duplicate card. The main question mark in flashcards now is whether we’ll get our redesign of our SRS options (which are a rather befuddling morass at the moment) ready in time. We don’t have time to support Skritter’s new list-sharing API in this release, but we hope to have that implemented for the next one.
- Stroke Order diagrams are themselves unchanged so far, but the accompanying Components feature now does a much better job of providing definitions for basic components and of combining multiple variations of the same component.
- The new type design is pretty much completed now; see this forums post for some images. The biggest holdup on that is delivery of the finished version of the Chinese font from the foundry; after several delays, the regular-weight version of that font is now expected to be ready within the next few weeks. The bold version may not be ready until summer (argh) but we think we can make do without that for now. Simply dropping these new fonts into the old app would make a pretty major difference, and with clear / consistent styling and organization of entries it’ll make an even bigger one. Along with the official new font, we’ve also licensed a couple of other new Chinese fonts (most importantly a much-requested Kai-style one) and hope to include those in some form too, though possibly as an inexpensive paid add-on.
- The UI has been purged of most of its worst problems, but there are a few areas where even after a great deal of experimenting we haven’t come up with a better alternative to what we have already. Task switching, for example; people keep telling us we ought to switch to the bar-that-slides-out-from-the-left-side-of-the-screen task menu from Facebook / Path et al, but we really don’t think it works that well for us (not good for deep hierarchies like those of our flashcards / settings / dictionary-if-you-go-a-few-levels-deep, since it only makes sense for it to be accessible from the top level). If we do come up with a task-switching bar that we like, it would probably not be difficult to still deploy it for this update — there are for example a dozen open-source variations on that Facebook menu that we could use — but there’s also a chance that we’ll end up with something still very similar to what we have now, perhaps with one or two minor tweaks like burying Add-ons inside of Settings if you’ve bought OCR so as to free up a separate tab for that.
- Our newly licensed text-to-speech system seems to be working well, and thanks to the more nicely tagged dictionaries we’ve been able to add a handy little speaker button next to every example sentence; should also work in our document reader and for playing long dictionary headwords / long custom flashcards (even sentence-length ones). Lots more interesting flashcard potential from that feature too…
- We’ve already added Cantonese display to our PLC dictionary (see above), and we’re optimistic that Cantonese search will be ready in time for the update, or soon after, and that we’ll have at least one dedicated Cantonese dictionary ready to go when it is.
- Aside from the new dictionaries we just released and the Cantonese one I just mentioned, there are three more that we’re trying very hard to have ready for the big iOS update, but we’re waiting on various publisher approvals / sign-offs (and in one case also a third-party data file delivery) so we’re probably going to keep quiet about them until we actually release that update. (lots of other titles in the queue too, it’s just taking a while to get through them all)
4) Website Redesign
Another hugely-delayed item from last year is our revamped website: it’s still not quite ready yet, but it should go live in the next few weeks, with a vastly simplified online store (enter your Registration ID if you have one, check boxes for the items you’d like to purchase, fill in your billing details and click Buy) headlining the list of improvements. We’ve already started to roll out a few little improvements, like the new mail system that I’m using to send out this announcement email.
5) iOS Standalone App
Maybe not of interest to most of you, but we’ve had a number of inquiries recently about institutional sales of Pleco through Apple’s volume and educational purchasing programs. Right now, it’s not possible to buy Pleco through those programs, since we sell our software only in the form of in-app purchases and those programs don’t support them, and at the same time we’re not permitted to sell our iOS software outside of Apple’s store, so if a school contacts us wanting to buy a dozen copies of Pleco for their student iPads there isn’t really anything we can do for them.
To solve this problem, we’re developing a standalone Pleco app with all of our non-dictionary add-ons (including OCR) but no dictionaries. Apple’s rules do permit us to sell electronic books outside of their system, just not any other software features, so schools can buy that app through Apple and then contact us directly to buy any additional dictionaries they want. This way, we can offer volume buyers most of the flexibility of our current in-app purchasing system (get exactly the dictionaries they want, upgrade later, etc) in spite of their inability to make in-app purchases.
We realize this might also be useful for individual users who for whatever reason can’t make in-app purchases on their phone but can purchase regular paid apps, or who’d like an easy way to give a copy of Pleco to somebody as a gift (also not possible with Apple’s in-app purchase system), or who’d simply prefer not to give Apple a 30% cut when they spend $100 on some new dictionaries. So we also plan to list this standalone app in the regular App Store, and to launch a new online store on our website allowing you to buy add-on dictionaries (but not anything else) for our iOS software.
6) Windows Phone 8
I’ve included this statement about some platform or other in pretty much every one of these emails I’ve ever written, but anyway:
We have no current plans to support Windows Phone 8.
Programming-wise, while it might seem like this is a natural / logical / easy port from our old Windows Mobile software, it’s actually not — the two OSes have very little in common and it would not be noticeably easier to port to Windows Phone 8 than to any other mobile platform. So it boils down to a business question, and the business simply isn’t there yet — it might be there in a year or two, but right now there just aren’t enough people using Windows Phone 8 to cover the cost of porting to it, and we’re not confident yet that there ever will be. And since we’ve managed to achieve great success on both iOS and Android in spite of our competitors on each of them having a 2-year head start, the benefits of getting in early don’t really seem great enough to offset the risk that Windows Phone 8 will fail.
There’s also the usual list of reasons why we don’t like porting, of course, one of which, the fact that it takes time / energy away from our other products, has just been demonstrated again by the past year’s experience with the big iOS update; the last thing our (wonderfully patient) iOS customers want is for us to put major development on hold yet again to make a WP8 app, and now we’ve got a large and growing group of Android customers who would similarly prefer that we focus on that platform and not ignore it in favor of Windows.
So with such a long list of improvements we’d like to make on iOS and Android, and so many customers on those two platforms eager for those improvements, it just doesn’t make sense to throw a whole bunch of resources at a new and as-yet-unproven mobile platform.
7) BlackBerry 10
This has been getting a lot of buzz recently and actually looks pretty promising — in fact I’d rate its prospects as slightly better than Windows Phone’s — but again, it’s far too soon to tell whether it’ll be successful enough for us to support it. The much-touted ability of BlackBerry 10 to run Android apps would not help in our case, since our app uses a lot of native code (not currently supported by their system), but overall it seems likely to be of comparable difficulty to a Windows Phone port.
Desktop software is in a very weird place right now, poised on the verge of convergence with mobile but not quite ready to do that yet. Our hope / expectation is that in one of the next two Mac OS releases, Apple will at last bring the already-very-similar iOS and Mac OS X together in full, with the same apps now running on both systems with the same code; they’ve already been moving in that direction for a few years now and we see few barriers remaining before they’ll actually be able to deploy it. Assuming that does happen, we’ll probably make a quick-and-dirty port of our iPad app available for desktop Macs almost immediately, and follow up with more desktop-specific UI improvements depending on how well that sells.
The seemingly-inevitable future Android / Chrome OS mashup from Google would probably get similar treatment. Desktop Windows is a much more complicated prospect, since we don’t currently offer a Windows Phone 8 app, so that’s something we would probably only consider in conjunction with a Windows Phone port.
Thanks as always for your continuing support / feedback / complaints / bug reports / word-of-mouth / 5-star reviews; as always, any of that that you’d like to send to us can be directed to me email@example.com.
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