Softpress Abruptly Shuts Down
On July 4th, 2016 software developer Softpress, makers of Freeway Pro, announced it was immediately ceasing operations after more than 20 years in business.
Apparently Softpress has a new owner, and it seems Freeway Pro is being rewritten from the ground-up in the Swift language. Though we don’t yet know if it’ll be a rehash of the same app. or a tool for the 21st century.
Although abrupt there were those of us — quite a few, actually — who weren’t overly surprised given Freeway Pro’s lack of momentum. The real surprise was that it didn't happen sooner. What I found interesting is how surprised many users were at the announcement. It’s been suggested this came hot on the heels of the Brexit announcement which is a coincidence to say the least, though I suspect there were a lot of factors that came into play, probably years in the making, most or all of which we’ll never know.
My introduction to Freeway Pro was, I think, fairly typical:
Sometime in ’02 I decided I wanted my own website but was burdened with an abundance of ignorance about the Web, and possessed zero technical knowledge or skills. After some research I discovered a website construction technique known as What You See Is What You Get or WYSIWYG.
At the time Softpress seemed (from my limited perspective) to be riding high on the success of their Freeway Pro WYSIWYG web authoring application which I think was ~4 years old at that point. Lacking an understanding of the pros and cons of WYSIWYG or the Desktop Publishing (DTP) paradigm upon which Freeway Pro's workflow was patterned I was nevertheless excited by the idea of drag-n-drop website construction (talk about ignorance being bliss) so I bought Freeway Pro v3.
The FreewayTalk Minority
To me the FreewayTalk (FWT) community — Softpress’ greatest asset in my opinion — was in its prime in the early/mid 2000s. There were always enthusiastic discussions and thought-provoking questions about a wide range of subjects, not only Freeway Pro, the most interesting of which often came from an unusually small group of users who “got out and pushed”. By that I mean they challenged themselves technically and by extension the community, application and Softpress. They also answered a disproportionately large number of questions despite their few numbers.
It was this “minority” that provided unofficial and unpaid support for Freeway Pro in ways Softpress simply could or would not. Without such a consistently helpful resource Softpress would have surely hemorrhaged customers, I doubt Freeway Pro’s virtues alone were enough to keep people around.
Collectively they wrote the bulk of the Actions (usually for free) without which Freeway Pro would have been a virtual paperweight due in part to there being very few core (native) tools. They devised clever ways to poke and prod it to do things it was never intended to do. They helped keep Freeway Pro... well, perhaps not relevant, but at least in the game.
FreewayTalk: A Majority of Handouts
By comparison the FreewayTalk of recent years’ feels stagnant and codependent. Less like a community and more like an assembly-line for spoon-fed answers.
Softpress’ user-base have always been overly reliant on a small and ever-shrinking pool of knowledgeable people to solve problems while stubbornly refusing to accept responsibility for learning things they deem to be “not their job” or “too confusing or boring”. Or at the very least reading the documentation before asking a question, commonly known as RTFM or Read The Fucking Manual. Though it seems there’s very little incentive to do either when someone else is willing to do the work for you.
But if they did make an effort that knowledge could be used to help others as they themselves have been helped by the same people time and again, year after year. Isn’t that what a community does? Contribute. As it stands if the “minority” disappeared tomorrow there would be no one to step-up and fill the knowledge/experience vacuum.
A Copy/Paste Mindset
I’m not suggesting everyone should or need be tech-savvy, but when asking for (and receiving) help there’s an implied responsibility to make an effort to understand and learn from it. It’s a good way to repay the efforts of those doing the heavy-lifting.
What you don’t do is draw lines and make statements about what you as a Freeway Pro user... a designer, are and are not willing to do and learn when the solution — a solution you asked (even begged) for — requires more than copy/paste.
help me help you goes a long way to keeping the Wheel spinning, as opposed to coasting off the hard-earned knowledge and experience of a few time after time. But FreewayTalk often has the feel of a place where technical ignorance is embraced, almost as though it’s worn with pride like badge of honor.
Generosity Breeds Dependence
However well-meaning it’s FWT’s most experienced and prolific problem-solvers who through years of selfless contributions have unintentionally nurtured a kind of “handout” mindset. Their consistent help and extraordinary generosity have been taken for granted instead of serving as a stepping stone for the majority to explore and learn and become more self-reliant.
Of the online tech. communities I’ve participated in I’ve never seen one quite as one-sided as FWT, where so many depend on so few for so much. Where people are quick to ask for help yet are often stubborningly unwilling to step outside their comfort-zone. As a community there’s been very little growth or evolution among the majority of the user-base. Not unlike Freeway Pro itself, and ultimately Softpress since it’s all a reflection of the company that created it.
Where’s the Reciprocity?
If a fraction of the majority put half as much effort into learning the basics of CSS and HTML as they do avoiding it there might be more than 6 people capable of answering questions. If they did perhaps more of the experienced users would be inclined to offer assistance instead of churning out answers for an audience some of them view as lazy, selfish and unwilling to make an effort to understand the help that’s freely given by the minority and greedily consumed by the majority. Naturally there will always be a disparity between what’s taken and what’s given back, what’s unusual about FWT is the extent of that imbalance.
Not surprisingly some of the 1% have grown weary1 of the
I don’t do code that’s why I use Freeway Pro mantra which should be tattooed on more than a few foreheads. Now the handouts are to a small degree drying up which seems inevitable, really. Who wouldn’t get tired of (freely) investing considerable time and effort helping people who can’t be bothered to help themselves?
The Beginning of an ‘Exit Strategy’?
It was the minority who broadened my and a few others’ perspective. They sparked my curiosity by building things the typical Freeway Pro user couldn’t. Not surprisingly I wanted to do what they were doing, to possess the same skills, but I quickly realized it meant stepping well outside the Freeway “bubble”. Nevertheless I wanted to learn so I embraced new challenges.
Although still firmly in the Freeway Pro camp I was being shown a different world and with every piece of technical knowledge I gained I began to challenge Freeway Pro’s (and Softpress’) methodology. I didn’t fully realize it yet but over the next couple years my frustrations would slowly gain momentum.
Houston... Oxford, We Have a Problem
Then another Freeway Pro user hired me to design and build a static website in addition to developing a small custom PHP/MySQL app to be integrated into the site. As I expected the PHP app was a challenge because it was my first time building one from (near) scratch but the site was straightforward.
As was so often the case with Freeway Pro what I was trying to do (integrate the app into the site) wasn’t technically difficult but Freeway’s absurdly rigid workflow imposed unnecessary hurdles. Had I been using an editor it would have been done lickity-split, but the client needed it built with Freeway Pro so I had no choice but to push through.
This project made it painfully clear that Freeway Pro was best-suited to a simpler self-contained workflow that didn’t require a lot of external wiggle room. It seemed purpose-built for a specific period in time which had come and gone. A time when construction techniques were limited, websites were often static and functionally simple, and WYSIWYG Web design was still a somewhat new(-ish) concept, especially one based on a DTP workflow.
As the Web evolved — and continues to evolve — the threads of design and development became more intertwined, more challenging. For myself the way forward became trickier to navigate, especially as I developed a broader skillset and placed greater demands on my tools, and had higher expectations for the product I delivered.
The Fresh Hell project above along with the ever-growing list of “Why is this so difficult in Freeway Pro?” made it very clear that I was at a crossroads. Eventually it cemented the end of Freeway Pro for me.
I swore it was the last site I would build with Freeway Pro. — It was.
I swore I would learn to code so I would never have to open Freeway Pro again. — I did.
So What Was the... My, Problem?
Take your pick...
- Identity crisis: I often thought Softpress were trying to serve two masters: DTP and Web design. But DTP is not Web authoring. If you’re going to build a Web design app... then build a Web design app. for Web designers.
- Rigid workflow: Often extremely difficult (or impossible) to integrate external development tools used in modern Web design.
- Limited core tools: What “core” tools did exist were outdated, the CSS Editor is a prime example.
- Overdependence on Actions: When you need to install a 3rd Party Action to perform a basic function like removing a
ptag or converting an
class, there’s a fundamental usability problem. Seriously, did no one else question this? They were also frequently created (again, usually by 3rd Parties) as a stop-gap to address issues that should have been properly fixed in the core.
- Weak API: According to the Action writers the API was woefully under-powered which severely hampered their ability to write robust feature-rich Actions.
- Bloated code: Yes, Freeway’s generated code works but it’s not sustainable or efficient by modern standards. A stylesheet for each page? Seriously?
- Archaic UI: Can you say 90s?
- Mishmash of terminology: Another identity crisis, perhaps? It seems Softpress felt their DTP users would be confused by CSS terms, but only certain ones. For example, apparently “Space before” and “Space after” make more sense than
line-height. Using two terms when one is sufficient. How is that not more confusing?
...and on and on it goes.
Oh, Sweet Irony
In the end I was tired of fighting Freeway Pro, and I was really tired of being chronically disappointed by Softpress’ inexplicable inability to significantly evolve their product. From my perspective the Return on Investment (ROI) was dropping quickly and steadily, and what development was happening wasn’t resulting in much forward momentum. It felt like the bar was being raised on one side and lowered on the other. Never shall the two meet.
The irony is that it was Softpress’ most vocal, knowledgeable, skilled and prolific long-term advocates that inspired and encouraged me to step away. They showed me that I could accomplish so much more, often with less effort and get exactly... exactly the result I wanted, no compromise required. Once I developed some basic technical skills there was no going back. Ever.
It was ’07 when I dropped Freeway Pro. Surprisingly I was encouraged by Softpress to remain (at least peripherally) involved in both the public community and, more surprisingly, in private channels with Softpress which I continued to do for several more years, albeit infrequently.
What Was (really) Going On at Softpress?
That People, is the $64 question.
To be sure there was a lengthy list of feature requests from the user-base, some of the oldest first mentioned close to 20 years ago, many of which still linger. But why?
Why was Softpress consistently behind the curve when the competition thrived? Your guess is as good as mine.
- A lack of resources (money and personnel)?2 — Definitely.
- A continually shrinking customer base? — Probably.
- A lack of vision and planning? — Possibly.
- Poor management from the owners/investors? — You gotta wonder.
- A legacy code base that required constant labor- and time-intensive maintenance which was unsustainable in the long-term? — Absolutely.
- A fear of losing its “I don’t do code” target audience by introducing “advanced” features? — Very likely.
- A combination of all those things, and possibly much more? — I suspect so, yes.
Adapt or Die
What I do know is that Freeway Pro was easy to outgrow. The qualities that made it attractive to inexperienced users like myself in ’02 is ironically what drove me, and I suspect others, away. Perhaps the true measure of any software’s value lies in the deveoper’s ability and willingness to adapt, grow and evolve with the needs of its users. Evolution? Innovation? Ah, not so much. But perhaps my definition differs from yours.
A clever Action here and there does not qualify as innovation for the broader application, and implementing an inline and responsive workflow seemed less like evolution and more like playing catch-up. Considering the state of Web design and development in the early/mid 2000s I think Freeway Pro had for all practical intents and purposes peaked around v4. After that the rate at which Softpress lost ground accelerated as new construction techniques evolved and overwhelmed the already weak 90s-era UI.
Not surprisingly the excessively long update cycles were exercises in frustration and disappointment. The lack of meaningful change year after year was painfully predictable and contributed heavily in my decision to get the fuck out. If ever there were an example of “adapt or die” then surely Softpress and Freeway Pro could be the poster-child of what happens when you can’t... or won’t.
Of course improvements were made, a few being noteworthy. For example, the v4 facelift was welcome, and the RPL Action in v6 was an ingenious if problematic and little used attempt to simplify Freeway’s persnickety inline construction implementation. I got the feeling Softpress put a lot of eggs in this particular basket only to have it hit the ground with a thud. Even v7 made strides regarding responsive design but it was too little, too late. Softpress was from the perspective of many of its users out of its depth. A relic from a different time.
A Waste of Resources
[Shocker] I have from time to time been openly, uh... critical, of Freeway Pro on FreewayTalk, and even more vocal in private channels with Softpress and other members of the community. If there was one thing I inferred from the seemingly endless and numbingly repetitive requests and complaints was that the Freeway developers — the people in the trenches — were as frustrated, perhaps more so, by the same things as the user-base which only made the situation even more confusing to those of us on the outside who spent years asking for the same features ad nauseam.
My feeling (and it’s simply that, a feeling) was that the development team was caught in the middle of a situation that was in many ways beyond their control. It’s not that I think the developers lacked the skill or desire to build a better product, quite the opposite. But considering the slow progress it does make me wonder what was really happening behind-the-scenes all those years.
I think their talents were wasted on an outdated and under-powered application. If only they had been given the opportunity and resources to build the kind of application they were capable of building, that they wanted to build, the story might not have ended at all.
Breaking the Cycle
I was far from alone in my observations and frustrations yet amazingly most users were willing to continue jumping through hoops, though (not surprisingly) they still complained about Freeway Pro year after year. [Shrugs] I guess on some level I understand having done it myself for a while, though in my case I eventually got sick of hearing myself complain so I cut the cord. When asked if I ever regretted my decision to leave Freeway Pro my response is always unequivocal:
It was the single best decision I could have ever made for my future as a professional Web designer.
[Laughs] Not a popular sentiment in a closed-off, strangely over-protective, over-sensitive, apologist community where drinking the Kool-Aid is commonplace, and the software and Softpress are placed on a pedestal. I understand liking a company and/or their product(s), even depending on them, but there’s a borderline creepy — “clingy” — devotion here that escapes me.
I like Softpress too but I was never interested in being an apologist for them.
A New Beginning?
Will Freeway Pro find new life as an Open Source project, or be picked-up by another company? At this point who knows, except perhaps the shot-callers/investors at Softpress but they ain’t talkin’... yet. Certainly stranger things have happened. Time will tell, right?
But if it does let’s hope for the sake of Softpress’ fans the new owners have the resources and vision to build a substantially better product. No doubt there are many who would be thrilled to see Freeway Pro make a comeback, and I would certainly be curious to see a reimagined product, even though I would never use it again.
For myself Freeway Pro was, warts and all, my gateway application into Web design. I started out liking Freeway Pro a lot, and despite my sometimes harsh criticism I genuinely wanted to continue liking it. I tried, I really did, but I could no longer find a reason to admire the Old Girl, even from a distance.
1 Anyone who has been around FWT for a while probably noticed that a couple of the most prolific “helpers” have been conspicuously (abruptly) absent, while a few others have noticeably dialed back their participation.
2 People are quick to point out Softpress is a small developer with limited resources which I’m sure is a valid point, but it doesn’t explain everything. Small software developers abound, many much smaller and younger with far less resources and experience than Softpress that manage to consistently deliver impressively modern products. So clearly “limited resources” is not a one-size-fits-all explanation. Or excuse.