DevDialogue – 9 Questions With ‘The Omni Group’


The Omni Group has delivered breath-taking and award winning Apps like OmniFocus, OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher and more. It has grown into a large organization that focuses on developing electrifying productivity Apps for iOS and Mac OS. We caught up with Naomi Pearce of The Omni Group who described the vision of the organization, future plans, secret behind the success and the relationship with Apple.

Q: There is lot of competition in your niche. What differentiates OmniFocus from the rest?

A: As far as product differentiation is concerned, it’s easy to think of at least four unique feature sets.

First is Sync — OmniFocus will synchronize its data between the application on your Macintosh and, if you own them, the apps on your iPhone and iPad. OmniFocus may be the only task management app for Mac, iPhone and iPad that lets you use any of them independently online or offline, while also letting you sync any combination of them together through the cloud when any of them do happen to be online.

Another big one is hierarchical tasks — OmniFocus supports hierarchy in both Projects and Contexts. This means you can group your related projects (e.g. all the things you need to do for a particular client) and focus on those, or group your related tasks (e.g. all the things you can do online, including e-commerce, e-mail, and so on) and focus on those, or focus on the intersection between some portion of your project and context hierarchies.

Custom perspectives — you can place custom perspectives in the toolbar or access them with a keystroke, so you can set up your own workflow with focused views that you can easily return to later.

Review is a big unique feature — you can say how often you’d like to review a project, and OmniFocus keeps track of when you last reviewed it and helps you see when you next need to review it. (This feature really comes into its own in the iPad app’s new Review mode).

Beyond features, our company makes a big difference. When someone buys OmniFocus, they have the whole Omni Group standing behind it. We document all of our applications and apps, so our customers can get the most out of them. Each purchase also entitles the customer to contact technical support and speak to, or email with, a knowledgeable human.

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Q: What is the vision of OmniGroup? What are your long term goals?

A: We want to be known for creating great software — software which our customers value and enjoy, and which pushes the industry forward.

There are all sorts of app categories which customers value and enjoy; right now we happen to be focused on making high-quality, easy-to-use productivity apps, though we also spent several years bringing AAA game titles to the OS X platform. The whole reason we’ve focused on NeXT, Mac OS X, and now iOS is because of that emphasis on pushing the industry forward. There is also a lot of great, valuable, and enjoyable software on the trailing edge (for example, M.U.L.E. on the Atari 800), but that’s not where we’re focused.

Q: We understand that OmniFocus is a highly powerful App and other task managers are not even close to it. Is this the reason you are charging a premium or is it normal pricing?

A: We try very hard to give our customers a lot of value for each product release. For OmniFocus, we chose a price that’s half the price of the desktop app, even though it offers much of the functionality of the Mac app (and even some new features such as its Forecast and Review modes) on a brand-new, portable, and very usable platform. We also include documentation and support. We think it’s a great value for software people use every day and which makes them more productive. We hope our customers think so too.

Q: The Omni Group is a huge developer of iOS Apps and is a full-fledged company. What is unique about your company that allows your employees to be so innovative?

A: Since we are passionate about creating great software which pushes the industry forward, it’s natural that we attract employees who share this passion and excitement for innovative platforms.

Our passion has been particularly invigorated by the iOS and the iPad: within just two weeks of the iPad announcement we had the ability to view OmniGraffle documents in the iPad simulator. Collectively we think Apple’s iPad is the best computing device for most of the things people use computers for. We started developing for it even when we had to build our own device prototypes out of duct tape, white board, 3D plastic printouts, and all kinds of materials.

In this case, we were fortunate to be small enough to adjust our plans quickly, while being large enough to actually put the resources behind those new plans and make them happen.

Q: How long does the approval process usually take?

A: As Steve Jobs explained in his keynote at WWDC 2010 last June, of the fifteen thousand submissions for approval to the App Store per week, 95% of them are approved within seven days. Approval times vary, of course, but those figures seem consistent with our experience.

Of course, he went on to explain the top three reasons for rejection. We do work to make sure the app functions as advertised, we don’t use private APIs, and we do test them to make sure the app doesn’t crash. The result is our apps are often in that 95% that get approved within seven days.

Q: You have a slew of Apps for the iPad. What do you think makes the iPad so special and what according to you is the future of the tablet?

People from age 2 to 92 put their fingers on a multi-touch device and it’s so intuitive they can figure it out right away. We consider the multi-touch interface will eventually become dominant in computing, in general, just as it’s becoming dominant for mobile usage. While there are still design restrictions such as the position of the screen, which is very different on a desktop and on your lap, the fact is that the ease of use of the touch interface is hard to beat.

In five to ten years, there will be really big multi-touch screens, like on an iMac or something, and we’ll be touching and moving things around instead of clicking and dragging. We chose to bring our applications to the iOS right away, because this effort is an investment in the future. It’s forcing us to look at our applications — for the iPad and the Mac — in a completely different way and improve upon it as user interaction changes.

Q: What does the community of “successful” app developers expect from Apple in terms of support?

We can’t speak for the whole community, of course, but the most important thing to us is having a healthy ecosystem.

Apple can support app developers best by continuing to provide platforms that are innovative, that are at the cutting edge of technology, and that consistently push technology forward. The more they innovate, the more we can build and innovate ourselves.

Also essential for a healthy ecosystem is providing platforms that customers want to buy, and thus create a market for third-party developers that didn’t previously exist. It may sound obvious, but it can be tricky and is certainly uncommon.

One example which succeeded at the former more than the latter is NeXT. We can say from experience that NeXT produced great technology, but there weren’t enough people buying. Developing for the platform was interesting, but insufficient by itself to pay the rent.

So, if Apple can continue to succeed in creating a healthy ecosystem, anything beyond that is just detail.

Q: What do you feel about the ‘Try Before You Buy’ concept? Has it helped you in certain ways?

It has always been Omni’s policy to give people as much information as possible to help make an informed purchasing decision, and free trials are a great way to help customers know whether our software will meet their needs. Our experience with offering time-limited trial versions of our applications on Mac OS X has been very successful.

We’d love to offer similar trial versions of our apps on the App Store, but there’s no mechanism for doing that at the moment. So instead, we’re trying very hard to make sure we provide potential customers with thorough documentation, product videos, access to our email and phone support teams, and when invited we provide demo copies of our apps at Apple’s retail stores.

Q: As OmniGroup is a huge developer of Apps, does it plan to make a transition from iOS Apps to Android too?

We have no plans for any Android apps at this time. Our plate is very full with our focus on creating great productivity apps for Mac and iOS. It’s never been our goal to reach the widest possible audience; we’ve tried to focus on the technology that we feel is the most compelling. Right now we’re very excited about the Mac and iOS platforms.