Sparrow & Selling out

My friend Peter Cohen tweeted something regarding Google's acquisition of Sparrow:

Ah, the righteous indignation of people who think they should be able to tell entrepreneurs what their exit strategy should be.

As is normal, Peter's insight is profound, accurate and direct.  His knowledge and experience in the Apple world is expansive.  Like Peter, this acquisition excites me.  The Sparrow team has good instincts on software usability, and that sensibility is sorely needed at Google.  Google's best UI was their search page, and in my opinion they've never replicated that success.  Adding Sparrow to Google is a win for both parties.

Sparrow + Google

If this acquisition is positive, then where does the angst on the part of Sparrow customers come from?

Sparrow was a new product from a new company.  It was smartly promoted and marketed, but I think most customers still realized they were buying an app from a startup.  Buying a product or a service from a start up is relatively risky compared to buying from an established company.  Simple apps like casual games are one thing, but when you are adding a new software product to your life on an ongoing basis you become very invested in it.

This investment goes beyond the purchase price, which admittedly is low.  The App economy rewards small transactions done many more times than traditional software applications.  There is the case that Sparrow customers didn't spend much on the app, so they aren't really out much.  That fails to account for the time invested in the product.  Post purchase you had to install the app, configure the app and then learn to use it.  If you kept using it, it means you found some intrinsic value in the interface.  Something about it made your experience with your email better.  Email remains one of the primary uses across all platforms, so adopting a new mail reader is a huge investment.  People made that investment because they believe this was a product that would last if it was successful.

There's the rub.  When companies are purchased as talent acquisitions, they time and money investment of the customer gets a poor return.  Today, you can still buy Sparrow.  But what if Mac OS X 10.8.3 breaks it?  Or iOS 6.1?

The success of Sparrow does not belong solely to the executives or investors.  I am not arguing that the company leadership did anything wrong, or unethical.  What I am saying is the current industry ethos of build-to-promote-to-be-acquired goes against the perceived social contract of software customers.  The average customer is not considering the potential implications of a later acquisition when they decide to purchase a product, and if they did it may be harder to get a user base of the ground for a startup.

In my completely unqualified opinion, Google/Sparrow could have served the community better by specifically outlining the products future.  How much longer will it be on sale?  How long will maintenance last?  Eliminating uncertainty would go a long way to soothing people who were a big part of the company's success.