Xojo and the Rapid Release Model

If I could change one thing about Xojo what would it be?  My answer is, without a doubt, the Rapid Release Model.  Here’s why.

The idea of the Rapid Release Model isn’t a bad one.  In the not too distant past many applications had major yearly updates.  Many still do.  In fact, Xojo (when it was called Real Studio) did this with varying degrees of quality.

Some of the complaints about the yearly, monolithic, release of Xojo (back when it was Real Studio) was that it wasn’t a very stable release and it took several dot releases to get it right.  This was the impetus that led me into the Beta Program so I could test out new features before it was released.  I was tired of new features not being usable due to an obvious lack of real world testing.

In theory, the Rapid Release Model introduces smaller changes and a few new features each release.  Releases are roughly every quarter but in recent years this timeframe has not been as consistent.  I believe this change happened, in large part, to address some of the complaints of the Rapid Release Model.  One of the complaints being that the constant drive to get new features in every release gives the software a perpetual beta feeling.  I would argue that the recent changes to the Windows drawing system certainly justifies that feeling to many current Xojo developers.  

From a developer standpoint, I can only imagine the pressure on Xojo’s small development team to constantly add new features every 90 days.  It means that developers are always pushed to get things done rather then get them right the first time.  Again, I would point to the plethora of changes to the Windows drawing system that have spanned many releases as proof.

I believe that marketing is entirely behind this new-features-every-release mantra so they can get buzz about something in every release.  I get it:  for a small company they need to create as much buzz as possible.  Buzz creates some sales and renewals.  But I think the Rapid Release Model is actually hurting them with many developers who value stability over new features.

More evidence that the Rapid Release Model is hurting Xojo is their recent change of telling customers their development plans.  No longer will they tell us the target date of when a feature is released and instead they’re simply saying if it’s a ‘priority’ or ‘important’.  Prior to this, Xojo CEO Geoff Perlman said that Interops and Android would ship by the end of 2017 and not only did they not deliver, but it seems highly unlikely they’ll get it out by the end of 2018 in anything other than an alpha release (purely a guess on my part and I’d love to be wrong).  

Being poor at estimating isn’t just a Xojo problem.  Chrono-Optimism is a human condition and I believe the old adage that 80% of the work takes 20% of the time and the final 20% takes 80% of the time.  Estimating is an arcane art form and at times software development is pure magic that takes time.  Forcing releases into this 90 day window makes the problem worse by having incomplete solutions and incomplete testing.

When all is said and done, I believe Xojo would be better off ditching the Rapid Release Model and going back to monolithic releases with regular dot releases that does nothing but fix bugs.  Perhaps this means that there are only two major releases a year.  Sometimes only one.

The Rapid Release Model is not without some merit.  We currently know that every release will fix a large number of bugs and we know roughly when that release is going to come out.  Not all bugs are created equal but for many developers we can’t wait six months to a year to get a release that fixes some bugs.  So any replacement to the Rapid Release Model must take into account that Xojo developers need a regular, perhaps monthly, bug fix releases for critical and important bugs.

I think changing to a hybrid model between the monolithic release and Rapid Release Model fits the small Xojo team better.  First, it lets the new features gestate in internal testing longer before we ever see them without being rushed out the door.  Second, the regular release of bug fix builds is simply that – bug fixes – and lets the developers continue to work on the next big thing without the pressure of having to add new things in each release.

To say that the Rapid Release Model is a failure is hyperbole.  To say that the model makes the product beta quality is also a stretch.  The truth is somewhere in the middle and I think this is an important discussion for the future of Xojo and their customer base.  What do you think?