PCalc has been available in various forms and on different platforms for more than two decades — James Thomson, the man behind it, has taken care to keep it updated over the years, transitioning quickly to new operating systems when they came out. It was in the App Store on day one and it did very well, according to its maker. I’ve been lucky enough to beta test it for a while now and I can quite frankly say that the new 3.3 build, which supports iOS 8 and it’s new features, is my favourite version.
I currently run three different “calculators” on my home screen — Soulver [App Store link], which I use to write up various expenses when I don’t want to open Numbers, Percentage Calculator for people who can’t do maths [App Store link] which I favour when splitting the bill with friends and when trying to figure out tips, and PCalc [App Store link] for when I actually need to get some maths done. I used to have various converters to translate feet into metres, Fahrenheit into Celsius and so forth, but today PCalc has me covered.
PCalc seems simple at first glance, but it can been anything you want it to be — that’s the beauty of the product. James has managed to cram an astounding amount of functions into its small UI that should suit even the most demanding of users. I could probably write a book about it, but instead, I’ll just focus on three things which got me hooked.
The first big thing is the ability to totally customise the look of every single button. It’s possible to change their look, layout, functions, size and more. Since I’ll be travelling soon, I’ve already set myself up with various currency conversions which I had to do in my head last year. If you look at the photo at the top of this page you will see that I’ve dedicated the two top rows for just that and picked four currencies which I’ll need — Indian Rupees, Polish Zloty, American Dollars and Euros. Adding them was as simple has entering edit mode by holding down a finger on any button, deleting the default buttons and adding empty ones in their place. Setting up their functions is just a few taps away and extremely intuitive. The default labelling is also exactly what I was expecting and needed no adjustments on my part. Oh, layouts can sync via iCloud to other iPhones and iPads. Perfect!
The two other new features that got me hooked are support for Handoff and PCalc’s widget. Handoff — one of iOS 8’s new features — means that I can start my calculations on my iPhone and should I choose to pick up my iPad, a little icon will appear on the lockscreen, allowing me to continue where I left off. I’ve actually had a few situations where this worked out perfectly. The only downside is that Handoff support in iOS 8 is still a little bit finicky — sometimes it just refuses to work.
The third gem is the new widget which pops up in Notification Centre. The widget naturally doesn’t use the custom layouts from the app itself, but it’s really handy and accessible in situations where I don’t want to or can’t take the time to open up the app itself. I’ve actually used it in a number of situations and have nothing but praise for its implementation. The beauty of it is that if someone is in the middle of their calculations while using the widget, they can just choose to open the app itself from Notification Centre and continue working — they synchronise their content with each other.
I have nothing but praise for James’s work. PCalc satisfies all of my needs and more, surprising me with things I didn’t think I’d use, especially the widget and custom layouts. It has totally replaced the default iOS calculator and now I just wish I could change the Control Centre icon to launch PCalc instead. PCalc is currently available for both iOS (as an universal app) and OS X:
★ PCalc for Mac — €8.99 / $9.99
You can also find James Thomson on Twitter.
James was also nice enough to answer a few of my questions despite his tight schedule — I’m still trying to get him on my podcast though.
PCalc has reached legal drinking age in many countries — I believe it’s going to hit 22 in December. Personally, I’m in awe that one application has managed to stick around for so long. You’ve obviously put a lot of heart into the project. How does all of this make you feel in perspective?
I’d say my main feeling is surprise! I never thought that PCalc would be still going twenty–two years later, and nor did I think that the small test app I wrote when the iPhone SDK first arrived over six years ago would still be so popular. Surprise and gratitude that I can make a reasonable living from something I first started writing while I was an undergraduate at university.
I don’t want you to get into specifics, but there was a long discussion, started by Jared Sinclair, on indie developers, business and life in the App Store. I know that you’ve been frustrated at times in the past with people being reluctant to pay for software. Has any of that changed since PCalc is in both App Stores?
Sales of PCalc are stronger now than they ever have been, so I can’t complain. Partly that’s down to putting in a lot of work keeping PCalc updated with each major OS release, as well as adding new features. But also I know it’s a lot of luck with being in the right place at the right time. People certainly seem happier to pay for PCalc via the App Store than they did through a payment service like Kagi though.
Obviously both versions of PCalc have, what many believe, a steep price. I, for example, want to pay for quality software to support developers, just so that they continue to update and enhance their products. And create more great things. What do you believe the future will be in regard to payment models? Are you in any way partial to Marco Arment’s freemium model he recently spoke of?
It’s amazing that in less than ten years, a price tag of $10 for a pretty complicated piece of software has become steep! PCalc started out at $20, and I halved the price for the first App Store release, so from my perspective it’s actually cheap. :) Honestly, I think it’s reasonably priced for what it is, and for how much work has gone into it. But, if it was 99c, I would not make enough money to be able to keep working on it. I have tried many experiments with pricing, and if you halve the price, it doesn’t necessarily even double the sales over the long term — I think, partially because PCalc is not a mainstream consumer product and the goal is to have something that’s sustainable over a long period of time. I think it is difficult to know what the future will bring — I hope that people will continue to support developers who do good work. Sales are higher now than they have been in years, so I don’t think the future has to mean that people will stop paying for software. And if they do, there won’t be any developers left. As for freemium, I do that already. PCalc Lite is a free version with limited functionality, which lets you upgrade in full or in part, with in–app purchases. And yet, over 80% of people buy the full version outright. If I eliminated the full version, and went completely freemium, my suspicion would be that my revenue would fall dramatically.
Do you have any thoughts on the new iPhone resolutions and how to plan for them and others in the future? What was your experience with PCalc in this regard?
Well, it was fairly straightforward to adapt PCalc to the new iPhones — I had written the code to be flexible with regard to screen–size before the phones were announced, and it worked as I hoped it would. I’ve added some enhancements to take better advantage of the extra space already, and I’ll continue to do so as I work with the actual devices. I’ve only had my iPhone 6 for just over a week at this point, and I think you need to have it in your hand for a while to get a real feel for what works best.
Would you care to share what’s coming next for PCalc? Any plans for something extra special for the 6 Plus?
Next will be the Yosemite version, taking all the features I’ve added for 3.3 on iOS and moving them back to the Mac. After that, I’ll probably be looking at the Apple Watch SDK, or maybe even the Apple TV SDK! I don’t think I will get any rest for a while, certainly.
Have you hidden any new easter eggs in PCalc for iOS and OS X? I actually spent some time looking for them… Failed miserably.
There are actually surprisingly few easter eggs in PCalc! I used to have a sound sample of Douglas Adams saying “Don’t Panic!” in version 1.0 on the Mac, which you could trigger by putting 42 in all the registers and the memory and clicking on the display, but I took it out a long time ago. The only one that I can think of is extremely boring — if you tap the PCalc logo in the About screen on iOS, it will set the display to the free memory left on the device. I put that in when I was developing PCalc on the original iPhone that only had 128MB of memory.
I’d love to hear a few Steve Jobs and Phil Schiller stories, if you have any.
Well, I am pretty sure that Phil Schiller was responsible for one of the biggest sales of PCalc, so I am very grateful to him. I talked to him once at a party at WWDC back in 2001 and told him about my app, and some time later Apple contacted me wanting to bundle PCalc with the new iMacs. I don’t think it was a coincidence! In the end, it ended up on about a million machines that year. See my previous statement about being in the right place at the right time!
Thank you James, and good luck!