An Interview with Michael Thole, the Creator of Searchling

by Hadley Stern Jan 20, 2003

OS X has never been only about the end user. Included in Apple�s vision is the development community�the people who make the stuff that runs computers. When the Macintosh first came out in 1984 it was a technical marvel, but it was difficult to develop for. Subsequent releases of the Classic OS�s, from 6 on up to 9 have always provided a niche market for shareware and freeware application designers but OS X raises the bar significantly with the introduction of some key technologies. Unix, Darwin, Cocoa, and many other words that to us end-users don�t mean much excite the heck out of developers. In switching to a Unix based operating system Apple, with an open-source spirit, is engaging a whole community of developers who otherwise would not be interested in the Mac. Searchling, a great little utility that plants a search field on your OS X menubar, is an example of this spirit. I�ve used Searchling for a couple of months now and it occurred to me that rather than just write a review it would be interesting to interview its creator, a computer science college student. If you want to skip the interview and just download a great little app you can find it here.

Hadley Stern: How long have you been using the Mac, and when did you first start developing for it?

Michael Thole: I used my first Mac in 6th grade, a 25MHz PowerBook 100 from school. I had the good fortune to work on the Macs at school, so I was pretty well hooked by high school. I first started development on OS X during Christmas break from college last year. I had just finished a Java course and decided I wanted to learn Cocoa, so I sat down over the next couple weeks and wrote Cypher, which was a great learning project.

Hadley Stern: How did you come up with the idea for Searchling?

Michael Thole: It was actually the idea of a friend, Andrew Duch. He wrote a tiny Google searching utility for Windows called gSearch, and showed it to me. We chatted about making something similar in Cocoa, which he was still new to.

Hadley Stern: How did you develop Searchling?

Michael Thole: When I got some time after final exams I sat down and wrote it� the basics came together rather quickly. Then with help and suggestions from a few people it turned into Searchling 1.0 a week or so later. Version 1.1 was released a short while later with some great bug fixes (such as support for non-ASCII characters) and hot-key support.

Hadley Stern: Are your peers in school also excited about OS X?

Michael Thole: Yes, I am a sophomore in Computer Science at Purdue University in Indiana. Unfortunately, few of my peers use Macintoshes…Most use Windows, although more and more are switching to Linux (which is much better than Windows), Mac OS X, or some UNIX flavor. I’ve already converted several people.

Hadley Stern: Have you sold a lot of licenses?

Michael Thole: Like most of my software, Searchling is (currently) free and open-source, with donations being gladly accepted. My only current true shareware product is Thumbnail Pro, which is $10. I’ve sold enough licenses to justify its development to me, but not nearly enough for it to be profitable if I worked for a real company. Luckily, I am still a student and enjoy writing the applications…Monetary profit isn’t the only motivator. You can find my software on my Purdue website.

Hadley Stern: Was it easier to develop in OS X than OS 9?

Michael Thole: Although I’ve not done any serious development on OS 9, I can say that development in general is much easier on OS X. The UNIX base of OS X gives you great, free development tools such as gcc and gdb. Even Apple’s very nice development suite is free. Also, in OS 9 it was much easier to lock up the entire machine, which would be a development nightmare.

Hadley Stern: Would you have developed it in OS 9?

Michael Thole: No…I don’t think I would have gotten into any serious development for the Macintosh platform if it hadn’t been for OS X.

Hadley Stern: How popular has Searchling been?

Michael Thole: Much more popular than I thought it would be. For the first few days after its release I was getting probably 20 emails a day about it, mostly filled with praise and suggestions for future versions. It was also featured on MacSlash and was’s Pick of the Week.

Hadley Stern: Do you feel that Safari’s integration of the Google search function within the browser will make Searchling less popular?

Michael Thole: Probably somewhat, but it won’t be a huge factor. Safari’s Google search function is something you could already do in Chimera, or OmniWeb (although few people knew about it). Also, Searchling is capable of searching through much more than just Google now, and I think that is what most people use it for.

Hadley Stern: What future enhancements can we expect?

Michael Thole: The most obvious thing is an editor for the search sites in the application itself�mucking with the XML is far to tedious for the average user. Beyond that, I’d like to make a way to quickly select which site to search. I find it annoying to have to use the mouse to switch to Google if the last search site was MacUpdate.

Hadley Stern: Thanks, Michael, for creating such a great tool and for telling us what went into making it.

In creating OS X Apple has not only created a fantastic user interface, a rock-solid machine, and a multi-tasking maven it has also created a platform that legions of developers will develop for. Searchling is one small example of that spirit. Shareware and freeware for OS X is already much more diverse than it ever was for the Classic OS’s. And this isn�t even counting the many UNIX apps that can be run on our Macs. It is a great time to be a Mac user.


  • The design of Search ling is based on theories of thesaurus-based interface design from Shiri, combined with the principles of rich-prospect browsing. The Search ling interface provides the user with three working spaces on one screen: the Thesaurus space, Query space, and Document space.

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