Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Bartender Acquired by Applause Group

Juli Clover (Reddit, Hacker News, Mac Power Users Talk, AppleInsider):

Popular Mac app Bartender appears to have been quietly sold approximately two months ago, with neither the prior owner nor the current owner providing customers or potential customers with information on the sale.

[…]

Bartender’s new owners replied to the Reddit thread and confirmed that Bartender had been acquired, but did not explain why customers had not been notified nor why there had been a certificate change without said explanation.

[…]

Reddit users asked Bartender’s owners for more information on their identity, but there was no response.

Jason Snell:

These things happen—no developer should be chained to their software forever—but it’s odd that (anonymous?) new owners could appear without any communication to existing Bartender customers beyond a note saying a certificate had been changed. It’s Apple’s rules around signing app binaries, and the attention of MacUpdater, that brought this out into the open at all.

A glance around the Bartender website does reveal that while Surtees celebrated 12 years of Bartender in a blog post announcing version 5, posts from 2024 read more like SEO spam, with “key takeaways” summaries at the top, followed by unrelated Mac tips, followed by a pitch for Bartender.

Jonas Wisser:

The transaction needs to be acknowledged and endorsed by both the seller and the buyer. Otherwise it looks like one or the other (or both) are trying to pull something.

Jeff Johnson:

I am doing fine, hope to be an indie dev forever, have no plans to sell StopTheMadness, and indeed never had an acquisition offer, but if someone totally mad offered me $millions for it, I absolutely would owe my customers an announcement.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s a sacred responsibility to run my native code on other people’s computers, and I take that responsibility seriously. Your customers trusted you, and any developer who violates that trust harms all other developers.

Jeff Johnson:

1) A comment by MacUpdater about the new Developer ID code signing certificate. Before it became Bartender App LLC it was temporarily App Sub 1 LLC, a name shared by a number of iOS App Store apps.

2) A tweet from a Chinese software distributor claiming that the new owner of Bartender is applause.dev

ran mak:

This is the same group that acquired and then fucked up VoiceDream by forcing users to a subscription model even if they had paid the full price when it first came out (they later backtracked).

A few weeks ago, I heard from a reader who said that:

[The] app now attempts to connect to Amplitude and to export analytics without, as far as I can tell, making this clear. I found my Wi-Fi MAC address in the Analytics’ JSON trail, which is dirty at best and a gross violation of GDPR at worst.

[…]

The release notes for the latest update did not make the change in certificate clear, only explaining that macOS would prompt for permissions again due to an issue in the TCC database — which is sadly riddled with bugs, making the explanation perfectly plausible.

Greg Pierce:

I don’t know anything about Bartender, but I do know that acquisition by a private equity backed app farm is one of the only practical exit strategies for indie developers who are looking to move on from a project, so expect it to happen again.

I think this not inherently bad, there are such organizations that are reputable, but certainly there are plenty that are not.

Craig Hockenberry:

The problem with Bartender is that you are giving Accessibility and Screen Recording permissions to an unknown entity.

With Accessibility APIs you can control the Mac (including other apps). With Screen Recording APIs you can see everything that’s happening.

Both of those things require trust, and the new owners being silent about the matter does not gain that.

Craig Hockenberry:

If you have Bartender currently installed, I would not assume that dragging the app to the trash is enough to get rid of it.

Again, since it has a higher level of access than other apps, there may be things lurking around.

Christian Tietze:

Marco (@esamecar@social.lol) posted a list of alternatives. From that list, I filtered out MAS-only and Chinese-subtitled apps[…]

As I was about to hit Publish, I saw that the original developer, Ben Surtees, had finally made an announcement:

After the release of Bartender 5, I came to the realization that supporting all the users and maintaining the app at the high standard I expect and you deserve was too much for one person. It required a dedicated team that could provide continuous support, innovate, and keep up with the fast-evolving macOS landscape. This realization led me to make a difficult decision.

Three months ago, I sold Bartender to Applause, a company with the resources and expertise to take the app to new heights. Applause shares my vision for Bartender and is committed to maintaining its core values while bringing in new features and improvements. I truly believe they are the right team to continue the journey and ensure Bartender remains a valuable tool for all of you.

I understand that the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. Recently, there was a change in the signing certificate for the app, and unfortunately, this change wasn’t communicated properly to you, our loyal users. I apologize for any confusion or concern this may have caused.

Previously:

Update (2024-06-06): Christian Sonnenfleck:

A bit curious that Applause’s website looks like a ripoff of Tiny.com.

Stephen Hackett:

I take slight exception with his explanation of Notarization.

Michael Schmitt:

What’s the latest release you can download that is from before the acquisition, and doesn’t include the new Amplitude telemetry framework? […] The reddit article gives links for previous versions, but also says that the size of 5.0.51 jumped from 8 to 10 MB when the telemetry was added and it was re-released.

It seems that the last Surtees version, 5.0.51, has been removed. [Update: The correct link still works.]

qforzy:

I’m an extremely long-time Bartender user. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’ve donned my tinfoil hat, but I am concerned that there is no assurance that the above statement actually comes from Ben Surtees.

It seems likely that both sites where this statement was posted are currently under the control of Applause. As a commenter on the original Reddit thread has pointed out, an ICANN lookup indicates that the registration of surteesstudios.com was updated in February 2024, and that domain is currently redirecting to macbartender.com (try loading https://www.surteesstudios.com/foo and you are taken to a 404 page on the macbartender.com domain). People are reporting that emails to the original developer’s bens@surteesstudios.com email address have been bouncing for months.

If you don’t believe the domain is under his control then there would be no reason to trust the e-mail address, either. Or maybe he sold the whole business, not just the app. How can one prove identity online? There doesn’t seem to be a Twitter account, but any online account could be transferred, anyway. I guess he could go on an another podcast? But I see no reason to doubt the simplest explanation.

Adam Engst:

Instead, this was merely a case of botched PR. As a friend with a decades-long career in the field once told me, the goal of PR is to tell the truth and tell it first.

It is a bit strange given that acquiring indie apps is Applause’s whole thing, evaluating “hundreds of acquisitions” since 2020. You would think they would know how to do this smoothly.

Earth759:

I find it hilarious that the new owners decided to just take a randomly generated reddit name instead of taking the 5 seconds to change it to something more official like “BartenderAppLLC” to try and assure users.

Also the fact that they said they offered a subscription instead of actually saying it’s setapp just further shows me there is a lack of due care that makes me weary like the others in the thread.

It’s also worth noting they have just raised the price of every option of the app. I was looking to upgrade to a lifetime license a couple of days ago and I know for a fact it was for $30 (now $38). Regular license I believe was $16 now it’s $22.

Tim Hardwick:

Bartender is not the only app of its kind. So unless Apple ever gets round to integrating better menu bar management into macOS, here are some alternative menu bar utilities that are worth considering.

Update (2024-06-07): Adam Engst (Mastodon):

Since the initial publication of this piece, I have corresponded via email with Ben Surtees, who confirmed that he wrote the post.

Update (2024-06-12): jimblock:

Applause issued a new version 5.0.53, explaining (and apologizing) for the bad way they released it. The new version removes the Amplitude digital analytics framework entirely, explaining that they initially included it (as Adam said in his note) to get an idea of the user base.

See also: Reddit.

11 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

Kevin Schumacher

Oddly enough I work for a completely unrelated company, also in the software development space (albeit focused on testing), also called Applause.

I am confused by this from your reader:
The release notes for the latest update did not make the change in certificate clear, only explaining that macOS would prompt for permissions again due to an issue in the TCC database — which is sadly riddled with bugs, making the explanation perfectly plausible.

The release notes didn't mention the certificate change or the permissions prompt at all. That's part of the problem. (They claimed on Reddit they can't retroactively change the release notes, which is insane and almost certainly untrue.) Those notes also continued using the pronoun "I" instead of "we" or something else more appropriate for a company owner, further confirming that they were hoping nobody would actually notice this.

Their support website does directly implicate TCC problems as being responsible for macOS prompting for permissions again, but it also makes clear it's related to the certificate change. I checked Wayback Machine and this has been consistent since the release.

Anyway, this whole thing was a giant cluster and I don't blame people for wanting to jump ship. Luckily (?) I am still on Ventura so I can't install the latest update, and using it through Setapp, which doesn't even have the update yet.

@Kevin Thanks for looking into that. It’s possible that there was a change before the Wayback Machine picked it up the first time, or perhaps the reader confused the two pages.

This is extremely sus behavior. Thanks for posting that list of alternatives, I’ll def be looking into it

This is super concerning. There is zero reason to not announce the sale when it happened. That alone is enough to stop using it.

Bartender started randomly crashing for me maybe two weeks ago. Maybe it's a coincidence, or maybe they're already starting to "improve" it. Anyway, Ice works just fine.

@Kevin The reader says:

Regarding Kevin Schumacher’s astute comment querying my initial email, things do seem to have shifted on the Bartender website since I first wrote to you. The note about TCC was on another page, something hastily written with almost no layout, not the rather neat-looking release notes with the big colourful banners.

re: Bartender Pricing. Since May 29th at least, it's been a little wonky and continues to be. Noticed on the website pricing of $ 16 when using Safari (v17.5) or DuckDuckGo (v1.88.0(189) browsers. When using Firefox (v126.0) the price was $ 22 instead. I reported this to their support. On May 30th, it was $ 16 using all three browsers. Yesterday, when I checked and as well as today (June 6th) am seeing $ 16 via DDG and $ 22 via Firefox 126.01 and Safari.

@rajs I can confirm that as of this moment it is $22 via Firefox and $16 via Safari.

I'd been using Bartender since version 3. I noticed an update was pushed about two weeks ago that broke Bartender, and required new permissions and a reinstall to get it working again, which happened on my Mac Studio and Macbook Pro. I thought it was strange. Then all this news breaks, which had me concerned. I uninstalled. I set up Ice on the Mac Studio and so far so good.

What a weird situation.

Hmm. Applause do seem to be rather good at stepping in it, don't they? I don't use Bartender but do still (reluctantly) use VDR sometimes. Can certainly confirm the radical upswing in analytics connections, though they do seem to be working hard to make sure the app remains responsive. They probably aren't malware merchants, but even for a sandboxed app that handles potentially sensitive stuff, it's worrying—can imagine it gives people who grant it full access to their Macs the jitters.

Oh, and MacUpdater is awesome! Truly, a very well kept secret (that, ironically, uses complete info about your installed apps to crowd-source update intelligence and that can't be turned off, but at least they're honest about it).

I just ditched Bartender and am using Ice - hopefully it will soon be able to display overlapping items in a second bar on my “notch” MacBook…

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