Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 3.34.19 PMMike Lee has been all over the App Store since, well honestly before launch. He helped found Tapulous, the studio that brought out the first Twitter client on the iPhone via jailbreak, before the App Store was around, and of course the hugely popular Tap Tap Revenge. Tapulous would later go on to be acquired by Disney. He was also part of the small team that brought the revolutionary Obama ’08 app to the App Store. And then there was a short stint at Apple as well as the founding of the Amsterdam-based incubator, Appsterdam.

Mike has seen it all when it comes to the App Store. Let’s get his take on the past five years and the next five.

148Apps: How has the App Store changed your professional life?

Mike Lee, New Lemurs: It would be easier to say how the App Store has not changed my professional life. When the App Store was announced, I was just coming off a three-year apprenticeship with the legendary Mac developer Delicious Monster. It has worked out that my beloved mentor Wil Shipley continues to run rampant through Mac OS, and I’ve been able to carry his memes forward into iOS.

I cannot overstate the value of those skills when demand exploded. Combined with the things I learned by working on iPhone projects with people smarter than me, like Lucas Newman, Guy English, Brent Simmons, and Chris Parrish, I was able to do things beyond my wildest dreams.

I got to be co-founder of not one but two Silicon Valley startups, Tapulous and United Lemur. I got to meet legends like Steve Wozniak, Bill Atkinson, and Andy Stone.

I even got to work at Apple, had my own office on Infinite Loop, got my name on Mac OS X server, got to work on the flagship Apple Store app, then went on a year-long speaking tour around the world before settling in Amsterdam, which is just about the nicest place in the world I have found to be an App Maker.

Now, as co-founder of Appsterdam and the New Lemurs, I get to work with incredible people who continue to make me better every day, which is exactly what a professional life requires.

What we were doing on the Mac was really great, but it wasn’t Tapulous, United Lemur, Apple World Tour, Appsterdam, or New Lemurs great. None of that would have happened but for hard work, incredible luck, and little thing called the App Store.

148Apps: You were involved with Tapulous and app creation before the App Store even launched, I believe. You had to feel like a pioneer, breaking ground and doing things no one had ever done before. What were things like back then? Any official response from Apple, before the iPhone SDK was launched in 2008?

Mike Lee: I know how I felt, and I know I wasn’t alone. Not everybody felt the same way, but a lot of people did. We were incredibly eager, incredibly passionate, and incredibly naïve, exactly as you would expect. We constantly compared ourselves and each other to the original Mac team. We knew we were the successor to the Mac, the future of computing, and we felt a tingly responsibility to make sure it went right this time.

We knew we were making history, but more than that, we knew we were setting an example. There was a lot of worry at places like Wolf Rentzsch’s legendary C4 conference about the kinds of apps we should make and the kinds of App Makers we should be. For example, I am very opposed to casual misogyny, and spent a lot of energy preventing things like “Hot or Not” from making it to the App Store.

I was very lucky to be in Palo Alto, so I could drive to Apple at least once a week and talk to people there, to get their opinions, their help, and their guidance. I knew they didn’t like us, because we had been involved with Jailbreak. That was frustrating, because early Jailbreak was born of passion and it was how we learned.

Of course it’s not like Apple puts a horse’s head in your bed when they don’t like you. They just stop talking to you. By the time of the App Store, I was already a well established name on the Mac. I had an Apple Design Award and the personal phone numbers of half of Developer Relations.

Don’t get me wrong, these folks were my friends, and they continued being my friends, but on a professional level it was the cold shoulder. We were conspicuously absent from the big debut. They even failed to have our submissions up on Day 0 as they had promised.

But at the same time, Director of Evangelism John Geleynse, who is the coolest dude I know, gave me a lot of advice about having perspective and looking at the big picture. When they didn’t have us up on the first day, I just drove to Infinite Loop and bought the nascent App Review team coffee and pastries and told them I knew exactly how hard they were working, because we were going through it too.

I had faith then, as I do now, that great products rise to the top. I knew Steve would not be able to resist a great game about music. It wasn’t long before Tap Tap Revenge was on stage with Steve, and by the time I went to Apple, it hung on a 60-foot banner in the foyer of 1 Infinite Loop.

148Apps: If you have one single success within the App Store you’d like to highlight, what would it be?

Mike Lee: I’m really excited about the work the New Lemurs are doing. I’ve been trying to blend technology and altruism both on and off the App Store since before it was a thing, with everything from the Club Thievey fundraising drive that linked Mac developers with the Madagascar Fauna Group to the Obama ’08 app to Appsterdam and on into Lemurs Chemistry.

What distinguishes my work now from what I was doing 5 years ago is this: while I’m still focused on providing great products and experiences to people, that has stopped being the end in and of itself. Now I am much more concerned with spreading good memes. My abilities as an App Maker, and my ability to be an example of what kind of apps we should make and what kind of App Makers we should be, have switched seats.

My current obsession is the idea that games would not be a waste of time if they were made based on science. By replacing the arbitrary game mechanics with rules from nature, you end up with games that happen to be educational as a side-effect, instead of trying to gamify education. Lemurs Chemistry is the embodiment of that idea, and it’s the best game I’ve ever produced.

148Apps: What about one thing you have done that you think should have taken off, but never did?

Mike Lee: Well, of course, the Tapulous story is an interesting one, because the original design and engineering team ended up separating from the management team and forming United Lemur. There was a lot of great stuff we worked on before we left that ended up going nowhere once the company focused only on Tap Tap Revenge.

I still think a lot about those projects, and some of the projects we worked on as United Lemur other than the Obama app. Puzzllotto was the only cash contest to ever run on the App Store that I’m aware of, since they were banned after that, but I don’t know that the world would be a better place if that game had taken off. We spent a lot of time worrying about what would happen if it did.

The one that breaks my heart to this day was the one that never shipped: Pyrangle. Because of my non-profit work, I ended up making the acquaintance of an incredible group called the Gear Up Foundation. Their founder was a firefighter who had been trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center, who had resigned himself to death, and who, upon being saved, had dedicated himself to the good of his brothers and sisters still fighting.

When it turned out there weren’t many 9/11 survivors to help, he repurposed his foundation to provide equipment and training to fire departments around the world. Pyrangle was a game about fire safety whose proceeds would have financed bringing the Gear Up Foundation into Madagascar.

Then the world financial system collapsed, taking my retirement savings and ability to pay my team along with it.  To top it off, Madagascar descended into a civil war, and I descended into burnout. The team had to go get jobs, seeding the next generation of App Store wonders like Square and Black Pixel, so it’s not like things didn’t work out.

But still, Madagascar burns.

148Apps: In the five years since launch, the App Store has gone through considerable changes. The number of users has skyrocketed along with downloads, prices for paid apps has stabilized way lower than many expected, free to play has dominated the top grossing charts. If, knowing what you know about the App Store now, you could go back and influence your path five years ago, what would you say?

Mike Lee: Let me say this flat out: I hate what has happened with monetization on the App Store. I think it’s immoral to drain money out of people’s pockets through their children, and I think that while the tools Apple provides can be used to make a great experience, most people aren’t using them that way. The experience has become about the monetization, which is backwards and wrong.

I refuse to make money this way, and have spent five years fighting this practice with every fiber of my being, from the presentations I give, to the business plans I write. The New Lemurs have a promise to parents not to upsell, advertise, nor mine data for money. We have made our revulsion into our strategy.

But that’s not really the question, is it? I can hardly go back and give myself 5 years of hard-won experience, but there is one mistake I made that could have changed everything, had I known what was going to happen with App Store pricing.

We thought we could bootstrap United Lemur on game sales. We turned down funding from Kleiner Perkins, unwittingly damning ourselves into an unsustainable business model. If I knew then what would happen, I would have taken the help from Kleiner. They could have saved the team, and Madagascar might be better off.

While we can’t go back to the past, we can make the past mean something by learning from it. My business plans now are all about how to make money regardless of game sales, without selling our souls. It’s not easy, and it is only sustainable because I live a very simple life, often supported by side work like teaching people to make their own apps at the Big Nerd Ranch.

I might go down as the idiot who keeps walking away from money because his morals get in the way, but I consider myself lucky. I get to wake up every day and do my little part to make the world a better place, and I feel my impact in other people’s lives. My work may leave the App Store, my name may be forgotten, but I will die knowing I have taught, inspired, and worked with some of the best people in the world.

148Apps: What have you seen on the App Store, outside of apps you are associated with, that has surprised you most?

Mike Lee: I think five years ago most of us were very naïve about information warfare. We had no real inkling of what it meant to own information. We didn’t know or understand that China had already had a cyber warfare division in training for five years. We didn’t know how pervasive governmental and corporate information gathering had become. We didn’t realize how naked we were before incomprehensible power, nor how thoroughly our dreams played into their plans.

I never thought I would see drones controlled by an iPad go from being a great demo to being a worldwide nightmare. I never thought I would see ubiquitous presence of data via the cloud become the means by which they intrude into our lives in an attempt to control us. I never thought I would see the Internet become the ties that bind and strangle.

I have always believed that openness and transparency were important, but have never allied with the likes of Linux or Android, because I do not believe openness makes products great by itself. Being open is like being nutritious or being educational. You have to find a way to make those features part of the best products, rather than declaring that those features make products best.

My business plans and personal projects for the development year running between WWDC13 and WWDC14 revolve around open source. I know I will be considered late to the party by many, but I can say with surety that this shift in my thinking is a direct result of what I think is a wide awakening to the new realities of the Information Age.

Never has it been more important for us to ask ourselves what apps we should be building, and what kind of App Makers we should be.

148Apps: Any predictions for what the App Store will be like five years from now?

Mike Lee: Among the many adventures the App Store has afforded me was climbing a bit of the Great Wall of China. They really should call it the Great Staircase of China, because it is an incredibly challenging hike. The one moment I will never forget is looking behind me at how far I had climbed, and looking ahead of me at far I had to go, an infinity in both directions.

It’s incredible to me that we can talk about the App Store five years from now in a way we could not have foreseen five years ago. Even among the true believers, I think I would have been embarrassed to talk about five years from now five years ago. Certainly I should have been. But now? It would be more controversial to suggest the App Store wouldn’t be here in five years.

When I was in China, I asked an old man if he ever thought about something so grandiose as the future of China, and what he wanted for his children. With tears in his eyes, he spoke of how he had starved, as generations before him had starved, and in that instant I understood Chinese culture more than I ever had, despite growing up surrounded by Chinese people in Hawaii.

My children will have enough to eat, he said, and the rest is up to them.

Huge thanks to Mike Lee for his time. Mike’s latest app Lemurs Chemistry: Water is available in the App Store and is free today in celebration of the App Store 5th anniversary.

[ Photo credit Tom Hayton ]

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