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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Mike Lee and Brian LeRoux on Mobile Development, Patents, Cross Platform UIs

Mike Lee and Brian LeRoux on Mobile Development, Patents, Cross Platform UIs


1. We are here at GotoCon Aarhus 2011 and I am sitting here with Mike Lee and Brian LeRoux. So Mike who are you?

Mike Lee: I am Mike Lee from Appsterdam, formerly of Apple, formerly of Tapulous formerly of Delicious Monsters, formerly of a bunch of other companies.


2. And Brian, who are you now not formerly?

Brian LeRoux: I am never formal, I am Brian with the PhoneGap project, before that I was with, geez I never really do anything with my life.


3. Well you did something now.

Brian LeRoux: With Nitobi Software we are in the process of being acquired by Adobe, nothing is completely finished yet but it looks like it’s going to happen.


4. Ok, so here we have two sides of the mobile development suite, we have an HTML developer and a native developer. So, Mike you’ve been doing something called Appsterdam, what’s that about?

Mike Lee: So the idea of Appsterdam is basically that when an industry matures it needs to have a center of gravity the way that movies have Hollywood so we need to have a Hollywood of apps, and that’s basically what Appsterdam is, we’ve established that Hollywood in Appsterdam, so we’ve made Appsterdam sort of the capital of world app development, made it the best place to be an app maker, we’ve build a great infrastructure there and now we run a really interesting program for app makers from Appsterdam.

Brian LeRoux: I think I’m moving there.

Mike Lee: You should.

Brian LeRoux: I should, it sounds awesome.

Mike Lee: It is awesome, I didn’t even talk about the initiatives yet, there's some crazy stuff we do.

Brian LeRoux: I am in, it’s in Appsterdam.


5. So, what do you do? You mentioned something about patents, you protect people against patents?

Mike Lee: Sure, we do a lot of mundane things most of the time, so you know when you go to a conference and you have that kind of atmosphere, we try to have that atmosphere on a permanent basis, and so for example you want to go to some bar and hang out with a bar full of nerds, instead of a bunch of people talking about football, we do that like every week. You want to go and have a lecture and learn something new, see a presentation, we also do that every week, and we have a speaker training at the other end of that to provide that content and to help people become better at speaking about technology. We also have though a lot of family and community support, so every other week we actually get together with our families and go to the Zoo or go to a museum, the two hundred plus museums we have in Amsterdam, because it gives us a chance to get to know each other even better and it’s all about forming support structures. And it’s really important for our families to have support structures as well especially because the kind of work that we do in opposition to the usual sort of the work ethic of Europe we tend to be gone for a long time, we tend to work long hours, we tend to become obsessive and monomaniacal in our work and our families suffer for that.

And so by having that kind of support structure, it becomes very important. And we also try to push technology into the community, the general community benefits from the technology that’s been created. But then we also do some things that are really important and one of the things is the Appsterdam legal foundation which is basically a team of attorneys who serve the app maker community and so right now the app makers community's biggest legal issue is extortion in the United States, from people trying to use patents as weapons of extortion. And so we basically had this huge legal summit last week, got a bunch of attorneys together from Europe and from the states, and we basically hashed out a bunch of strategies, turned over sort of half-baked legal notions into actual legal opinions, and came up with some solid advice for people, not just in terms of what to do if you are actually approached by an extortionist. That’s really important because they operate on fear and ignorance and so we want to dispel all of that and say you just got a big scary packet, this is what this is, this is what this is, and this is what you should do, you should contact an attorney specifically if you don’t have an attorney you should contact the Appsterdam legal foundation because we are your attorney basically so that we can get a professional response for you.

But then we also talked about prophylactic measures, how you can better protect yourself against extortion especially in this global world market, because it’s a little bit ridiculous for a market that accounts for twenty-five percent of global app sales to be able to cause a penetration that will cost you your entire business. If seventy-five percent of your sales are not in the afflicted market then why should the afflicted market affect you? And so we basically figured out, what is their strategy, how do they work? And how can we use the sort of bastardization they put in the system, to help us protect ourselves from them? So basically what we came up with is a theoretical construct, say that you are an app developer living in Amsterdam, in your home, and you’re selling worldwide, what you would do then is you would actually only sell worldwide but exclude the US market from that company, and then you would form an American Limited Liability company, which is basically trivial, it’s part of that bastardization, inside the US and possibly more than one.

So if you have three products on three platforms you can even form nine companies, and each one of those companies basically is an empty target because the only thing that that company owns is a license to the technology that is held by the European company as long as you don’t live in the US you’re basically jurisdictionally unreachable except for your shell companies so they can pick off your shell companies one by one, but they are not going to be able to get at the meat of your business. So then we have also developed further strategies should that jurisdictional thing fail because when we talk about global law, we are really talking about probabilities, it’s sort of a quantum mechanics type of thing because it’s not a question of possible versus impossible because everything is possible when it comes to the law, it’s a question of difficulty, because an extortionist is somebody who, you know they have to hit up a bunch of people and get a quick pay off to keep the game rolling, they really don’t have time to deal with international extradition and serving warrants across national lines, and things like that, so it’s kind of like a home defense system, it doesn’t make you house impossible to break into, but it makes it enough of a pain to break into that they'll go look somewhere else.

Brian LeRoux: What’s the kind of cost that you’ve seen for creating these LLCs I would say it’s an amazing herculean task to have to undergo all this.

Mike Lee: In the states, first of all there are some states that specialize in the formation of LLCs and Nevada is probably the most infamous, Delaware for a long time, but these days it’s Nevada, you can do this online, there is a filing fee ranging from maybe a hundred two hundred dollars per structure, so it is trivial, I mean first of all from an European prospective, I don’t know how it is in Canada but in Europe it is relatively difficult to form a limited liability vehicle, because it’s a very powerful and potentially very dangerous thing. In the US because it’s basically dominated by corporations, it’s trivial I mean it’s really simple.

Brian LeRoux: A hundred bucks online and you have your own company.

Mike Lee: Yes, when we talk about patent trolls, we are talking about an office building full of empty offices, they don’t have a lot of money, that’s a big misconception, patent trolls do not have a lot of money, and so in order to have that cheap little empty office, and a piece of paper that makes you a company it can’t cost a lot, and it doesn’t cost a lot and so that’s where it becomes very trivial now we are actually trying to make this even easier so that it could just be just a service that you could just subscribe to as an Appsterdam member where basically we just do all this paperwork for you.

Brian LeRoux: So are you guys actually seeing that many patent trolls come after app devs?

Mike Lee: Oh yes, definitely, I mean basically what happened was they filed they didn’t file lawsuits they sent demand letters to like a dozen, two dozen app makers, we cried out because at this point is was limited to iOS although we knew that it wouldn’t stay limited to iOS so we cried out to Apple and said we are being threatened for using an API, if this is anybody’s problem, it’s your problem. And then Apple basically jumped in and then there was a two month discovery period established and in that two months we have seen an explosion of this where they basically were suing anyone that they could find. Let me back out from that, they are not suing anybody that they can find, they are sending demand letters to everybody they can find, they have actually filed some lawsuits, but for the most part they are just sending out demand letters and they are sending them now they have ostensibly hordes of college kids basically sitting there, they have turned the ability to threaten an individual developer into an art form, a science.

Brian LeRoux: Are there many of these groups doing this now? Or is there one or two kind of localized?

Mike Lee: There are and there aren’t. if you talk about a patent troll if you talk about a company like Lodsys, there are thousands of them but they are all shell companies, and so there’s only a couple of companies behind all of this so for example Lodsys is ultimately controlled by Intellectual Ventures, intellectual ventures is basically the Sauron of patent trolls, they are in Silicon Mordor, arising and sending forth its Uruk-hai army of undead shell companies.

Brian LeRoux: They have now moved over to the iOS app store and developers are roasting.

Mike Lee: It really is; I mean a common misconception is that this is an Apple problem. But the reality is they are going after people on Apple platforms, Google platforms, even like the PC.

Brian LeRoux: It actually seemed like a government problem to me.

Mike Lee: It is a government problem.

Brian LeRoux: It’s getting there is time where we start evaluating the IP law. This is all because of manufactured scarcity which is in itself kind of ridiculous.

Mike Lee: You know what this whole thing reminds me of more than anything, is the mortgage crisis, because you basically have a small group of very intelligent very wealthy very greedy very arrogant people, and those people have managed to create an unregulated industry that they can basically run around and make billions of dollars, basically the patent market is a multi-billion dollars industry, and then they go to the government and they say "Look at this we are making billions of dollars" and the government says "Wow free money, that sounds great, we could get some of that, especially with the economy the way it is" so you sign up for it but what you don’t realize it’s that it’s all going to fall apart in the end it’s going to collapse and everyone is going to end up suffering.

Brian LeRoux: So I want to check an idea. And so one way to deal with this would be to license everything as free software.

Mike Lee: Sure but not really. Because it doesn’t matter if you are making a profit or not, they can still come after you, they can still get damages, and these damages are not based on whether you are making money, or you might not, now it might make it slightly more difficult less appealing or whatever but free software, open source software none of this is going to protect you, because it really doesn’t matter I mean it’s just like the argument of Napster like I’m sharing this music but I am not making money off of it therefore, you know but there are in fact damages in place.

Brian LeRoux: So, and that’s manufactured scarcity again so I play a song, I’m not selling it, I’m listening to it. I sing a song but I’m not selling it, I sing it.

Mike Lee: But even that and this is the fact about IT law, if you are playing a song into your head phones, then that is the license that you have subscribed to but if you play a song for a room full of people then you may ...

Brian LeRoux: You said law is probability and risks and this is all manufactured stuff and in the real physics of the world, an idea is essentially free. There is not much we can do about that once you hear something you know it.

Mike Lee: There is actually something more important, then all of this, there is in intellectual property law the notion of the commons, and the commons basically is the creative well from which we all draw our inspiration because anyone who understands the creative process realizes that nothing is generated from nothing, everything comes from a combination of things that have already existed and that combination of things that we are allowed to access is collectively known as the commons and when we assign intellectual property rights of something to someone we are taking it out of the commons and so we actually shrink the pool of available resources for actual creative innovation. Now in a certain limited sense that can be great, but if you let it get out of hand then what happens, is that you dry up the commons and technology ceases, ceases to exist. And we live in the dark ages.

Brian LeRoux: We are hunting deer with spears again.

Mike Lee: It turns out the spears are patented and moreover there is a method and apparatus for hunting deer that is also patented.


6. Brian you haven't encountered patent trolls in your work with PhoneGap?

Brian LeRoux: No, we haven’t but we are sort of in a different angle of all this and this is why I was asking about the free software side. So we have avoided this plague, by giving all of our IP away and we are in the process right now of trying to contribute PhoneGap itself back to the Apache Software Foundation to make sure that that continues on, and that’s one of the reasons we like Apache because it has got clauses to prevent patentability of IP and on the trademark and source code, which is great because they’ve got good lawyers. This whole discussion is super important and interesting and I really respect what you guys are up to because I think it’s a good service that needs to be done. I do think it isn’t like you said, it’s not an Apple problem but I do think they should be doing something about this for sure, and so should Google and so should our governments because it’s out of hand at this point. I mean to create a shell company per app I mean for the average, we got one guy who built a PhoneGap app and he is nine years old, and that’s amazing, that’s good, that’s what we want, we want to see kids doing this stuff, it’s terrifying I'm going to work for him one day but with this kind of thing we stifle that possibility, and that’s horrible.

Mike Lee: The unfortunate reality is that although Google and Apple and the government should do something, we cannot rely on them to do something and there are a number of reasons why we can’t rely on them but the least of which is that these are companies that have a lot of money and move very slowly. And so if we look at for example at the beginning of this whole thing, Apple, two months sounds reasonable, two months does sound reasonable, unless you are an individual whose livelihood is being threatened and you can be extorted and strung up over the course of two months. And another thing that is important, that came out in the legal summit that just occurred to me was that people have the mistaken impression because it is the impression that they are designed to come away with that licensing the technology will make all of this go away. It is sold as the cheaper and easier thing to do. But the reality is that these licensing agreements contain some really nasty provisions and it isn’t the easy way to go at all. Because for example these licensing agreements typically contain an auditing clause which basically states that they are able to at any time open your books and look at what you are doing to make sure that you are paying the license.

The other thing is that let’s say that you were to license a patent, and these licenses again they will typically be for five years beyond the life of the patent. If you license the patent and then the patent is invalidated the next day you are still on the hook for that there are actually precedents for this involving the Listerine Company.

Brian LeRoux: This is in particular US patent law too and I imagine they can turn into a bigger quagmire when we start to get into European.

Mike Lee: It is I mean one of the benefits of European Government in general is that it is a quagmire and so things like this, Europe can move very slowly and so typically we look at Europe and say Europe is thirty years behind the US. Which normally is considered a bad thing, but then if the US is falling off a cliff we have thirty years to backpedal.

Brian LeRoux: The bureaucracy saved us. That stuff has happened in Canada too.

Mike Lee: There is a lot of law harmonization, there is law normalization and a lot of this but what is most disturbing to me is that like we talked about earlier, there is this trend of these patent guys coming to governments, I know the UK right now is having this happening to them trying to sell the government on how much money can be made with patents. And now this is an US problem, it affects us all because the US as we know is very good at exporting its jurisdictional authority to other countries, but other than that it’s going to be a bigger problem because once Europe decides for example that it’s starting enforcing its patents against its citizens, then the game is over, then we’ll have to do a Panamanian shell companies and crazy things like this. But I think that - and one of the things that Appsterdam is really working on, is this notion of, given the state of the US right now, it really does open up a tremendous opportunity for Europe because just as happened to Europe in the thirties where they had this huge wave of anti-intellectualism, and all the intellectuals fled to the US.

Now it’s the opposite, now the US has a huge wave of anti-intellectualism, and all the intellectuals are fleeing to Europe, at least they should be fleeing to Europe and this is an opportunity presented to Europe, all you have to do is add things, like for example Europe has the opportunities to say we are going to stand up for the rights of our citizens, we are going to say right now, we are not going to enforce these patents, Europe is a patent heaven for software. And then all of the software developers who get sued out of existence from the US are going to go to Europe and I mean this is what Appsterdam does we have prepared the nicest possible place, in Amsterdam so that when you realize "I need to get out of here", you have a place to come.

Brian LeRoux: That’s cool, that’s really cool.


8. Exactly, so Brian you are one of the creators of PhoneGap, what’s PhoneGap?

Brian LeRoux: Yes, let’s start at the beginning.


9. Yes, elevator pitch.

Brian LeRoux: Yes, the elevator pitch, it’s for building native apps using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, currently supports iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows Phone 7, Web OS, Symbian, Meego.


10. So it’s a cross platform way of building native applications.

Brian LeRoux: So it’s a hack, and this is how it works: we instantiate a chromeless Web browser, and then we create a bridge back to the device sensors and the device data and these things are truly cross platform so when we talk about cross platform, GPS is cross platform, the ability to take a picture with the camera, that’s cross platform, we typically stay out of the GUI side of things although we have a plugin architecture, and we do allow access to that type of thing, but a GUI built with iOS widgets is not going to look very good or perform well on Android, the metaphors start to break, you end up creating shitty apps, so we don’t want people doing that, we want them to embrace the web, use it for what it’s good for, which is a lot of things, and it’s not appropriate for all things, but it’s good for some things, many things. And those constraints are powerful; people can create really great UIs without trying to copy native UIs.


11. So a good PhoneGap app would look more like a web app, it wouldn’t look like a native app, or try to look like one.

Brian LeRoux: So I don’t think - this is the trick. You might remember back like the late nineties people used to try and make web apps look like Outlook express, we don’t do that shit anymore, and for some reason people are doing that shit now on the mobile web, but that shit is going to go away. What good apps are, are the brand and the identity and the experience of that brand. And that varies widely app to app but if you like the Tapbot Guys are a great example, that’s iOS only but that’s wonderful design and there is no iOS stuff in there, it’s just wonderful design, those apps would work equally on any touch screen they are not on every touch screen yet, but I believe they would be.


12. Mike, have you used PhoneGap or would you use PhoneGap?

Mike Lee: I have but I used it before it was called PhoneGap back when it was called Java so I am familiar with the ideas that are presented here, but I went native, oh Lord, like 2005 and I never looked back. But that’s just me and this is an important thing, as mayor of Appsterdam.

Brian LeRoux: You are the mayor of Appsterdam? I love that.

Mike Lee: Yes, I am the mayor. The problem with CEO is that CEO has this kind of imperious lifetime appointment sound to it, like I own this, but mayor is a position of service, and that’s really what I consider I do. You know on paper I am a CEO, we’ve got COO, Judy is a CCO and we’ve got a CLO and all of this. We’re a big organization, but I don’t currently call myself a CEO I think it sounds pretentious especially for a nonprofit, so I like mayor it’s cute, the Dutch of it is "gesellig." something that makes you feel comfortable and mayor of Appsterdam is just silly enough that it makes people feel comfortable. Anyway, as the mayor of Appsterdam, I serve the whole constituency we always make this point, we’re not an Apple club, we’re not a native club, we are for people who make apps, and we’re not even necessarily a programmers club because a lot of people make apps, when you talk about especially a very successful app making venture, you are talking about engineers, you are talking about designers, you’re talking about lawyers increasingly, you’re talking about business development, you are talking about marketing, you’re talking about a lot of different types of people with a lot of different types of skill sets.

Especially when you are considering our community hours programs, if you are interested in apps at all, Appsterdam is for you. Because a lot of what we provide is bringing people together, and even though I myself personally I am an Apple guy, I worked at Apple, I love Apple, I love their platforms, I love what they do, but that’s me. In my public role I have to work with everybody, and so I can’t afford to be dogmatic.

Brian LeRoux: Tell me you haven’t checked out the N9 from Nokia and Meego.

Mike Lee: We have a very strong AV club in Appsterdam and one of the guys, actually he is our CTO, one of our board members, he writes software that basically allows you to take an arbitrary number of mobile phones, and send forth a camera crew so you have like a concert and you have like nine people with mobile phones and they are all filming it from their angle and then this all feeds back to a central device, where you can mix it all together, very cool, he loves those Nokias because they have such great cameras.

Brian LeRoux: You got to check out for some reason I was just looking at one up the street and I’ve got one of the prototype ones and it’s even better now, it’s in production, it’s Meego and God I hope Nokia doesn’t kill that platform because it evokes all the same stuff that I felt when I touched an iPhone. And I think every iOS developer would do themselves a favor to just go and grab one and play with it because I mean it’s an amazing platform, they did all the right stuff there.

Mike Lee: Yes, I mean there is a lot of great stuff out there, and especially if we are talking about native versus web, versus cross platform, it’s like you said, there are some things that they are great for, there are a lot of things that it’s good for, and I found people come to me and say here is what I am trying to do, I want to make an app that’s this list of information, that the company has and it’s updated, at a random frequent schedule and I am like what you are looking for is a web page, because it would be possible but it would be ridiculous to try to make that as an app. It’s much better as a web page. But then you look at something like Delicious Library for example, and Delicious Library you could make it as a web app, I mean people have certainly made Delicious Library web clones but they just don’t click, I mean Delicious Library has enough trouble with performance as it is, trying to do that through several interpretation and emulation layers, it’s just not going to work. But there is a whole gigantic world of software between Delicious Library, and the web page.

Brian LeRoux: It’s not an "either or", it’s a big "it depends".

Mike Lee: It’s not an "either or" it really is not, but.

Brian LeRoux: People duke it out and have like a crazy discussion like I honestly don’t know the answer half the time. And we look at stuff like a while ago I was at Future Mobile and Kevin the creator if Instagram was there and I watched his talk and hear about the history of Instragram, and the whole time I am thinking like "That shit should be a web app". And I think I could build it but I know it would perform like shit. And that pisses me off so then I think about "How could I make that thing fast?" and how could I make like the filters work in real time, and that kind of thing, all completely feasible and also totally worthwhile goal for the web but not there yet, probably one day, most likely I can’t imagine the future where we think, "You know what, let’s get back to C. This Internet thing was neat but I don’t know. Let’s just get back to C code". But it’s not an "either or".

Mike Lee: I have become increasingly convinced that the move toward a multi-platform strategy has been a move in the wrong direction and that people have to go back to concentrating on a single platform and I will give you my reasoning. If your app sucks on iOS, it is really going to suck on Android, and so my feeling is that you should be concentrating but my point is that if you are an iOS developer put it that way, and iOS is your bag and you can't make a good iOS app, then your Android app is really going to suck and you can say the opposite, if you are an Android guy, and your Android app is terrible, your iOS app is also going to be terrible. The metaphor that I use is if you have a net with a bunch of holes in it and you put it into the fishing hole and you only get a couple of fish, the solution is not to go to every fishing hole in town, the solution is to fix your net, because every one of these ponds has enough fish to feed your family, and beyond. And so I feel like you should pick the platform that you like the best, that you are most proficient at, you should concentrate on building a product, on building an experience and ultimately on building a brand that resonates with people.

Once you actually have a success on your hands, then people will demand that you move your stuff on other platforms, they will demand that you do all manner of things, and then and only then should you start looking at other platforms, and that does not necessarily exclude something like PhoneGap because you can also do it on PhoneGap first.

Brian LeRoux: What I think actually is a couple of interesting things come to mind here, so one thing you are advocating is just passion and craft and I think every developer should do that and we are all turning into polyglots as we get old, no matter how hard we try we are picking that platform and learning it but once you do, learn another one.

Mike Lee: Yes, definitely.

Brian LeRoux: But with PhoneGap we have all that developers they want to do cross platform and they only own one phone. And this is where things get really tricky and maybe Appsterdam could help with this one, the old joke is there is lots of places to test your apps sometimes we call them carrier stores, but it’s not actually feasible and so; to have all the devices necessary for testing was roughly a four thousand dollars investment, it’s probably worse now.

Mike Lee: It’s funny that you mention this.

Brian LeRoux: This is the kind of thing though that we need to see more of while Google brings phones to every IO on everyone because that’s how adoption happens, developers aren’t going to be building apps for Windows Phone 7 for example if they can’t get their hands on one and that’s a problem. It’s a digital divide problem which is an interesting problem.

Mike Lee: We are actually constructing together with a company called Igloo who deal with shared spaces and there is a company called Vodafone which you may have heard of, we are building actually an Appsterdam compatibility lab that has every piece of hardware on the market, where you can come and test your stuff and we expect to open on December.

Brian LeRoux: That’s cool the guys that do Mobile Portland Club 4 they are putting together a testing center in Portland too, it’s good to see these places coming up, because it’s awesome and easy for me to talk about cross platform there because I carry a bag pack of phones around but that is not just feasible for every developer.

Mike Lee: And cross platform it’s not even like and iPhone versus and Android versus Windows Phone situation, it’s even a versions of the same OS situation. It’s even a device situation, I mean I can’t tell you how many times when I am doing freelance work or I am talking to freelancers, there is this frustration of they want this thing to be compatible with 3.0 and on every piece of hardware and you try to explain to people that if you try to have something that is compatible with say 3.0 on every piece of hardware, I am on 4 already but I never upgrade my devices to the next version I put it into a hardware archive because the thing that people don’t realize is that if you are going to support back to 3.0 that means supporting like twelve operating system versions on like twelve different pieces of hardware for a hundred and forty four different testing scenarios that you have to deal with. Or basically lie about supporting because if you say that you support a hardware and software configuration but you’ve never tested it you don’t really know that you are assuming that you do, you are extrapolating that and it’s one of those big issues.

Brian LeRoux: With BlackBerry, I think there is a hundred and twenty eight 6.0 devices, various carrier combinations, and it’s a nightmare.

Mike Lee: I have a very good friend who has a saying that I love and it’s a saying that I use all the time, and the saying is "Engineering is hard", and this is the thing that often people forget and any attempt to make engineering not hard is usually faulty because engineering is hard, that’s the thing.

Brian LeRoux: I have a saying "This is why I drink".

Mike Lee: Indeed.

Dec 22, 2011