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360iDev: Mike Lee talks about mariachi, project engineering and Appsterdam

Mike Lee, former Apple and Delicious Monster employee, is among the most dynamic speakers on the Mac and Apple circuit -- whether he's telling dirty jokes or waxing poetic about beauty and insanity, he's always entertaining and insightful about product development and Apple culture in general.

Lee was in rare form at this week's 360iDev conference in Denver -- he took the stage in a full Mariachi costume, and that was one of the least weird things that happened during his talk.

His main points on product engineering were all very insightful. Lee went through what he called the history of machines, starting with simple tools like sticks employed by our pre-historic ancestors. He then progressed from the assembly line era to the age of personal computers, and then onto nanotechnology and the future. Lee said that software and hardware have been moving ever closer together, and we're currently at the "dawn of the age of magic in computing," where hardware and software are virtually the same thing.

Lee discussed Apple's "intersection of technology and liberal arts," which he calls redundant. The word "technology" is derived from the Greek words for both art and science. That led into a discussion about design, during which Lee said that users aren't necessarily dumb -- but developers should assume, for the sake of their software, that they are. "People are not ignorant or apathetic," said Lee, "but they don't know and they don't care about you or your app."

Great products, said Lee, are 80% boring, but 20% crazy and revolutionary, and that 20% makes all the difference. He offered up the iPod as an example. It was dull and simple when first introduced. But over time, Apple solved one problem after another: "Where does the music come from? What about the Windows guys? No, really," joked Lee to laughter from the audience, "what about the Windows guys?"

Lee concluded that quality is more important than originality. People, he said, are in love with their ideas, but the incredible implementation of a boring idea makes it much more appealing to its intended audience.

Lee also briefly discussed cross-platform implementation. He said devs often ask him which platform they should develop for or if they should implement across mobile platforms. Focus on doing one well first, Lee tells them: "If you suck on iOS, you're really going to suck on Android."

Then things went really off the rails: After a short delay spent dealing with a microphone feedback issue, Lee launched into an extended "mariachi" metaphor, complete with an actual mariachi band marching into the conference. He said that developers and anyone selling or marketing software must take the "boring" story of what their software does, and then add "the mariachi story." Delicious Library 2, for example, is just a database -- but it lets you scan bar codes with your iSight camera.

Lee spoke about product engineering -- but he added a mariachi band, and promised everyone would remember it. And even the iPad 2 was a "boring" iteration of the last iPad, just thinner and faster, until Apple announced the Smart Cover and its magical magnets. At that point, Lee said, everyone in the room was thinking that "maybe my Mom would like that old iPad."

And finally, Lee went into an extended pitch for Appsterdam, a venture he's trying to put together in Amsterdam for mobile and app developers. Lee suggested that not only is the Netherlands city a great place for developers and programmers to go and work, but Amsterdam itself is a great place for Americans to live, promising the audience at 360iDev that the country offered universal health care, net neutrality and even marriage equality to anyone willing to move out there with him. He even extolled the local library, saying, "it's like the library was built by Apple out of Ikea," suggesting that developers there come out and see it (and imagine their children growing up there).

It was hard to tell how the developers in the audience felt about the Appsterdam pitch -- it seemed a bit out of place in the talk, and even Lee admitted that he was a little overenthusiastic about suggesting developers with families and other responsibilities picking up and moving to the Netherlands to code with him. But the talk was definitely entertaining and memorable. As usual, Lee demonstrated the frank, crystal clear insight he's known for.

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