Thoughts on a virtual WWDC 2020

WWDC 2020

Apple earlier this month announced that WWDC 2020 would be an online event only, ending weeks of speculation about what the company might do in the wake of COVID-19’s spread and the corresponding containment efforts. It’s led some in the blogging community to wonder if Apple has the ability to pull it off. From where I’m sitting, it already has.

The speculation is warranted, given Google’s decision to nix Google I/O entirely – after first pivoting to do a virtual event instead of its annual gathering, which had been scheduled for May. Apple has the advantage of having another month for things to normalize, but I also think Apple is uniquely prepared to manage a virtual event, based on WWDC’s history.

Twenty Years of Steady State

The first Worldwide Developer Conference took place in 1987 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Apple moved it to San Jose then to San Francisco, steadily growing the show over the next 20 years as a way to get important information into the hands of developers working on Mac applications, products, and services.

In 2007, though, the audience jumped from about 4,200 to more than 5,000. From then on, Apple saw exponential attendance growth. Well, attendance interest anyway. Because the following year the company put a hard cap on attendance.

Then Boom

What changed? The iPhone, of course. The explosive growth of the iPhone and interest in developing applications for iOS set the next thirteen years of growth at a hyperbolic level.

Apple realized very quickly that the demand for access to WWDC greatly outstripped the supply of tickets, and, for that matter, any scale the venue itself could manage. Hundreds of thousands of people were becoming Apple developers. Then millions.

Apple began rationing tickets to WWDC, and at the same time, began figuring out how to get WWDC-related content online. For a while now, people who can’t or won’t attend WWDC have had access to the same content as attendees.

Apple’s done well to erase the gap between when a presentation happens at WWDC and when the content for it is available online. Decks, details, and video of the event itself are available. So the millions of developers who aren’t at WWDC are able to get the same info.

That’s why I think it’s preposterous when I’ve read that Apple can’t possibly pull off a virtual WWDC 2020, with no one there. Apple’s already doing that, and they’ve been doing it for years now. They understand how to scale that experience so everyone can get the info they need.

This unfortunately won’t replace one of the key benefits of attending WWDC: Getting the chance to speak with Apple engineers directly, to help work through thorny issues or get their perspectives on the best way to use Apple’s technology. I don’t know exactly what Apple has up its sleeve to help ameliorate that limitation – but it’s an issue. At least for those folks who otherwise fortunate enough to be able to get some face-to-face time with Apple engineers at this year’s WWDC.

Obviously, this year is going to present some fundamental challenges for Apple, both in terms of production and scalability. But they’ve already articulated their plans and they have months of runway to get everything working right. I think they’re going to do just fine.

The Social Component

Even before Apple stopped participating in Macworld Expo in 2009, the company was taking steps to control the schedule of its own messaging and product rollouts. It wanted to be free from the restrictions of other business’ trade show calendars and schedules. The end of Apple’s presence at Macworld Expo had another practical effect, too. WWDC became the sole opportunity for Apple professionals to network face to face at any large scale.

Apple’s restricted access to WWDC has given rise to ancillary events that happen at the same time and in the same vicinity as WWDC, which has enabled many more people in the industry to have opportunities to meet, talk, learn, and have social time than could do so just at WWDC.

As a reporter who covered WWDC for years, I understand this keenly. Most of the lasting relationships I’ve developed in this business have been the direct result of those face-to-face meetings. Most of them were unplanned. Introducing myself in the hallway. Being introduced to someone by a colleague. Striking up a conversation at a party. Bumping into someone at a bar or restaurant near the venue.

Unfortunately, an online-only WWDC 2020 means that, at least this year, that won’t be happening. I’m sure there will be lots of attempts on social media to replicate or replace that experience. But it’s fundamentally not the same. Maybe it’s a problem waiting for robust enough technology – VR, for example – to replicate. But I don’t think it’ll be the same.

The Lucky Few

One other point on this social aspect of WWDC: I recognize that this is a privilege afforded only to those who are on the ground when WWDC happens. And just looking at the numbers, we’re talking about an infinitesimal number of people compared to the Apple developer community as a whole.

To give you a sense of scale: Maybe 6,000 developers end up at WWDC. Assume two or three times that amount in total, with folks just showing up in San Jose for public events or the ancillary conferences that happen simultaneously with WWDC, day trippers who drive in from the Bay Area communities they live and work to be part of the event.

We’re still talking about less than 1/100th of 1% of the total number of registered Apple developers, which is well north of 20 million at last count. So while I lament that folks won’t be seeing each other face to face, I recognize this is only ever an extraordinary privilege reserved for those who have the incredible fortune to be able to be in the vicinity of WWDC when it happens.

In summary, WWDC 2020 is going to be different. Apple will be able to pull it off, I have absolutely faith in that. And let’s hope this is not business as usual going forward – because actually meeting and greeting people in the real world is a vital part of what makes this community a community.