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The Final Conf-Down

I tweeted this morning that I was working on updating my spreadsheet of upcoming iOS / macOS developer conferences, which I use to maintain a page of conferences (and anime conventions, because me) over on invalidstream.com. I also got into this research to provide a segment for the sporadic CocoaConf Podcast (iTunes, Overcast) This post is going to be about the changes in that scene I’ve seen recently.

Spreadsheet of upcoming iOS & macOS developer conferences

The immediate and obvious takeaway is the significant contraction in this space over the last two years. By my count, the US now has only 9 conferences that are exclusively for iOS/macOS developers (in approximate chronological order for this year):

I say “only” because it was only about 4 years ago that CocoaConf ran more conferences than this by themselves in a single calendar year. And now, CocoaConf itself is gone; its organizers, the Klein family, run a single annual conference in its place, Swift by Northwest. The remaining conferences are almost entirely held on the coasts in cities like NYC, DC, and of course SF. Only one is in the South, and none are in the Midwest, Texas, or the Southwest.

[It should also be noted that in some years, Apple runs a world-wide traveling series of “Tech Talks”, often when they have a new platform to build support for. The last one was in 2015, and promoted the Apple TV SDK.]

In my spreadsheet, I use the event type “later” to denote a conference that is expected to be held in the next 12 months but doesn’t have a date yet, and “defunct” for conferences I believe will not be held again. As I said on Twitter, my criteria for defunct is “no events held in the last 12 months, and none scheduled as of now”. By that criteria, this is my list of recently-defunct Apple developer conferences:

I didn’t include Release Notes on this list, because their most recent podcast episode made it clear that while they are not holding a 2018 event, they aren’t piling it in either; it sounds like they want to shift the time of year they hold their conference. Daniel Steinberg also tweeted at me to say that both Do iOS and NSNorth have said they hope to return, and similar sentiments are expressed on the home pages of IndieDevStock and Playgrounds. So, you know, maybe they’re not all dead.

[Also, I’m not interested in tracking conferences that went away many years ago and will obviously never return, which is why I don’t bother with an entry for Voices That Matter: iPhone Developers Conference from seven years back or the O’Reilly Mac OS X Conference from 15 years ago.]

OReilly Mac OS X Conference bag from like 2005 or something

For the sake of keeping things interesting, I do track a few conferences that are “close enough” to be of interest to this community, like conferences for IT pros (Mac Admin & Developer Conference UK, MacAdmins), Mac power-user events (MacStock), and did you know that there’s actually a conference just for Filemaker developers? Because there actually is a FileMaker Developer Conference. This variety is nice for the video scroll, which I use as an interstitial when I’m livestreaming, so I can give my voice a break.

But still, I think it’s interesting to note that there’s been an obvious, substantial contraction in the conference scene. Some of the survivors seem to be healthy (Ray Wenderlich says RWDevCon is nearly sold out), so is there any way to make sense of what is and isn’t working here? A few thoughts…

iOS Is Old News

The obvious explanation is that after 10 years, iOS is old news, that most people who want to work with it are already doing so, and there’s less travel/training money available. This makes sense, to a point, although if that’s the case, then how can the No Fluff Just Stuff tour be doing 17 events this year, hawking old warhorses like Java and Spring?

Still, the idea that iOS is old and unsexy can be seen in the fact that nearly every new conference focuses on Swift, even putting it in their name: dotSwift, try! Swift, Forward Swift, Swift by Northwest, Swift Summit, etc. Good for marketing, although as a speaker, I find it somewhat limiting: I don’t feel like I could do a talk on, say, debugging with Instruments or Auto Layout in storyboards, since those wouldn’t really be about Swift. One reason I’m not planning any talks this year is that I just don’t have anything novel or insightful to say about Swift at the moment, since I’m not currently working with it as much as a lot of other people are.

Apple Development Is A Cargo Cult

WWDC 2017 main entry

Every conference is completely overshadowed by WWDC. It used to be that nobody wanted to hold a conference between June and October, because the new bits at WWDC would still be technically under NDA, so you officially couldn’t talk publicly about them. That meant that anything you could talk about was, by necessity, old news, which made an August conference a hard sell.

Today, WWDC is nearly impossible to get into, and all its videos are quickly made available to non-attendees (lately, most or all of them have been livestreamed). So if you’re just interested in getting Official Info from Cupertino, just standing in front of that firehose is all that’s necessary.

And honestly, that’s what most people want. If you see the platform as just a collection of APIs, tools, and languages, you could make the argument that third parties aren’t in a position to bring anything else to the table. It’s not like there are very many third-party tools that most iOS developers use — Cocoapods and Carthage, I suppose? Maybe SwiftLint? God forbid, RxSwift? But mostly it’s about the built-in bits. So if you can already get a session of those, why travel for something else?

[Well, I’d argue things like clarity, novelty, and honesty: speakers with real-world experience can talk about how the APIs hold up in real life or if they’re not as good as Apple says, they can offer insights into more advanced uses or unanticipated issues, they may be able to offer more passion and excitement than WWDC engineer-speakers, etc.]

Few Personalities Can Sell Seats

Another factor is whether or not people will come to see specific speakers, and who they are. Who’s really famous in iOS/macOS developer circles? It’s not like we have a lot of open-source projects with leaders that everyone follows. A lot of the conferences rely on book authors (like me), but book sales continue to decline, so I don’t suppose we’re much of a draw.

Bloggers? John Gruber of Daring Fireball speaks infrequently, such as at the 2014 XOXO Festival, and of course in his live episode of The Talk Show every year during WWDC week. I don’t recall if Michael Tsai (whose linkblog is essential reading) ever does conferences, and I’m drawing a blank on other notable names.

Podcasters? We’re doing a little better there. Daniel Jalkut and Manton Reece of Core Intuition have both spoken at various conferences (including CocoaConfs in DC and Austin). OTOH, the Accidental Tech Podcast guys are infrequent speakers: I recall Casey Liss keynoting a CocoaConf DC, and Marco Arment recorded an Under The Radar at CocoaConf Next Door during WWDC 2017 week, but that’s about it. OTOH, Curtis Herbert of Independence speaks at several conferences, and was the organizer of the CocoaLove conference. Yosemite by CocoaConf used to always have Andy Ihnatko, but that conference appears to be done too.

Is Staying Home An Option?

Part of the problem with conference-going is that it’s damned expensive. Even if a conference keeps registration under four figures, big city hotel stays will often cost far more than the conference ticket, plus airfare and meals. You have to really pinch pennies just to keep a week at WWDC under $4000. That was one of the things I liked about CocoaConf: they toured and came to where the attendees were (so you could maybe drive to it), and they generally set up shop in inexpensive airport hotels rather than pricey downtown locations.

For international attendees, border crossings are also a hassle and risk, particularly given the ugly xenophobia that is now official US policy. It’s understandable that overseas developers would think twice about coming here (or, for that matter, that non-US nationals working for Apple would risk leaving the US for Tech Talks, since they might well not be let back in).

And when you think about it, if most people in the world are experiencing WWDC on a screen, maybe that’s the way other conferences should go too.

This weekend, I attended Visual;Conference, a seven-hour online webinar for developers/writers/artists working on visual novels. The presentations were all streamed via GoToWebinar, with back-channel chat and questions to speakers handled by a Discord channel. For $10 I got to participate, hang out in my slob clothes, have a beer and nachos for lunch, and still learn about the iOS app that makes $1 million per day.

Banner from vnconf.com

Videos from Visual;Conference 2018 are available as a playlist from the conference’s YouTube channel.

Maybe we can bring these worlds together. Not that a WWDC session is ever going to begin by saying “Spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, everyone…” (though wouldn’t that be great?), but maybe someone should give an online iOS/macOS conference a shot? It might be particularly good for a niche topic that maybe only 50-100 people in the world are going to be interested in. Although even with this approach there are problems with time zones, since you aren’t bringing speakers and attendees together physically — Visual;Conference started with its Japanese speakers at 11AM ET / 8AM PT, even though this was 1AM for the speakers Japan-time, and they were gracious staying up that late for us. If you wanted to hold an online conference open even to just Europe and the Americas, it’s going to be either too early for someone, too late for someone else, or both.

Honestly, I’d rather have CocoaConf back, but since that’s not happening, and there is literally not an Apple developer conference within a day’s drive of me this year, I guess I’m stuck.

Comments (6)

  1. Thanks for the list! iOSDevUK is happening this year.

    • Chris Adamson

      Josh– Oh, cool, I’ll add iOSDev UK to the list on the next update, I had it in some of the CocoaConf Podcast segments, but somehow didn’t get it into the spreadsheet. I always had fun trying to pronounce “Aberystwyth, Wales” for the podcast recording.

  2. […] to a post by Chris Adamson about iOS conferences, Marco Arment notes that podcasts and YouTube have partially replaced the […]

  3. Jeff Roberts

    Hi Chris. I loved your post. I too feel the same. You may not remember me, but I saw you at the last 4 CocoaConf Chicago conferences I attended and spoke at. Through my whole career of about 30 years, I’ve attended at least 2 conferences annually. As a contractor, I pay for those conferences out of my own pocket including missing a few days of work (and pay) while I attend.

    I live in St. Louis and nothing is close. I attended two of the 360iDev min conferences in Greenville, SC and was saddened that it didn’t return in 2017 and I guess it too is gone forever.

    Like you, I have no conference plans this year and it’s a sad thing. No CocoaConf in Chicago, no 360iDev min in Greenville, SC. Never been to WWDC. Can’t justify the cost out of pocket. Guess I’m stuck too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Thanks for this.

    I run the JavaScript in South Africa conference (and do Swift dev as part of my day job) so this post really hits home.
    I’m seeing the same trends in South African conferences. We’ve done 7 years of conferences and are definitely seeing a slow down in terms of budget from attendees & sponsors even with our 1 day conference costing only +- $80 and zero cash requirements from sponsors.

    The proverbial “hallway track” is incredibly valuable which is why I’d hate to see physical events disappear. There is also power in having multiple smaller conferences as opposed to only one or two massive events per country/region, but I’m probably biased.

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