Taking the “World” out of WWDC

As I predicted (and feared), WWDC 2011 sold out in less than a day, taking only 12 hours to exhaust its supply of seats.

Erica Sadun says this means WWDC is broken, when demand so utterly exceeds supply:

Your resource scarcity is creating irrational frenzies, which hardly serves the community whose entire existence is there to support your company and its products. Today’s scenario didn’t even ensure the best developers will be there — just the fastest with a credit card.

Because Erica compares WWDC to Oracle OpenWorld, Jeff Lamarche assumes this is her recommended solution, and quickly dismisses it:

Making WWDC more like these giant, soulless, “enterprise” conferences is not the answer. Scaling WWDC to 10k, 20k or 40k is fixing the problem by shooting the golden goose. Trying to scale up WWDC like that would utterly destroy everything that is wonderful about it.

John Gruber agrees with Jeff:

It sucks that demand now outstrips supply for WWDC tickets, but I’m with LaMarche: I don’t see any way for Apple to change this other than by ruining what it is that makes WWDC great.

Actually, I agree with all three of them, but the arguments I want to correct are the ones that Jeff and John make, because I agree with Erica’s central point: a single WWDC that sells out in 12 hours is broken. Just because you don’t like the proposed solutions, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious problem.

But I want to make the “broken” point even more strongly than Erica did. Tickets went on sale around 8AM Eastern Daylight Time, and were gone around 7PM. I was able to get in because I was in a pretty sweet spot… Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be precise. But what about other parts of the world? Let’s look around some time zones. When it’s 8AM here in GRR, it’s 9PM in Japan. So the window of opportunity for Japan based developers ran from 9PM to 8AM, meaning that developers there who sleep “normal” hours had little realistic chance of signing up (granted, many of them have more serious problems to worry about at the moment). In Sydney, the window was open from 11PM to 10AM. In India, it was 5:30 PM to 4:30 AM. One would assume we will see very few developers from these parts of the world at Apple’s “worldwide” developer conference.

Even for those in the ideal time zones, an 11-hour window of opportunity is going to tend to favor some developers and shut out others. Anyone who needed to get approval from corporate is pretty much screwed in this scenario… how many companies will sign off on a $1,600 purchase and make the funds available at the drop of a hat? Some, sure, but many won’t. And that means we won’t see those developers at WWDC.

For some people, this isn’t a problem. On Twitter I see a sort of “cool kids” attitude… that if you care enough, you’ll find a way to get yourself there. Actually, what concerns me most on Twitter is that I see so many of the people I follow got tickets. That’s a bad thing if it means WWDC attendees are a monoculture of North American (with a handful of European) Apple fanboys.

Think you’re not going to miss corporate developers with only a tangential interest in Apple? I think you will… when the apps in non-computer fields don’t get developed, because the developers couldn’t get to WWDC, couldn’t go to the sessions or the labs, couldn’t come back to their companies with the passion, the sway, and the answers to make iOS and Mac projects happen in their firms. Want to, say, have your airline boarding pass and security check credentials all bundled up in an app that moves you to the front of the line? If Delta, Qantas, and Lufthansa couldn’t get their engineers to WWDC, maybe it’s less likely to happen. Now imagine a thousand other businesses that might contribute to the iOS and Mac ecosystems. Yeah, they’re not coming. But hipster indie developers like me? Us, you’ve got in spades.

The other thing that outsiders bring to WWDC is new perspectives. We need people from the outside to ask questions in Q&A and the labs that we might not think to ask… stuff like “does parsing XML in Cocoa really suck this bad?” Two of Apple’s biggest strengths are its seeming brutal honesty with itself (they don’t often float ill-conceived products that only got made because someone had political sway within the company), and its determination to be involved with the life and commerce of everyday people, not just geeks. A monoculture of WWDC attendees does not help them maintain those traits.

Moving WWDC across the street to Moscone North and South seems like the obvious solution, but Jeff and John are right to loathe it. The “big” Moscone is a dreadful subterranean corporate cavern, clearly designed more for debuting the 1983 Ford Thunderbird than for introducing the traits and idiosyncrasies of iOS 5. For years, I went to JavaOne in this convention center, and it was always my most hated conference. True story: talking about conferences with Dick Wall of the Java Posse, I complained about the hassle of getting around JavaOne, the inert and inept keynotes, the shameless corporate flogging sessions, and the often unrehearsed and sometimes unintelligible technical sessions. Dick, granting some of these points, maintained his enthusiasm for the conference, adding that “the best part of JavaOne is the hallway conversations”. I immediately snapped back, “if hallway conversations are the best part of your conference, then your conference sucks.” And thus sprang, fully formed, Adamson’s Third Law.

But who says bloating to a single 10-to-50,000 person event is the only option? Apple is clever, they may well think of something else, provided they think this is a problem they need to solve. For example, what if WWDC were four more or less simultaneous conferences, held in (say), Paris, New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo? You could quadruple headcount without bloating the individual event size, or the news impact of a single event (not that Apple even needs WWDC for that… events hosted on their own campus get as much play as the Moscone West keynotes). Oh sure, it would be different this way: favorite speakers like Tim Monroe (QuickTime), Bill Stewart (Core Audio), or Quinn “The Eskimo!” (DTS) could only be at one of these, and the pool of Apple developers at the labs would be diluted too. But a bunch of people who wanted to be at WWDC, and who should be, would be.

This is just one idea. There are surely other ways to fix it. But I agree with Erica that WWDC is now broken and something different really should be done for 2012.

Solving this problem would be good for Apple, and good for its developer community. Denying that it’s a problem when most iOS and Mac developers can’t get into the one official Apple developer conference? Now that’s “broken”.

Comments (5)

  1. jeff_lamarche

    I think it would be awesome if Apple could hold more than one conference a year, and I absolutely sympathize with the very real problem of the conference being too popular.

    But, I’m not sure your suggestion is practical. As it is, a single WWDC takes huge amounts of effort from Apple’s engineers and evangelists, so much so that it basically constitutes a second full-time job for many of them in the months leading up to June. Having multiple developer conferences at different locations would dilute them all. It wouldn’t be serving the purpose that WWDC currently serves. Instead, it would be competing with the likes of NSConference and 360 iDev and serving a completely different need, one that’s already being well served by the several smaller independent conferences.

    Part of what makes WWDC what it is, is the location. Having it in the Bay Area means that the majority of the Apple engineers get up to Moscone for at least one day, often more. This is a huge part of the success of WWDC.

    As with expanding the number of tickets sold, I feel pretty strongly that having more conferences would dilute the experience and create parts that together are less than the previous “whole” WWDC.

    You and Erica both use the term “broken”, and honestly, I think that’s kinda disrespectful of Apple and the people who work damn hard put on WWDC. The term “broken” implies that a situation can be fixed, but every single suggestion I’ve seen, including yours, involves trade offs that would just make the conference “broken” in new and different ways.

    As engineers, we assume that any time we see something that’s less than ideal, it’s a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed’. But the real world is imperfect, and sometimes even the best solutions have shortcomings.

    Messing with the parts that work really, really well in order to maybe, hopefully fix some less than ideal part elsewhere in the system is not sound engineering.

    I do think it would be a good idea in future years to alternate the time of day that tickets go on sale, however.

  2. IanW

    Personally, as a developer for Associated Newspapers in the UK who are just about to release our new iPad app, I would have found attendance to be incredibly useful; we’ve had several technical issues that I would love to have the opportunity to discuss with the engineers.

    But there was absolutely no way the corporation could react quickly enough to the request either for sponsorship or for the time off if I were to go privately.

    While I appreciate Jeff LaMarche’s (one of my development heroes!) opinion, I think that it has more of a feel of “don’t change it because it suits me” rather than a more objective view.

    I think it would be a great start if Apple simply held a second week; the engineers have already spent the time preparing, and if you sold tickets a week after the first lot, everyone would know when it was and be able to plan accordingly. Of course that’s not a perfect solution, but it seems to me to be twice as good as anything else I’ve heard.

  3. […] other Mac/iOS media frameworks, and why I decided to take a pass on WWDC this year (mostly for the reasons I discussed last year). Also, for whatever reason, we spent an inordinate amount of time up front […]

  4. […] had my say about WWDC two years ago, hoping for some sort of radical change, and Daniel Jalkut does me one better by calling for an end […]

  5. […] it to a bigger venue (Moscone North & South, across the street, is twice as large), or as I proposed a few years ago, holding simultaneous WWDCs on multiple continents. As these proposals have been […]

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