Dub Dub Don’t Care

So, yesterday was the big random drawing for the privilege of buying WWDC 2014 tickets. I’ve argued this is the second time that Apple handled it as a lottery, only last year, the drawing was administered by the load balancer sitting in front of, or the traffic routing going into it.

Last year was also the year that a substantial part of the OS X / iOS community started to become disenchanted with WWDC in its current form… when even developers with the “if you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way to get a ticket” bravado were finally crunched by the numerical reality of far too much demand for far too few seats. Daniel Jalkut moved past the Twitter mob butt-hurt to make a clear-eyed case to End WWDC.

So how bad was it this year? Graham Lee has an interesting estimate:

WWDC stupid wild-arsed guesses based on coutns from twitter and elsewhere: roughly 1:20 tickets:applicants, so about 100k people applied for tickets. That’s probably ~5% of the dev program who applied.

It’s just a wild-ass guess, but just multiplying the event size (5,000) times the ratio of winners and losers on Twitter seems a reasonable way to ballpark it: I haven’t seen an estimate on Twitter today that’s lower than 10-to-1, or 50,000 applicants. Will Apple ever tell us exactly? Hard to see how it’s in their self-interest to do so: saying they’re overwhelmed by interest is enough to score PR points.

And that gets into more and more what I’m thinking about WWDC: since there is such a massive detach between supply and demand, and since such a tiny percentage of the OS X / iOS developer community can attend, and since that percentage is tossed out there as a lottery, it’s probably fair to conclude that Apple doesn’t care who attends WWDC. They surely set aside some spots for strategic partners, but by and large, it’s not in their self-interest to ensure that long-time developer mainstays can get in: Rogue Amoeba went 0-for-7 in the ticket lottery, and apparently John Siracusa is out in the cold too.

But if Apple needed these developers, it would accommodate them. If Apple needed a greater percentage of the would-be attendees, they could change the format of WWDC: move 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 made over the years, the counter-argument has been that they would change or water down WWDC, and the access to engineers who give talks and staff the labs, but that hardly matters to the 19 of 20 would-be attendees who can’t even get in. But Apple has doggedly stuck to exactly the same venue, the same format, year after year, even as the detach between supply and demand has reached absurd levels.

If Apple needed to make a change, they would. They haven’t, which means it doesn’t matter enough to them to change it. And that leads to the conclusion that Apple doesn’t care who attends WWDC.

When the overwhelming majority of developers don’t attend WWDC, we have to conclude its utility as a form of communication is minimal. Most developers will learn from the docs, the SDKs, and the videos — all of which could be created and shipped out without the conference, without even leaving the Cupertino mothership, whenever and in whatever form makes sense for the content.

WWDC now matters primarily as a media event to announce and launch products. It helps to have 5,000 cheering developers on hand, but it would make little difference if the offscreen applause was 10,000 people or 1,000.

Furthermore, there’s a pessimistic case I can make here that I’m not completely sold on, but I keep coming back to: third-party developers aren’t as important to Apple as they used to be. Not that Apple is neglecting developers or being capricious (any more than usual, anyways), but that it’s moving to a mindset of being more in control of its own fortunes and less reliant on a third-party developer community. Consider these changes over the last few years:

  • The dominance of casual games in the App Store, particularly freemium stuff
  • The plague of clones
  • The irresistible size of the Android market, that drives nearly all significant third parties to develop both iOS and Android versions of their apps
  • The collapse of the paid app ecosystem, which has been disproportionately ruinous for “serious” app categories like productivity

What’s changed from my POV is that iOS’ “app advantage” has significantly diminished: the app you want either exists for both iOS and Android, or it was never written at all because the developer couldn’t afford to put a year into it and then be shouted down by the “anything over $1.99 is a rip off” crowd. I notice my kids still haven’t spent their iTunes Gift Cards from Christmas (my 9yo daughter now spends almost all her screen time on a Flash MMO from National Geographic; my 11yo son mostly watches YouTube videos). I look at my own app purchase history and see that I’m downloading far fewer apps than I was a few years ago, in part because the Textastics and Prompts aren’t being written anymore.

This apps-are-over argument helps explain Apple giving away their best-of-breed iWork apps for free. Setting a price floor of zero for serious apps all but kills the market for third parties, so why would they do that? Because the job of supporting the platform has moved back to Cupertino, where it was when iOS started with the locked-down iPhone of 2007. If third-party apps are no longer a differentiator, then it makes sense for Apple to focus more on the things it can control — the OS, the hardware, first-party apps — than on what third parties might bring to the table.

Putting more money or more people into WWDC isn’t going to sell more iPhones or iPads, so Apple doesn’t do it.

Comments (2)

  1. Yeah, well, I’m going to build my own developer conference! With blackjack! And hookers! In fact, forget the conference!

  2. I buy strongly into the argument that Apple cannot and should not increase the conference size.

    I don’t think it’s about session sizes, I think it really is more about the labs and the quality of the space.

    The lab lines are already awful. Even doubling the size would mean 4+ hour lines, Apple doesn’t have enough engineers to absorb an increase. Same goes for UI review teams.

    As for the quality of the space – I used to go to the “Other Moscone” back in the day, attending JavaOne over a number of years. That space is quite simply awful. It’s a giant cave with no light. It has no aesthetic positives, where Moscone West does and that matters to Apple. WWDC is always a nice space to move through, and it’s pretty symbolic that you ascend to see the keynote/sessions instead of crawling into the earth. Everything now is meta and Moscone North has Bad Meta.

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