The third era of WWDC

“This is it,” a friend said to me as we were walking up Market Street with other developers, late at night as WWDC was winding down several years ago. The iPhone had hit. The conference was getting bigger. Apple was on the verge of becoming a giant in the industry and you could feel it in the air — a coming change that was obvious only from a distance because it disappeared as you reached for it, like San Francisco fog rolling over the bay. “This is the height of the conference and it’s never going to be like this again.”

Looking back it perfectly captured what I think of as the second “era” of WWDC. It was a kind of golden age for Mac and iOS developers, with a new generation of successful Mac indies and before the iOS race to the bottom was much past the starting line.

From my perspective, learning Mac development in the mid 90s, there are three distinct eras of Apple’s WWDC. My first WWDCs were at the San Jose Convention Center. The developer base was small enough that you consistently ran into everyone, companies like Metrowerks and even Adobe seemed to have an influence on the conference, and Apple frequently showed off new APIs that might not actually ship soon or ever. It was an exciting time to be a Mac developer but the rest of the world didn’t care. This was the backdrop for the failed Copland project, for Steve Jobs coming back, for the clash between Carbon and Cocoa, and the acceptance of Mac OS X.

The next era was at the move to San Francisco. The conference was getting bigger but Apple attempted to keep the events and themes that made WWDC the same, even for a while busing attendees to the beer bash in Cupertino. This is the time when the iPhone SDK arrived and the conference exploded. I think most developers will always look back at this time as something amazing. It’s the backdrop for that walk up Market Street and a dozen similar conversations.

Now we’re in the third modern era of WWDC, with one undeniable characteristic: a small percentage of developers can get a ticket to the conference. The community, however, is as strong as ever, and there’s still a desire to have WWDC be that “one place” that developers can meet each year. It’s a need that smaller, regional conferences, no matter how important they are, just can’t fill.

I like this post from James Dempsey because it starts with the assumption that not getting a WWDC ticket is the new normal:

“Once something changes from being dependably available to rarely available, you begin to form alternate plans and take alternate paths.”

He’s right. Since it’s likely that Apple will continue to iterate slowly instead of making major changes to grow the conference, we’re better off adapting. By adapting we can focus on preserving the community aspects of WWDC that are arguably just as important as the technical tracks.

And change comes slowly to WWDC. I realized while watching (https://developer.apple.com/tech-talks/videos/) recently that Apple just doesn’t see a big problem. John Geleynse described a situation where only one person from a team is at WWDC; the rest of the company is back at the office watching videos and sending questions to their coworker at the conference to ask in the labs. Getting videos out the same day makes the conference more useful for both those without a ticket and actual attendees (and their team) too.

(I still have complaints about how WWDC tickets are distributed and why Apple doesn’t attempt to grow the conference a little more, but the lottery is an improvement over last year. See Core Intuition episodes 132 and 133 for a full discussion.)

I’ll be in San Francisco for a few days next week — at AltConf, at the Cartoon Art Museum fundraiser, catching up on session videos, waiting in line for coffee, hiding in my hotel room writing code, and getting some good food and drink with fellow developers. WWDC means something different now, but it matters just as much as it always has. Hope to see you there.