As COVID-19 started to grip the U.S., popular conferences and events started to fall like dominoes. Over time, it became clearer and clearer that like Google, and everyone else who had to shelve their plans for the summer, Apple was going to have to reconsider WWDC.
Sure enough, on March 13, Apple announced the very first all-online WWDC. From the press release:
Apple today announced it will host its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Now in its 31st year, WWDC 2020 will take on an entirely new online format packed with content for consumers, press and developers alike. The online event will be an opportunity for millions of creative and innovative developers to get early access to the future of iOS, iPadOS, macOS, watchOS and tvOS, and engage with Apple engineers as they work to build app experiences that enrich the lives of Apple customers around the globe.
We don't know much about the upcoming event, except that it will take place on June 22, and that Apple is going to use iPhone 11 Pro cameras to shoot developer sessions. With that in mind, we sat down with iOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith to discuss WWDC, iOS 14, and Steve's own projects. A prolific iOS developer, Steve has created several apps including Broadcasts, an internet streaming app for radio. He was also the developer behind jailbreak projects Stack, and Orbit.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself, what you do and how long you've been doing it?
Steve: I'm an indie developer, based in Ireland, building apps for iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and I've been doing this pretty much full-time since 2007. Before iPhone, I built freeware Mac apps as a teenager for several years, first with RealBASIC and then Project Builder/Xcode & AppKit. I get excited about technology from all corners and have built apps for everything from Symbian to NEXTSTEP to Haiku. My current lineup is split between larger projects like internet streaming radio app Broadcasts and non-verbal communication app for autism Grace, and smaller apps and games like random number generator Lotto Machine. In the early days of iPhone I created the jailbreak projects Stack, and Orbit. I also talk about tech & app development on Twitter, and frequently maintain long-running threads on the development of new projects which I hope are interesting and informative.
Q. Tell us about your WWDC experience, how long have you been keeping up with the conferences and attending them?
Steve: My first WWDC was in 2009, but I'd been watching WWDC keynotes religiously since 2003 or so, as the transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X was a big part of my childhood development and yearly WWDC sessions and Tech Talks were invaluable to a budding developer. WWDC can be a lonely and overwhelming experience if you just go solo, but over time I built up a core group of friends to share the excitement with and I went to every WWDC up to and including 2013 — it was the best part of my year, every year. The past several years I've watched from home, which lets you absorb a much higher density of information during the week, but I miss the in-person experience.
Q. What was your initial reaction to Apple announcing that WWDC would be an "all-online" experience?
Steve: 'Finally', at first — I was one of the few on my timeline in February suggesting that WWDC this year may not go ahead, and as more time passed it became more and more clear that there was no way a physical event would take place. I know how this kind of uncertainty can affect developers, as Bay Area hotel pricing is insane for WWDC time and people have to start booking everything months in advance — especially those of us that live overseas. I'm glad Apple announced the cancellation of physical WWDC as soon as they could, though, and they absolutely made the right choice.
The biggest loss for developers, in my opinion, is the networking and socializing.
Q. What do you think will be some of the challenges of an all-online event, and what do developers stand to miss out on?
Steve: The biggest loss for developers, in my opinion, is the networking and socializing. For many of us around the world, WWDC is the one time of year that we get to meet our friends and peers, and really get to know each other and make lasting connections. There's so much we can learn from each other, and it's always inspiring to be around other developers who care about the same things you do — I'm sure many a project has been born in the halls, coffee shops and hotel rooms of WWDC from developers getting to know each other. Similarly, as a developer, it helps so much to know Apple engineers in person, just so you know whom to loop in when you have technical questions or run into gnarly bugs; for most people, the only access they have to Apple engineers is during the Labs at WWDC, where you get one-on-one time with engineers and can talk them through issues with your codebases at hand. I treat Labs as part of the social experience, but it's just as valid as a technical resource.
I really feel for the student scholarships that miss out on WWDC, because for them a WWDC ticket can be a life-changing experience. I hope Apple does something special for them, like a floating ticket to a physical WWDC event that they can redeem next year or whenever everything is back to normal.
For Apple, I know their employees and engineers live off the energy an event like WWDC gives them; being able to introduce your project to the world, and seeing the response from users and developers is incredibly motivating, especially after an extended & hectic development cycle shrouded in secrecy.
Q. Do you think the new online format could present Apple or developers with any new opportunities or benefits?
Steve: There are absolutely some opportunities I would jump at, if I were Apple, in making WWDC an online event. Firstly, you're not limited to getting everything ready for a single week's event — you can spread things out over several weeks and give both Apple's engineers, and developers, space to breathe. You can devote appropriate time to each of Apple's platforms, without having to squash them all together.
It would also be great to see an online experience meant to augment the in-person Labs, as developers would love to have the ability to talk to somebody from Apple throughout the year and not save up all their bugs to bring to a one-hour meeting once every June. Apple's Radar/Feedback system has always felt like a black hole to external developers, and you may not get a response to anything you file for months or years after it's relevant to you. Apple has a secondary system, Developer Technical Support, that only gives you two support requests a year through your developer program, that seems like it could be a good fit for an online Labs-style meeting system, especially as the world gets more acclimatized to videoconferencing.
Q. Beyond 2020, do you think there's any prospect that Apple might stick to the new format, or is it too early to tell?
Steve: I think there's zero chance. I think an online-only WWDC helps Apple invest in systems that could be useful for future WWDCs for sure, but there's just nothing like the physical event and I can't imagine Apple ever wanting to give that up. For many of the reasons above, I can't see developers wanting that either. I know for many in the wider world, an Apple event is just a press conference — a marketing event — but for many developers, designers and enthusiasts this is a huge part of our lives, the highlight of every summer, and a chance to celebrate technology and learn together. WWDC introduces the APIs & tools we're about to spend the next year of our lives building apps with, planning our companies and our lives around, so a week-long event is a fitting start to the yearly development cycle.
Q. We usually get a new version of iOS at WWDC. What would you like to see from iOS 14, or is there anything you've already seen that you're excited about?
Steve: Most of what I'd like to see from WWDC is for iPad, macOS, and the interconnecting tissue between the two. iPhone is in a pretty good place right now, but both iPad and macOS could do so much better, and I think they can learn a ton from each other. I want to be able to build bigger & better apps that can run on both iPad and macOS, using all the latest technologies. I always love new APIs and frameworks that enable apps that weren't possible before, or were too difficult for indie developers to do alone. I am definitely champing at the bit to build awesome VR and AR headset-based apps with Apple frameworks & UI design, something that has kept me from investing in VR/AR development using Unity or Unreal Engine in the past. And I'd love to see some bigger canvases to build iOS apps for — like larger iPads, or Surface Studio-style all-in-one desktops. The magic of iOS has always been that it takes a sheet of glass and transforms it into any app or UI you can imagine; I can imagine making some very fun things with a bigger sheet of glass!
I would not fault Apple one bit for throwing everything in iOS 14 out the window and refocusing on technologies for home & health, as we've seen some of with iOS 13.5.
Q. Do you think the pandemic will have any impact on the development of iOS, and what we might get in iOS 14 as a result?
Steve: Absolutely. You can't just take all of Apple's engineers, send them home for months in a crazy & stressful situation like this, constantly worried about friends & family, and expect them to be able to do the same kind of work as normal. I would not fault Apple one bit for throwing everything in iOS 14 out the window and refocusing on technologies for home & health, as we've seen some of with iOS 13.5. The world will keep turning without a flashy iOS 14, but we need to keep the people in it safe & sane, and Apple has near-unparalleled reach & ability to help. I have great respect for anybody who's managed to pull through and ship something during this crisis, and I know it's unimaginably difficult for so many right now.
Q. Finally, for you as a developer, what are some of the tools and improvements you'd like to see from Apple this year?
Steve: Documentation! Apple has been racing forward with dueling technologies and strategies for building new apps, and has left documentation by the wayside for years. The lack of investment in good documentation and sample code for technologies like Catalyst has dramatically lowered the average quality of the apps you see built using it, and that's incredibly frustrating because it's an unnecessary own-goal on Apple's part, and can poison the well for future development. I don't blame developers for this, and it certainly leaves space for a select few to rise to the top, but I wish Apple gave developers the tools to make their apps great by default and wasn't just content with 'good enough'.
I spent a lot of the past year talking to and teaching developers about how to use both UIKit and AppKit in Catalyst to make great, Mac-like apps, and I still get DMs daily from people who weren't even aware such a thing was possible and want to know more. I do think Apple muddied their messaging on this last year, and I hope they rectify this with WWDC 2020 as Catalyst is clearly the obvious solution for most developers and most apps currently and for the foreseeable future, as evidenced by the majority of Apple's own newly-introduced apps for macOS over the past 2 years, and the rumors of those to come.
We don't have long to wait before WWDC 2020, and hopefully, we'll get a few more details between now and then. These are certainly unprecedented times for Apple and all of its developers, so stay tuned. You can follow Steve and all of his latest projects over on Twitter.
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