How Apple can save WWDC 2020 from COVID-19 (Coronavirus)

GDC, the game developer's conference, is canceled. Facebook's F8 conference is canceled. Geneva Auto Show, canceled. South-by-south west, canceled. Several U.S. states have declared emergencies. Italy is on lockdown. Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley, has effectively issued a short-term ban on events.

Now, Apple doesn't typically pre-announce anything. Not products. Not events. But, that Apple will hold a worldwide developers conference — WWDC — the first week of June each year, every year, was one of the safest bets in tech today. Until today.

So, if COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, prevents Apple from holding it's annual macOS, iOS, tvOS, watchOS, and now iPadOS, event, what could the company possibly do instead?

The Two Keynotes

WWDC typically kicks off on the Monday morning with a public keynote. That's the one where Tim Cook comes out, says Good Morning, maybe talks some services, but then hands it over to Craig Federighi and team for macOS, iOS, and now iPadOS, and Kevin Lynch and team for watchOS. Maybe Eddy Cue and team for tvOS as well.

Some years, there's hardware as well, iPads or Macs or HomePods or the like, and then Phil Schiller and team take the stage to show that off.

That's the big event. The one most people are waiting for. But there's a second keynote held on Monday as well, right after the first. The Platforms State of the Union. The developer's keynote.

It's not as open or as advertised as the product keynote, of course, but it's every bit as big and important. Sebastian Marineux, VP of software, has been starting them off recently, with several of Apple's software leads diving into the deeper, more technical aspects of the new OS features.

And, you know, all of that, both keynotes, are already streamed live, so that part shouldn't be a problem. Apple could do that, right from the stage, if not of the San Jose Conference Center, then from the Steve Jobs theater, and if not in front of a crowd of developers, then in front of a crowd of Apple employees.

Media could be there as well, maybe.

Many bigger media outlets are already instituting travel bans, especially internationally. Even if it was just U.S. press, some companies simply don't want to take on the risk associated with even interstate or any travel or meetings for work… like at all.

The audience could be filled with Apple employees. That happens all the time already when company events are held at the Steve Jobs Theater. That would at least give Apple the crowd reactions that are so integral to the energy and flow of the keynotes.

But even with no audience, as odd as it would be, just streaming events to millions and millions of people is something Apple and the people they work with know how to do. Because they've all been doing it for years.

Keynotes would be one of the easiest parts of the conference to make virtual.

The Apple Design Awards

The Apple Design Awards — the ADAs — typically close out the Monday. John Gylense, head of evangelism, and Shaan Pruden, senior director of product management, have hosted it for years, honoring the best and the brightest apps and games.

The ADAs have already been streamed for years as well. It's an awards ceremony, though, so the vibe is totally different. We're used to seeing the winners come up on stage to get their awards.

Maybe Apple could put together some slick packages showing off all the nominees, get the winners their aluminum cubes early, and have some special segments to run on them as well.

Having all the apps and games get featured could make up for, at least in part, the loss of the in-real-life follow up aspects.

None of this would be normal and not even remotely the same. But it would be all the events from day one, in bits if not in atoms.

The Hands-on & Briefings

After most Apple product events finish, a demo area opens up where media and special guests can check out everything that was just announced. It's where all the hands-on videos you see get shot, frantically, as everyone races to upload as fast as inhumanly possible.

See, Apple doesn't do pre-briefings in the same way as many other companies. Samsung and the like will often bring media in, show them the new devices, let them shoot video and take photos, so they can have a full package ready to launch at the same time as the event.

But that's not how Apple rolls. It risks too much of the surprise and delight the company wants for its big reveals.

Apple may do one or two advanced stories with huge outlets like Vanity Fair or Wired or ABC, but for 99.9% of the media, the keynote is the pre-briefing and the demo area afterward, the hands-on. And the more in-depth briefings that happen afterwards, where Apple can bring in all their staff from around the world to help handle all the media from around the world, making it as efficient as possible for everyone as possible.

Apple has taken briefings on the road before, sending public relations and marketing to big cities around the world to meet with international media closer to on their own turf. Most recently, for the 16-inch MacBook Pro and AirPods Pro.

It's not as efficient as having everyone in the same place, but because Apple only has enough press and marketing people to hit the very biggest cities, it still requires a lot of travel and a lot of meetings for everyone, two things that don't exactly help with the whole virtual thing.

Now, products could be couriered out en masse for things like reviews, and briefings can be done over the phone. That's happened in the past as well.

Again, it's not the same. But it's safe.

The sessions

Most of WWDC, Tuesday morning to Friday afternoon, is taken up by the sessions. The ones evangelism and speaker's training and all the engineers and designers spend weeks putting together and rehearsing. The ones that explain how to use the new frameworks and best practices for everything from code efficiency to experience design.

Many of these, especially the bigger ones in the main halls, have again been streamed for years, and all of them have been made available, quickly and openly on for a while now.

That part could totally stay the same as well, though, like with the keynotes, the lack of an audience might take some adjustment on the part of the speakers and, because, yeah, it'll be weird without crowd reactions. Everyone lives for those cheers of happiness when a long-awaited feature request is finally filled. And everyone needs to hear the jeers when something long depended on is taken away.

Evangelism has done some online-only presentations, though, so while they're very different in form, they could be a way to serve most of the same function.

The labs

If you're not familiar with how the labs work at WWDC, basically, there's a giant hall divided into a dozen or so sections where different teams, the Safari team, the security team, the Playgrounds team, the UIKit team, all the teams, take turns stetting up for a few hours at a time. Developers can then sign up and line up for a chance to talk to them, so they can get specific help with their specific apps.

Maybe there's a bug that's been stopping them cold, or a framework they're just not grokking, or a problem they just can't solve, but the engineer who literally created or owns that code can help them figure out.

With the familiar faces — and clipboards — of worldwide developer relations — WWDR — walking and wheeling around and keeping it all running like clockwork.

For developers, it's the single most valuable part of the conference. Same for the smaller but just as important design and App Store labs.

And there's no real way to replace it. Apple has done tours in the past, where evangelists have gone from country to country and city to city to talk about new frameworks, but it isn't anywhere nearly the same in scope or scale.

The thing is, Apple can spare a thousand engineers for one week to help thousands of developers all at once. Apple cannot spare them for a month-long tour to help dozens or hundreds at a time. Especially not with the travel time and the travel and meeting risks, same as the ones I described for roadshow briefings.

Theoretically, Apple could create virtual tickets, free or paid if Apple feels like it needs some form of demand limiter, and run the usual lottery, and then set up appointments for online meetings done over screen sharing, and that could come close.

It would be safer but also more sterile. No hustle and bustle, no chance encounters or serendipitous moments to meet the person or hear the answer you never knew you needed.

But it would be something.

Same with the jackets or pins — the low-key swag Apple typically gives out to attendees of the show. Maybe that could be sent out to the people attending the virtual event as a physical thank you for going with the less-than-ideal-for-anyone flow.

The meetups

One of my favorite parts of WWDC is the meetups. The official ones announced and run by Apple during the conference. I make it a point to go to the accessibility meet up every year, for example, so I can how all the assistive technologies are being implemented in real-world apps, often in ways no one had ever imagined before.

There are diversity meetups as well, specific framework meetups like for HomeKit or ARKit, and recently, workout meetups as well so your body can get the same burn as your brain.

And the Beer Bash, the annual party that closes out the show with a headline musical artist, of course, but also Apple execs doing their best to dance and satisfy all the selfie lines.

None of that really lends itself well to visualization. Not unless and until there are augmented and alternate reality glasses we can all wear to walk into rendered rooms… and even then, avatars aren't really the same.

Social media could allow for some form of interaction, but meetups would still be one of the bigger loses if WWDC wasn't held IRL as usual.

The community

The biggest loss would be the community. After Macworld shut down, WWDC became the one place, the one time, where everyone in the Apple community that could afford to go, even if they had no ability or interest in attending the actual conference, to meet and greet each other.

Official Meetups and Beer Bash aside. There wouldn't be Jim Dalrymple's Beard Bash across the the street after the keynote, or the RelayFM party, or the MacRumors mixer, or the Talk Show Live with John Gruber and celebrity guests. You know, Moltz.

Then there are the other shows, like Alt Conf. and Layers. Not everyone can get a ticket to WWDC, so they attend those conferences, or they simply come to hang out.

There wouldn't be all the chance meetings in all the hallways as you go from session to session or through the labs or sit at one of the tables to download the betas. And there wouldn't be the lunches and dinners and the drinks and all the chat before, after, and in-between that makes WWDC so much more than just a conference.

That makes it an opportunity for some and a reunion for others. Filled with old friends and brand new.

Again, social media could fill in for some of that but only in the most superficial way imaginable.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.