Un-conventional: How WWDC became the heart of the Apple world's calendar

This week Apple opened registration for WWDC, the company's annual developer conference, which will be held June 8-12 in San Francisco (opens in new tab).

WWDC is a huge deal in the Apple community, but it wasn't always so. I've been going to WWDC since the mid-1990s, when it was a sleepy affair that took place at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose. Probably the most memorable moment of any of the San Jose-based WWDCs I attended was the last one: That was 2002, when Steve Jobs laid the classic Mac OS to rest — no, seriously, there was a coffin on stage.

A worldwide Apple gathering

With the death of Macworld Expo and the Cupertino company's focus on invitation-only media events, WWDC is the most prominent Apple-focused event that's open to the public.

Yes, a ticket will cost you $1599 (plus a $99 developer membership, of course) — and you'll first have to win a lottery to pay that entry fee. Nor is WWDC designed to be an event for everyone in the community. But it's one of the largest gatherings for Apple developers, internal engineers, and the media.

While most members of the media are content to go to the keynote, write their stories about Apple's big announcements, and then head home, when I was at Macworld I always bought a developer badge and attended sessions. Yes, they were confidential — I couldn't write anything about what I learned there — but they also provided background material about how OS X (and later iOS) worked that proved invaluable when new versions of those products shipped.

Still, at many sessions, I would realize that after 20 minutes of solid introductory material, the slides were suddenly starting to fill with code. I am not a developer. Code makes my head hurt. Instead, I would retreat outside and hope that someone had re-filled the candy bowl.

But while the sessions at WWDC are absolutely not for everyone, in the past few years it's become clear that WWDC has still become an event for everyone who works in the Apple-related universe. Quite simply, there's no single event on the calendar that draws enough of us together in one location: WWDC has critical mass.

The un-conference conference

In the last few years, WWDC week has increasingly become not about the convention itself. A free alternative conference has sprung up across the street. And as tickets have become scarce, I've had several people tell me that they came to San Francisco for the week not for the sessions, but for everything that happens after the sessions are over.

During WWDC week in the area around the Moscone convention center, the bars and restaurants are filled with computer people. There are parties, meet-ups, live podcasts, group trips to Giants games, you name it. It's very much what Macworld Expo felt like, once upon a time — when it was the definitive week for the tribe to gather. But it passed the torch to WWDC many years ago.

These days, Apple streams some WWDC sessions live and makes most others available on video within a day. Just as WWDC week becomes the essential San Francisco social event for the Apple industry, it's becoming much less necessary to physically attend the conference portion.

So why pay for a ticket to the event at all? For one, the halls of Moscone West are still an amazing place for networking and social interaction. This is also the one week where a staggering number of Apple staff are available and focused on talking to developers. Whether you've scheduled a lab session with an Apple engineer or are just shooting the breeze in the hallway or at a bar, developers can forge connections with people at Apple that can pay off later. Knowing the right person to ask about a particularly vexing problem can be huge.

If there's one thing that WWDC week is missing that the old Macworld Expo had in spades, it's the fans — the regular people who use Apple stuff and love it. I haven't yet heard tell of someone who's just a big fan of Apple sites and podcasts flying to WWDC for the week just to meet people. Macworld Expo had a heavy serving of developers and media people, but there was also room for regular people to show up and hear from the people they read, or whose software they use. That aspect is gone — WWDC is Comic-Con, but without the fans.

Bring on the week of nerds

Still, it's one of my favorite weeks of the year. Most of the times I see my friends and colleagues in the Apple-related world, we are all running around, trying to cover all the announcements at the latest Apple media event. There's not enough time to settle in and actually spend time with these people. WWDC, being a week long, provides plenty of time for conversations and connections. It also ends up offering a huge amount of news, which we report back to people who read sites like this one, and primes the pump for months of coverage on the new stuff Apple tends to announce at its Monday morning WWDC keynote.

If you had told me in the mid-90s that Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference would end up becoming the social event of the season, I would have laughed long and loud. And yet this highly technical convention has, unconventionally, become the beating heart at the center of the Apple universe's year.

I'll be there. I hope to see a bunch of you there too. Ticket or not.

Former lead editor at Macworld for more than a decade, wrote about Apple and other tech companies for two decades. Now I write at Six Colors and run The Incomparable podcast network, which is all about geeky pop culture, and host the Upgrade and Clockwise tech podcasts.

10 Comments
  • "If there's one thing that WWDC week is missing that the old Macworld Expo had in spades, it's the fans — the regular people who use Apple stuff and love it. I haven't yet heard tell of someone who's just a big fan of Apple sites and podcasts flying to WWDC for the week just to meet people. Macworld Expo had a heavy serving of developers and media people, but there was also room for regular people to show up and hear from the people they read, or whose software they use. That aspect is gone — WWDC is Comic-Con, but without the fans." No. The absence of thousands of people who aren't devs or sysadmins or what have you is what gave the WWDC its value. Not having to pretend that one of the folks in charge of networking is some part-time schlub so you could have a real conversation*. Not having to take two hours to have a conversation about directory services because elbenty people kept coming up and offering their end-user opinions about how stupid Apple's Server software was and why did apple waste time on crap like that instead of stuff that mattered.... like Hypercard and Appleworks.* The more that random bloggers who weren't coders got in, the fewer spaces available for the people who needed to be there. The more that going to the WWDC became a status symbol, the faster the acceleration to the situation today. Because of this need for the WWDC to be things it was not, nor should ever be, it became almost impossible to schedule things around the conference. The last one I went to, getting *any* time with engineers was an order of magnitude harder than it should have been, and I had actual issues that needed clarification. If someone wants an end-user conference, then make one. But no, the WWDC is not "missing" fans and end users. It has far too many as it is.
  • "Still, at many sessions, I would realize that after 20 minutes of solid introductory material, the slides were suddenly starting to fill with code. I am not a developer. Code makes my head hurt. Instead, I would retreat outside and hope that someone had re-filled the candy bowl." - this is what killed WWDC, people who shouldn't attend started to attend and turned a technical conference into Coachella. I doubt todays crowd even knows what WWDC stands for.
  • In a previous life, I was a 21B combat engineer. And during the obligatory staff officer years, I had many a boss who said that the sign of a good staff officer, as should be the goal of all government, is to make yourself obsolete: solve the problem and get out of town.
    I didn't attend WWDC last year, but thanks to this thing called the innertubes (something like that, yeah?), I "attended" half the sessions. I get the point of networking, but these days, aren't we networked out already? And yes, you can ask an Apple engineer a real live question ... kinda sorta, if there's time.
    Point being, it's a victim of its own success, making itself obsolete, and there's nothing wrong with that.
  • The idea that watching a conference over the internet replaces in-person interaction is astoundingly naive. It doesn't do any of that. It compliments it, and it's a good thing for any one of a dozen reasons, but it is not a replacement by any means. How many audience members can you interact with? None How many out of band conversations can you have with Apple or other company engineers in corners where they aren't being monitored can you have? None How many times can you ask a question and have someone else walk up with the answer at random? None, because to date, Apple's never released the Q&A. Internet video, even live, has...maybe a tenth the bandwidth and none of the access you can have in-person. Which is why it's so important that people who AREN'T devs or supporting Apple devices and users directly, i.e. IT stop looking at gorram WWDC tickets as some kind of status symbol, or party ticket. Every one that is taken by a friggin' blogger looking for an inside scoop is one that's not available for someone who actually NEEDS it. It's why I don't go to JAMFnation, even though I could, and I would have a good time, because I know a bunch of folks there: I don't belong. I don't use or support or work with Casper or any other JAMF product, and my being there means someone else might lose a seat.
  • @bynkil - Apple not including the Q&A in the videos is not a problem because a few years ago they stopped doing the Q&A at the conference period... sessions just end now (which I thought was a bit sad since you got some really awesome questions, sometimes I just came for the end of sessions so I could hear the Q&A). One thing that has gotten better I think and partially replaces the need to go to WWDC in person, is the developer forums are more used now and Apple engineers respond more often. That helps.
  • Three years ago I would have agreed. Not any longer. What used to be a developer conference has become something very different. Perhaps more of a tech blogger event. For me it hasn't been a change for the better. After attending every year for many years I noticed the change two years ago and decided against even trying last year. A co-worker landed a ticket and attended but returned and announced that he too, was done with WWDC. This year neither of us will even make the attempt. It will continue to be wildly popular but for different reasons and with what feels like a different target audience. Of course it may just be me getting old and cranky.
  • If you're not a Developer then the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference is not for you. By attending you are wasting the space that could go to an aspiring Developer. The WWDC is not some place where you go to hang around with your journalist friends. It's where you go to learn about Apple development. People want to go there to learn new tricks.
    But now it's got journos hanging around trying to make stories.
    It's bad enough the Apple Developer forums have people who signed up because it was cool and to get free stuff. And need help when a beta bricked their only iPhone. Now we have to deal with these people in real life. When I'm at WWDC I want to speak to other Developers and Apple Engineers, not some blogger.
    Putting it bluntly, WWDC is being killed by people like Jason Snell. If you want an Apple WorldWide Journo Conference then make your own. It makes me quite angry to know I have had Developer friends stopped from going to WWDC because Jason wanted to talk to his journo friends.
    Oh, and we're not "nerds". We're professionals who have spent time and brain-power figuring things out so people like Jason can write about them. The nerds are the journos like Jason who pay to hang out with Developers but can't understand any code.
  • While I agree with most of what you say and am just as annoyed by the self-appointed and proud "nerds" who are generally pretenders. Jason going or not going to the event does not and will not displace or open up a spot for any dev attendee. None of these developers conferences are operated that way. The accounting for the media is not mixed in with the accounting for the developers. If Jason does not go his spot would be given to another media person NOT a developer. Paying developers are NOT bumped in favor of freebie journos. What are you thinking? And if all the media decides not to go they are not opening up new spots for developers. The number allowed is fixed for all sorts of reasons.
  • What a disgrace. It's sad that a spot at WWDC is equally up for grabs between actual developers and people whose heads are hurt by code so they leave to go look for candy. This does nothing but damage the entire developer platform. It's so discouraging to read articles like this. WWDC is not a social event. People are there to actually learn and improve the products that so many can just blog about.
  • Yep. "Gosh, I'd like to ask this question about mass-configuration issues in Mail, but I have to wait because a blogger wants a story." awe. some.