WWDC 2018: So much more than a keynote

I know it can be confusing for people who see WWDC only through the lens of product events, and wonder why crowds are congregating the day before and tweeting up to a week later, but Apple's World Wide Developer Conference has never been just about the keynote. That's the gala, not the gold. Once the lights go out on the keynote stage, customers change the channel on the internet, and reporters race off to file their hottest of takes, the developers, designers, and auteurs get down to the business of making better apps. And that's when the real WWDC kicks off.

The staff

Walking up the steps of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center — Apple brought WWDC home from dense isolation of San Francisco last year — the first thing that hits you are the orange shirts. Staff, they say, and they're everywhere. Worn by the amazing people from Apple Retail, they're constantly on point, ready to answer questions, guide you to where you're going, or help in any way they can. They start well before the venue opens and keep going until well after it closes. Being kind and considerate for that long, in the bright sun and shadowy halls, takes not only endurance but real love and passion. They come from as close as Apple Park and aa far as World Trade. And, while they're often unsung, they're continuously heroes.

(That's especially true of the ones you see year after year, motivating, inspiring, and making sure you start or end your day with smile. They're an amazing team — all my admiration and thanks!)

The AR Gaming Lounge

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This year, entering through the front doors dropped you not only into the main lobby but right in from of the new AR Game Lounge.

Apple didn't just introduce ARKit 2.0 with shared experiences at WWDC 2018, the company built a sample Swiftshot slingshot game and set up three tables for developers to try it out.

More and more challenging layouts were added to the game over the course of the week as well, and the lines of developers waiting to try it out were often long.

Each player got an iPad to "see" into the AR game world and an Apple staff member had a third game pad to broadcast the world onto a TV so everyone could enjoy the action.

It made the sample code into a sample experience and one that sold the potential of AR gaming in a way not simple presentation ever could.

(Now Pokémon Go needs to hurry up and add ARKit 2.0 PvP battles already!)

Winners of the slingshot game got an ARKit pin for their collections. The winner of the final tournament on the final day got the whole collection.

Apple started giving out pins last year. A semi-randomized pack at sign-in and then individual pins for attention different sessions, labs, and social mixers.

Just like emoji prompt cheers from crowds and updates from users, pins prompt interaction from attendees. It may sound small and silly but it's our collective love of exactly that that makes us so wonderfully human. I'm glad and amazed Apple both figured that out and was savvy enough to repeat it.

The download centers

Both in front of the AR Game Lounge and down the stairs on the right were long tables with power and ethernet — both USB-C and Thunderbolt 2 pre-dongled. macOS Mojave is a non-trivial download so, if you wanted it, Apple wanted you to get it wired.

It's terrifically functional, but it's also sneakily communal. I know open work spaces get a lot negative attention but, in a venue like this, sitting beside a clutch of like-minded downloaders quickly leads to introductions, exchanges, and new acquaintances from all over the world.

Even at the speed of ethernet, the downloads take a while, and so you inevitably spend that time trading stories about where you're from, what you do, and then, of course, how you're going to use all the new bits Apple just announced and, come the fall, will ship.

You'd think after a day or two the download centers would be empty, but no. People are always looking for a place to sit, a session to view or review online, or a repository to download from or upload to. But I think they're also looking for more of those serendipitous encounters. The one with people they'd never otherwise meet, who have similar backgrounds, interests, and goals but profoundly different life experiences and points of view.

And that lasts long after the progress bars and installations have finished.

The sessions and the labs

Up the stairs are the sessions and the labs. The sessions are fantastic. Getting to see the people who helped make new and updated frameworks present them on stage is beyond illuminating. They provide the context and clarity that anyone who rushed to get a hot take out on day one can't even come close to by celestial measures.

Apple's evangelism team, speaker trainers, and the presenters work tirelessly for weeks to prepare, to whittle down complex subjects to beguilingly simple, approachable slides and explanations. And it's terrific to see the seasoned pros, the ones who always seem to be expounding on the coolest new technologies year after year, and the new presenters who, often with the bulk of their teams encouraging them from the front row, take their first steps out onto the stage and in front of the packed hall of developers.

Teaching is an incredible way to learn, and I imagine going through the process of distilling something down to a WWDC talk is an incredible way to encapsulate a year or severals work.

The evangelism team has always done an amazing job of planning out the sessions, from the schedule to the speakers, from conception to presentation. Over the last few years, though, they've really been stepping it up and not just in terms of having to handle the sheer quantity that comes from having four platforms in the field instead of just one or two. And that's especially true of design sessions, which have gone from the few and far between to some of the most experimental, interesting, and pivotal of the event. Kudos to all involved.

Where the sessions are one to many and recorded and placed online so fast you can pretty much watch the same-day whether you're inside WWDC or out, the labs are the opposite.

Long after the executives have gone back to Apple Park, the engineers who write the frameworks, the human interface teams that makes Apple's own apps, and the editors and business managers who coordinate and curate the App Store fill up McEnery to help developers, designers, and app marketers solve their specific problems. By the hundreds if not thousands, it feels like.

Sometimes it's advising on new ideas. Sometimes it's troubleshooting issues. Sometimes it's being a second set of seasoned eyes and ears. But it's invaluable to everyone involved. When a developer gets help figuring out how to make their dreams into a reality, their interfaces clearer and easier to use, or their business approach sharper and more sustainable, the look on their face is like the sun has risen.

Same for the Apple engineers, designers, and editors. When they can help someone get over a hump or bump, and make something amazing with the tools or systems they've provided, it's like there's nothing better in the world.

These are two groups who share a symbiotic relationship but almost never get to interact outside of this one week a year. But it's this one week that reminds everyone that, despite sometimes not feeling prioritized or appreciated, we're all in this together.

The meet-ups

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Before the sessions and after, Apple coordinates some truly amazing meet ups. There are daily Women@WWDC breakfasts to connect developers who make incredible apps but who have also historically been underrepresented at conferences.

There are also meet ups for everything from Machine Learning to Augmented Reality, Health to Games, so developers in similar sectors and with similar interests can make and strengthen connections with their peers.

My favorite every year is the accessibility mixer. It's where people from the accessibility community, developers of accessibility apps, and Apple's accessibility team all get together to see what's new and, in many cases, what's miraculous.

This year, alongside Microsoft's incredible Seeing AI, and an overnight implementation of a Siri shortcuts "Read this…" feature, I got to see an iPhone X using ARKit's face detection to move the pointer and click and type across a Mac screen. Previously, that kind of accessibility technology would have cost a fortune in its own right. Now, thanks to Apple's TrueDepth camera and the ingenuity of a young, Italian developer, it will increasingly be available to everyone with an iPhone.

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The community

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The WWDC keynote is terrific. It gives the world a look at what's coming next. But there's so much more to the event than just the keynote, and getting to see it all is invaluable. It's a window into a deeper understanding not just of how Apple frames all its new bits but of how developers dig in and digest them, the next day and through the week. It's a cliche but it's true — what Apple provides is simply a starting point for what developers and designers create. It's a spark. Developers are the fire.

I know that's true for attendees but I also know it's going to inform everything I write from now until the fall and well beyond.

Thanks to everyone at Apple from the seemingly indefatigable events and evangelism teams, to the incredibly helpful marketing and PR teams, to all the engineers, designers, editors, retail, and support staff who don't just take the time to be at WWDC, but make the time ensure all the attendees leave as thrilled and empowered by the experience as possible.

And to everyone in the community who took the time to share their journeys and their apps with me, my colleagues, and peers all week, who make the tools we use and enable the work we do every day, ticket or no ticket, who shows up for coffee, drinks, at Next Door, Alt Conf, Layers, or just to hang out, thank you as well. Who, since the move from Moscone, have made the week extend beyond any one conference center and out across the city core — You don't just make WWDC. You are WWDC.

See you next year!

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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.