What Can Apple Do About WWDC? [Opinion]

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Ever since 2008, WWDC tickets have sold out faster and faster. In 2009, tickets to WWDC tickets sold out in a month. In 2010, it took eight days. In 2011, tickets sold out in 12 hours. Last year, they sold out in 2 hours.

This year, though? You needed to record the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it melee of WWDC ticket buying with one of those super highspeed cameras they use to show bullets blasting through fruit. 5,000 tickets to WWDC sold out in under two minutes, and even if you were there from the very first second, the sheer crush of developers trying to login to Apple’s system crashed it.

In essence, unless you got lucky and Apple’s login system didn’t barf all over you, there was simply no way to get a ticket this year.

What can Apple do about WWDC in the future to allow more people to attend? Honestly, probably not much.

Part of the problem this year was that Apple, in a seeming moment of sensitivity, decided to give developers 24 hours notice on when WWDC 2013 tickets would be going on sale. This is a new approach to how Apple handles WWDC ticket sales; previously, tickets were available as soon as WWDC was announced. This system was particularly unfriendly to overseas developers, who might be asleep when the tickets went on sale, but it also meant that if you didn’t happen to be paying attention to the feeds at the time WWDC was announced, you could easily miss out on going to the premier Mac & iOS developer conference.

Unfortunately, by giving developers warning when WWDC tickets would go on sale, Apple made it almost impossible for anyone who wanted one to secure a ticket.

The real question is, what can Apple do next year to prevent exactly this same situation repeating itself? We’ve reached critical mass at WWDC: there’s literally no way tickets could sell out faster next year. That means Apple needs to come up with a new system.

Some on Twitter are floating an idea that was also argued last year: Apple should institute some sort of lottery system. I find this suggestion a bit rich. Isn’t it obvious that Apple’s system of selling WWDC tickets this year was a lottery system, albeit a particularly chaotic one? When you clicked the “Buy tickets” button, either the system crashed on you, or else you were able to painlessly buy a ticket. A lottery system just formalizes what getting a WWDC ticket is about now: luck of the draw.

But the truth is that Apple doesn’t actually have a lot of choices here. iOS and Mac development have exploded, and with only 5,000 tickets to go around, WWDC is too small.

Why doesn’t Apple just sell more tickets? Although the Moscone Center is small, only about 25% as large as the Las Vegas Convention Center where CES is held every year, capacity isn’t the problem. Conventions like Macworld and the Games Developer Conference are held at Moscone every year, and both have played host to about five times as many attendees.

So capacity isn’t the bottleneck. The real bottleneck is Apple’s own engineers.

The whole point of WWDC is to offer developers access to Apple’s own engineers so they can learn what they need from them, whether that’s specific technical issues, how to implement upcoming technologies in OS X and iOS, and so on. It’s Apple’s direct pipeline to the developer community that has helped make the Mac and iOS the best platforms in the world to develop consumer software on.

So having enough engineers to go around, answer questions and rub elbows with developers is key… and every year, Apple dutifully sends an entire army of engineers to WWDC. This year, Apple’s sending over 1,000 engineers. That’s a ratio of one engineer to every five WWDC attendees, and it’s a golden one. It’s why WWDC is such an incredibly productive conference for developers to attend. It’s also why it’s so difficult for Apple to just expand WWDC according to demand: add more attendees without adding more engineers and you simply dillute the usefulness of the conference as a whole.

For the same reasons, splitting WWDC into more than one conference isn’t a palatable option. Even if it was clear how WWDC could be split into more than one conference, Apple would have to lose a corresponding number of engineer hours to compensate. Imagine how much work and momentum is lost to throwing WWDC every year, then double or triple it! That’s the choice ahead of Apple.

So what can Apple do? Well, Apple’s already committed to opening up WWDC to everyone: this will be the first year that Apple will be posting training session videos online as the conference is going on. Expect Apple to increasingly emphasize “going to WWDC online” going forward.

We might have to just accept that that’s as good as it’s going to get in the near terms. There are things Apple could do to increase the barrier-to-entry for WWDC, like raise the price of the tickets, or to make getting one of those 5,000 tickets feel less like a farce, like the introduction of a formal lottery system. But at its core, the problem facing WWDC isn’t that Apple doesn’t have enough developers who want to go, but that it doesn’t have enough engineers to go around… and the only alternative is dilluting the one-on-one aspect of WWDC that makes it special to begin with.

The truth is, WWDC is likely to continue to be a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” affair, with luck being an increasing factor in getting a ticket. My best guess is that this is why the importance of alternative developer conferences, like this year’s AltWWDC, will continue to grow. Maybe Apple should consider, in light of its engineer problem, endorsing some of these. It’s certainly better than what’s happening now.

  • Dinalli

    Why not have localised WWDC events. They took the WWDC on tour a few years back, and it was very useful for us non US based devs to see what was going on. Why not set up events for the next few days after, show the reordered video content and have a handful of devs on hand at each location. Either that or hire more devs, we make them enough money too !!!

  • YodaMac

    Why not use video-conferencing (live, of course) for anyone who wants. Then those who DO want to buy tickets can go in person, and others can still participate, ask questions, etc. with the developers via video telepresence?

  • jesperz

    John, I simply do not agree. The size of WWDC could easily be increased, it’s just a question about rethinking the concept. I have been attending JavaOne conferences with almost 20.000 participants in the North/South Moscone without any problems. Sure, it may not be the WWDC as we know it today, but the current situation is simply not viable. Should we expect ticks for the 2014 WWDC to sell out in 2 seconds?

  • lwdesign1

    Why not use video-conferencing (live, of course) for anyone who wants. Then those who DO want to buy tickets can go in person, and others can still participate, ask questions, etc. with the developers via video telepresence?

    The problem isn’t that people can’t travel to the conference, it’s that there aren’t enough Apple engineers to handle more than 5000 attendees, so participating and asking questions via Skype is out of the question. Of course, Apple could open up a special online “view only” for a discounted rate for developers who couldn’t purchase tickets in time to attend WWDC in person. This option would allow software engineers to at very least see the presentations at WWDC and they wouldn’t feel excluded simply because they weren’t fast enough to get tickets.

  • Kendall

    John, I simply do not agree. The size of WWDC could easily be increased, it’s just a question about rethinking the concept. I have been attending JavaOne conferences with almost 20.000 participants in the North/South Moscone without any problems. Sure, it may not be the WWDC as we know it today, but the current situation is simply not viable. Should we expect ticks for the 2014 WWDC to sell out in 2 seconds?

    I have also been to JavaOne, and I would hate to see WWDC become JavaOne. WWDC being a smaller size not only lets Apple engineers help other people, it lets Apple Engineers get deep feedback from developers. If you add too many more people the Apple guys will not be able to spend time to do that, and it’s probably more important than just watching session (which all developers will get for free a week after anyway).

  • Kendall

    Apple could open up a special online “view only” for a discounted rate for developers who couldn’t purchase tickets in time to attend WWDC in person….

    They already essentially have this, all registered developers can watch videos of all the conference sessions for free a week later. Having them streamed would be nicer though.

  • lwdesign1

    Tickets selling out in 2 minutes shows the AMAZING impact that Apple is having on the world. It also shows that Apple still has the hottest platform out there and that interest is at a fever pitch, higher than its ever been. Take that Wall Street! In your face Samsung! Shame on you panicky investors! Go back to sleep analysts!
    Despite all the hoohaw and bad news from the NY Times, Forbes and Business Week, Apple is still at the top of its game and developers know it. Tickets sold this ridiculously fast is proof positive. I’d love to see the comparison to Android developer conferences.

  • asteng88

    I would probably do WWDC WEST and WWDC EAST, you could probably get double the attendance and sellout in 4 seconds. Hey its a start

  • jesperz

    I have also been to JavaOne, and I would hate to see WWDC become JavaOne. WWDC being a smaller size not only lets Apple engineers help other people, it lets Apple Engineers get deep feedback from developers. If you add too many more people the Apple guys will not be able to spend time to do that, and it’s probably more important than just watching session (which all developers will get for free a week after anyway).

    Yes, a bigger WWDC will not be the same as the old WWDC, but the scale of Apple Developer community has literarily exploded in the recent years and both Apple and WWDC has to adapt to this new reality. The notion of a cosy little gathering with one Apple engineer per five attendees is simply not viable anymore and some other format for the event has to be envisioned unless Apple is willing to allocate even more employees for the event.

    In the past I have attended JavaOne several times, which is a much larger event than WWDC, and found it very useful. Not only did I have no problems in getting to talk to the relevant Sun employees, but also getting the chance to meet fellow developers and get a general feeling of what is going on in the community is of great value, especially when being located outside US.

    I’m not really sure about the multiple-event model (e.g. WWDC US, WWDC EUROPE and WWDC ASIA) if it would be a situation where one of the events would be the primary one with all the new announcements and the others just pale rehashes. People will if possible prefer the “real thing”. So in my opinion expanding the current WWDC while develop its format is the only real option for Apple if they want to address the issue.

    This issue is simply a question about supply and demand and currently the demand massively outnumbers the supply, which the 2 minutes sell out was a clear sign of. The only viable solution is to increase the supply, otherwise next year the situation will go from simply insane to completely lunacy.

  • bonro001

    They could limit access to engineering talent for some, maybe 2 levels of tickets. Last year there were usually many seats in sessions not taken, they could expand that portion without much additional engineering talent.

  • Gregory Wright

    Now I’m a simple minded guy. It doesn’t matter what system Apple uses there is not enough room to seat everyone who wishes to attend. That’s a fact. Someone will always be left out. So, Mr. Brownlee, its nice you took the time to write this article but the reality is you wasted your time.

About the author

John BrownleeJohn Brownlee is a Contributing Editor. He has also written for Wired, Playboy, Boing Boing, Popular Mechanics, VentureBeat, and Gizmodo. He lives in Boston with his wife and two parakeets. You can follow him here on Twitter.

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