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.