COVID-19 virus means tough decisions about WWDC and rumored Apple keynote

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Apple faces tough decisions about a potential March product event and WWDC 2020 as COVID-19 virus spreads.
Apple faces tough decisions about a potential March product event and WWDC 2020.
Photo: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

With COVID-19 spreading in the San Francisco Bay Area, and at least one upcoming event at a critical planning stage for the high-tech giant, Apple must make some tough decisions about how to proceed, according to conference experts contacted by Cult of Mac.

Apple faces mounting pressure to decide whether to cancel, delay or change the format of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, typically held in June. The same holds true, although to a lesser extent, for Apple’s rumored March product keynote.

“There’s a lot to consider for Apple and it won’t be easy,” said Ian McGonnigal, marketing executive with Experiential Executive, who has consulted on conference and convention planning with more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies. “Reputation is a huge challenge here and that’s part of it. Companies don’t want to appear tone-deaf to what’s going on out there.”

More than 96,500 people have been sickened worldwide by the COVID-19 virus — a pneumonia-like illness — with more than 3,300 dead so far, including 11 in the United States. The situation evolves daily, with airlines canceling flights, more than 3 million children missing school worldwide due to closed classrooms, major companies telling their employees to work from home, and some states declaring statewide emergencies over the virus threat.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday the COVID-19 virus currently has a mortality rate of 3.4%, higher than the initial 2% estimate. Meanwhile, California declared a state of emergency as the state recorded its first death from the disease.

COVID-19 hits tech industry hard

For Apple, and tech companies in general, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to conduct business as usual. From international supply chains and retail outlets to business travel and big events, nearly every aspect of the tech industry faces some level of disruption.

As a result of the deadly virus’s spread, tech events are dropping like flies. In the past few weeks, multiple technology conferences — including the Adobe Summit, Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress and the Microsoft MVP Global Summit — have been canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Google said Tuesday it would transform Google I/O 2020 into an online, streaming-only event.

So far, Apple remains mum regarding the dates or schedule for WWDC 2020. Cult of Mac has confirmed Apple has contracted for WWDC to be held in June at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center. The conference typically draws 6,000 or so developers to the Bay Area for face-to-face encounters with Apple employees.

Pulling the plug on the event altogether would not work for Apple, McGonnigal said. Neither would postponing it.

“I think [it] would be hard for them to cancel and hard for them to really change [the show’s approach] because it’s not just about Apple announcing things,” McGonnigal said. “What often is more important to these developers who are attendees is the opportunity to interact, engage and network with each other. To problem-solve, to learn, to further their career and to further the development industry. So there are other things at play here that we have to be mindful of. It’s not just announcing products.”

For Apple, WWDC is a moving target three months away

The decision about how to handle WWDC 2020 is a particularly tricky one for Apple. For one thing, there is no way of knowing what the impact of the COVID-19 virus will be in three months.

Cupertino could delay a WWDC decision for a while to see if the coronavirus outbreak subsides. However, McGonnigal said that approach causes other problems. Potential WWDC attendees from around the world would need to book travel arrangements and hotel rooms now instead of later.

While WWDC tickets typically prove incredibly difficult to come by — Apple sells the pricey tickets via a lottery system — people might be hesitant to commit this year.

“People don’t make decisions in these situations based on logical things,” said Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association. “They’re basing it on emotions and fear. It’s important that companies understand that people are feeling fearful, too, and to deal with that as opposed to trying to talk about the economics of it.”

WWDC risks

For Apple and other companies, going through with a big conference presents plenty of risks. If the event happens and people get sick, McGonnigal thinks it could taint a company’s reputation — or worse. “There’s also going to be a legal situation,” McGonnigal said. “Someone attends the conference, they get sick, and all of a sudden there are lawsuits filed and litigation flying around.”

David Audrain, executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers, said many companies ponder the worst-case scenario when deciding whether to cancel events.

“For them, the risk of something going wrong is greater than the value of holding the meeting,” Audrain said. “That’s because the meeting is not their business. It’s making products and services. So I understand what they’re doing, but I don’t agree with it.”

A streaming-only product launch?

The decision gets easier when it comes to product unveilings. Apple is rumored to be planning an event this month at its headquarters in Cupertino, California, to announce new products. The lineup could potentially include a successor to the low-cost iPhone SE.

Apple now conducts its product keynotes at the Steve Jobs Theatre at Apple Park. The theater, located on the company’s sprawling new Cupertino campus, holds approximately 1,000 people.

McGonnigal said events like an invite-only Apple keynote — typically attended by journalists, Apple employees and various VIPs — are small enough to not cancel entirely due to COVID-19 concerns. However, he said he thinks Cupertino should consider following the lead of other companies and simply stream the rumored product event live, without an audience.

“Many are taking a streaming or a virtual-event approach to things where they can still accomplish their goals without having to have a lot of people in a single space,” he said.

Apple could easily skip such an event. The company could live-stream a product launch in front of a smaller group of employees. Or it could issue one or more press releases, as it sometimes does for lesser product launches.

WWDC options: Cancel, delay or stream

Unlike a two-hour product keynote, experts agree a weeklong convention like WWDC poses a far bigger problem. With thousands in attendance, it demands a different strategy when dealing with an growing health emergency. It also presents its own potential pitfalls.

“For major events, I think there’s a concern not that the virus is going to infect a lot of people but that it’s going to scare a lot of people away,” McGonnigal said. “What’s happening in already-scheduled conferences is attendance numbers are definitely going down.”

McGonnigal sees conference planners taking a variety of approaches. Some are delaying events until the fall, hoping the crest of the virus and panic passes. Others are planning regional events that will attract smaller numbers of people.

COVID-19 panic (and a reality check)

Audrain said he sees more panic than rational thinking as companies decide the fate of events like these amid the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

“It’s not like people are taking their lives in their hands by going to a meeting,” Audrain said. “They have a far greater risk of getting run over crossing the street than they do dying from the coronavirus right now. They have a 100 times greater risk of catching the flu and dying.”

Audrain thinks overreaction and hysteria about COVID-19 could prove devastating to the worldwide economy.

“I have no idea what’s going on [inside] Apple,” he said. “I hope … they are having a rational conversation about what is best for the business, their customers and their industry. They’re probably analyzing what they want to achieve from having the conference, and if there are other ways for them to achieve it.”

The Professional Convention Management Association’s Karamat thinks it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Apple to turn WWDC into a streaming-only event. In past years, Apple made the majority of WWDC demo sessions available online, often streaming them within 24 hours.

That would eliminate the chance for attendees to get that treasured face time with Apple staffers. However, it still would allow Apple to give developers around the world a crucial inside look at the new features coming in the next versions of its software for iPhone, Mac and other devices.

Ultimately, Apple likely will make a decision based simply on “what they think is best for their business,” Audrain said.

Apple did not reply to multiple requests from Cult of Mac seeking comment for this story.