Is WWDC already a virtual conference?
This page contains analysis and opinion by Dave Verwer.
It looks increasingly likely that Apple will cancel the in-person part of WWDC 2020 due to COVID-19. Still, even without potential pandemics disrupting this year’s event, I was surprised at the survey results around WWDC and conferences in general.
Let’s look at the results:
It’s easy to get caught up in the social media buzz that surrounds the in-person event in San Jose, but more than 82% of respondents don’t think that it’s at all important to be in the city. It’s also worth noting that the survey didn’t ask “will you” be in the city, but “how important is it”, so these results are not affected by the scarcity of tickets or other issues.
The truth is that most people already experience WWDC virtually.
Let’s look next at why people don’t attend the conference. The main reason is cost. Followed by ticket scarcity, and finally, travel issues. I don’t think this is particularly surprising, especially that the cost of getting to, and existing in San Jose is a more significant issue than the price of the conference ticket:
The answers to this question are biased by people who already live in the United States. Travel to WWDC is much easier and cheaper if you’re already in the country! So let’s look at the same question, but filtered to by survey respondents who live elsewhere:
With this filter applied, concerns about winning the ticket lottery go down slightly, and everything else increases. It’s also worth noting that answers about the cost of the conference increased more for this slice of data than the answers based on location did. I’d imagine this is mainly due to increased travel costs, and the effect of a strong dollar at the moment.
So while we don’t yet know the fate of this year’s event, I thought it might be interesting to think through what a virtual WWDC might look like. I’d say WWDC is primarily three things (not listed in order of importance):
There’s no need to stream sessions live if there’s no audience. Having a couple of weeks to put recordings of the presentations together might even increase the quality of them. Not that the quality of the session videos needs to improve, but let’s find positives where we can, eh?
The labs are a hugely valuable part of the conference, and they’re much harder to virtualise. However, maybe Apple could take this as an opportunity to promote Technical Support Incidents? One option would be to give App Store developers a few more TSI tickets for use specifically during announcement week. There would be a significant staffing issues for DTS, but there might be a way to mitigate them. What if Apple were to temporarily staff DTS with the engineers that would have been in labs that week? I’ve long been an advocate for encouraging engineers to occasionally still get involved with end-user support, and I’d imagine the TSI tickets that week would be a great source of feedback that the labs usually supply. Apple could also use this as an opportunity to promote TSI incidents for the rest of the year. I’d also suggest that people might be more likely to get an answer in an asynchronous online email conversation than a 5-minute chat with an engineer, while a hundred people queue to be next.
Finally, could Apple also virtualise the design and App Store labs? I’d say they could. Make them paid services during that week, and maybe spin that out into a year-round service if they work?
I’m not saying these changes would be easy to make, but again I think there could be positives from them.
I’m all out of positives here though. I don’t see any way to recreate the complex human soup that is that week in San Jose virtually. The atmosphere created by the companion conferences, the bash, the other social events, the coffee and a catch-up with friends you only see once a year, or the chance encounter of someone you’ve only known on Twitter until you bump into them on the plaza is impossible to virtualise. I don’t see any way to spin the loss of this side of the conference into anything positive.
Regardless of what happens this year, and despite some speculation that they will, I don’t think Apple will use this to make every year’s conference virtual from now on. While it may appear like they focus inwards, I firmly believe that they see enormous value in everything that happens alongside WWDC during the week. The hardest part to virtualise is the most critical part, and I think Apple agrees. So even if there’s no “traditional” WWDC this year, I’m quite sure it’ll be back…
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