A few days have passed since the WWDC registration hubbub of last Monday morning. For those either ambivalent or not familiar with prominent national computer-nerd gatherings, the WWDC is Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference. It is Apple’s one major conference of the year (traditionally in June), where 5000 developers from all over the globe converge on the Moscone Center in San Francisco for a week of Apple technology state of the unions, technical how-to sessions, and labs with face-to-face time with Apple engineers from various development teams. Highlights of the conference include: the main keynote, typically given by Steve Jobs, where the major new hardware, OS, and software announcements are revealed to the world; Apple Developer Awards (ADAs), where the best apps in various categories are recognized (kind of the Academy Awards of the techie world); Stump the Experts, where attendees try to stump the long-time Apple experts with Apple-technology-related questions; and the week-ending bash at the Yerba Buena Gardens, a catered affair headlined by a concert of a popular mainstream music band, revealed in typical Apple fashion only when they take the stage (last year was the YouTube-famous band OK-GO). After-hours during the week is pretty much a social melee, with meet-ups, parties, contests, and networking events scheduled all week all over San Francisco. The WWDC is a Who’s-Who of the Mac and iOS development industry, and is THE place to be for techies during the second week of June every year. It might be considered a Woodstock for developers.
So back to last Monday. Completely unannounced, and with no rumors floating around Twitter or Mac rumor sites that this announcement was coming, at 8:34AM PST, I received Apple’s email announcement that WWDC registration was open. Having been to the WWDC three times now, I’m a huge fan. So naturally, I was excited to see the conference announced. However, last year’s announcement came in May, so the fact that it came two-and-a-half months earlier this year took me by surprise, as it did a good number of others. The WWDC sold out in 10 hours. I was fortunate. I happened to be sifting through my email inbox with the email arrived, and having been through the drill of finding scarce hotel availability and airline flights before, my Pavlovian instincts took over. I immediately salivated, bought my ticket, secured my hotel room, and then my airline ticket (though not without hassle — Southwest Airlines website went down almost entirely for about 2 hours, and it took me a 20 minute phone wait to get through to a reservation agent to book over the phone). This being the fourth year I’ve registered, I have to admit: I love the WWDC. But I hate the one hour of panic which ensues after the announcement, wondering if I’ll have to hitchhike from my home in Arizona to San Francisco, or pitch a tent in Union Square because all of the hotels are sold out.
But I did get my travel plans booked that morning. Other prominent developers and friends of mine in the industry were not so lucky. Some were unaware of the announcement when it was sent out, others had other arrangements (financial or work-related) which needed to be cleared first before registering, and some were unable to register just simply because they weren’t able to register within 10 hours (they were traveling, for instance).
What came next was fairly predictable. Twitter lit up with a flood of “I got screwed”, “I’m booked!”, and “Anyone want to sell their ticket?” tweets. Within hours, Craigslist and Ebay were already listing WWDC tickets for hundreds and thousands of dollars above the $1599 price tag. Presently there is an Ebay listing with a WWDC ticket for $4,499. Let’s put it this way: in the techie world, Charlie Sheen’s latest outlandish YouTube clips became immediately irrelevant — bigger news was now afoot.
One other byproduct of the situation were that the blog opinions started to appear. Between these blog posts and the litany of comments which followed, two general views emerged. The first view is that the WWDC is broken, and needs to accommodate thousands more attendees either by expansion of the conference or splitting into two separate conferences, focussing separately on Mac and iOS development, respectively. The other view is that the WWDC isn’t at all broken, and maintains its sense of community by having tighter fixed numbers of attendees, and that an unannounced, first-come first-server ticket distribution policy was fine, no matter how quickly the tickets sold out and who was left outside looking in. While there may have been valid aspects to both arguments, I do not agree with either conclusion. Opening the floodgates is not the answer. Neither is slamming the door on the ranks of loyal developers who fill the App Stores with apps.
Splitting conferences might seem like a good answer at first glance. But given the obvious convergence of iOS and OS X, and the increasing need for iOS app developers to expand their mobile app offerings to the Mac App Store, this doesn’t really solve the problem. App developers would now need to attend two conferences, not just one (to cover both Mac and iOS domains), doubling the price and time commitment, and would direct much of the same crowd and similar numbers at two conferences instead of just one. This also consumes double the massive number of man-weeks of Apple engineers’ development time spent at a week-long conference — anyone tried doing the payroll math on the number of engineers present at the WWDC all week? That constitutes a serious investment Apple makes into the conference. Another conference doubles the ante. Where do you draw the line with this approach? If both of those conferences are full, then do you offer three conferences? How about four? Where does it end?
One observation from the blog posts and comments I’ve read is that they all generally treat the available tickets and associated attendees, whether 5,000 or 40,000, as merely numbers, rather than considering who the attendees are. Regardless of the number of tickets available, isn’t it important who is at the WWDC, and isn’t a panic-laden scramble for tickets over the course of several hours affecting that?
Let’s me pose a few hypothetical scenarios to test this first-come, first-serve idea of WWDC registration: suppose the marketing departments of all the Fortune 500 companies bought up all the WWDC tickets, so there were virtually no developers at the conference. Would this preserve the valued “community” which exists at the WWDC? Want developers? FIne. Here’s another scenario for you: what if Microsoft, Google, and Research in Motion bought up all the tickets at the WWDC (for either genuine competitive research purposes or just to throw a wrench into the general present Apple technology bliss) — how about that? It’s first-come, first-serve, and you’d have a conference filled with developers, even mobile app developers. Would this still be the conference that you as a Mac or iOS developer were excited to attend? Would the experience still be what we love about the WWDC sense of community?
If this sounds absurd, hold on a minute — such scenarios might not be that far out in left field. We’ve all seen it on the Internet — the rush for concert or major sporting event tickets on Ticketmaster which sell-out in minutes, and the premiums those tickets pull in resale on StubHub, Ebay, and CraigsList. Apple is the hottest company on the planet, and everyone knows it. The lines outside the Apple Stores on new device release days just keep forming earlier and keep getting longer. The WWDC 2010 sold out in 8 days. WWDC 2011 just sold out in 10 hours. On Monday, when I called the Marriott Hotel in San Francisco a block from the Moscone Center to attempt to book a hotel room, their rates were $359/night for a single room, over double what they were a year ago. Even the hotels have locked into what the world press that rolls up to the main doors of the Moscone Center on the opening morning of the conference know: it isn’t a meet-up for a fledging bunch of bit-pushers. It is becoming popular like Comic-Con, and one of the hottest tickets in town for entrepreneurs and technology businesses on the fast-track. I fully expect there to be organized efforts for next year’s WWDC registration to buy up large blocks of WWDC tickets, and resell them online, and I expect the conference to sell out in 2-3 hours. It is just the simple principle of supply and demand. If someone can buy 10 WWDC tickets on a credit card for $1599 each, and turn them in 24 hours on Ebay for double the cost ($3200 each) and clear $16K, without spending a cent of their own money, does anyone honestly believe there won’t be a fair number of people doing this?
Without a change in the registration process, it is going to be an absolute free-for-all, which brings me to the point of my post. The WWDC isn’t a carnival, or a concert, or a sporting event, whose attendees are there to be merely entertained. It is a developer conference; more specifically, it is a developer conference for Mac and iOS developers, and the only one by Apple all year; the only chance every year to spend time with Apple engineers from the development teams for the technologies crucial to your shipping products. It is a developer’s big chance to get a jump on technologies not yet released, and network with names they only know from Internet blog and book publishing renown. It is your chance to make contacts within various teams at Apple, which are very important to growing a Mac / iOS development shop. It is crucial for a serious developer whose business is vested in Apple technology to be present.
No, not all potential attendees are created equal. Mac and iOS developers pay annual fees for Mac and iOS Developer Program accounts. They have filled the iTunes and Mac App Stores with hundreds of thousands of apps, and through payment of 30% of their app sales revenues, have earned billions of dollars for Apple. Apple’s devices rule because developers have put these apps in the App stores, and the buying public has purchased them at an almost inconceivable rate. Does a device alone equal market superiority? Hold that panel discussion with Google, RIM, and Microsoft. The WWDC, as fun and exciting and as social as it is, is a core part of a Mac / iOS developer’s business. Developers deserve priority. This idea that it is perfectly fine for someone who has invested their entire career and livelihood into Apple technology finds themselves locked out of the most important event of the year for their business because they were busy creating one of those money-making apps, serving a customer, or were on a long flight, while some ticket-hound or hobbyist were trolling Facebook when the WWDC announcement came is pretty weak.
Apple can do better. Here’s a very simple suggestion. For those registered Mac and iOS developers (who have been registered over a year and renewed once, so that people don’t use signing up for a developer account to game the system), give them a 3 day period where it is first-come, first-serve amongst other registered developers only, and let them purchase one and only one priority ticket (to prevent one developer from buying for others). This way, priority is given to tenured Mac / iOS developers, so that they aren’t watching their business opportunities take a dive because a scalper with a wad of cash beat them to the return key. I’ve suggested a very similar prioritization of developers for acquisition of iOS devices on new release days at Apple Stores, in a previous blog post (Hey Apple, How About a Little Release-Day Love for iOS App Developers?).
We’ll see what happens next year. But if something isn’t changed, perhaps at a future ADA award presentation you’ll hear something to the effect of, “Unfortunately the winner for the best iPad app couldn’t be here, he was busy developing the winning app and wasn’t able to get a WWDC ticket in time.”