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The Decline of WWDC

Who is Apple’s most important customer? If your answer is “Me!” consider this. Without software (applications, preference panes, utilities of all sorts), your Mac would be nothing but a very expensive doorstop. And software doesn’t grow on trees; human beings write it. Those human beings are the software developers. So, sure, end-users are important, but without software developers, there would be nothing to use.

And make no mistake: Apple software developers are Apple customers. They all need at least one Mac. They all need to keep up with changes in the operating system. The tools for writing applications are now free (a tremendous revolution that started when Steve Jobs returned to Apple and Mac OS X emerged), but many developers subscribe to some paying level of the Apple Developer Connection. And Apple developers are constantly focused on Apple. They hit the developer Web site dozens of times per day. They download examples, they ask questions, they hang out on the mailing lists, they submit bug reports. And a few thousand really hard-core developers, those who have the money and who need the personal touch, show up for Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC).

WWDC is Apple’s most important way of communicating directly with its developer base. Every year, the actual Apple employees who maintain the operating system and the programming interface that software developers use to write applications spend several days standing in front of crowds of those developers. They explain (under non-disclosure agreement) Apple’s future plans and directions, lecture extensively and in detail on how to program the Mac effectively, and listen meekly to trenchant suggestions and criticisms. Plus, developers get to bring their code to a room full of computers and receive real-time, line-by-line advice on specific problems and tasks they’re facing. It’s an intense experience; a developer can easily spend ten straight hours in lectures and labs, without time to leave the building, on three successive days. (WWDC is currently three-and-a-half days, preceded by a day of keynotes.)

It’s distressing, therefore, to see how WWDC has become more and more unpleasant for the attendees each year. Each year we say to each other, “Wow, it’s really gone downhill, but at least it couldn’t possibly get any worse,” and each year it gets worse. I’m not talking here about the value and relevance of the content, which is usually top-notch, though, to be sure, it can vary in quality, depending partly upon internal aspects of Apple’s mental health and firmness of direction, and partly upon accidents of timing. (The 1996 WWDC, for example, was a complete waste of time and money, because Apple under Gil Amelio had no idea what it was doing or where it was going, so everything it said that year was outrageously false. On a far milder scale, this year’s WWDC was slightly less useful than last year’s because the next release of the operating system is further off, so more of what Apple had to say about upcoming features was inchoate or guesswork.) No, I’m talking about more mundane considerations – freebies, food, and logistics.

The zenith in recent years was the 2003 WWDC. Apple had moved the venue from the isolated, unpleasant San Jose McEnery Convention Center to the west wing of the Moscone Center in wonderful downtown San Francisco. Attendees were given a superb portfolio bag that I still use, a copy of the currently shipping operating system, and a major piece of hardware (an iSight!). The food was terrific (excellent hot breakfasts and lunches), and between talks we were plied with free juices and fruit, and of course plenty of high-quality coffee.

This year, on the other hand, the freebies were the cheapest portfolio bag I’ve ever seen (flimsy, no padding, few compartments, bad zippers, strap attached in a silly place), a crummy travel mug, and a t-shirt with incorrect Latin on it. (OK, so I spent many years teaching Latin; they could have asked me.) No hardware, no currently shipping software. Lunches were plastic salad and plastic sandwiches in plastic containers; breakfast was nearly non-existent. Snacks between talks were dried-up pastry. One evening there was something that pretended to be pizza; it was so bad that people were literally gasping in disbelief. There were free Odwalla juices, but none of them were the good Odwalla juices: they were all sugar-added concoctions that no one ever buys. And attendees were herded into lecture rooms by uniformed characters we came to call “seat Nazis,” yelling at us to move forward and inward rather than sitting where we preferred.

The overall trouble here is that WWDC done in this way feels like a rip-off. It’s expensive to attend (including airfare and hotel costs, of course), while the experience itself feels cheap and oppressive. And there’s no need for it to feel that way. This year WWDC had over 4,200 attendees – the largest WWDC ever. So Apple is hardly short on cash flow for the conference itself. Prices vary, but the nominal fee is $1,600 per person (with a discount for early registration). Is it really possible that renting the Moscone Center and paying for the equipment and logistics for presenting and recording the lectures is so expensive that Apple can’t afford to give back more of those fees in the form of gifts and better food? (At these quantities, a really good portfolio bag, for example, is less than $20 a unit.)

To complain of this may seem to be whining about a very small thing; and so it is. But it’s a small thing that, in the aggregate, makes the difference between WWDC being a pleasant experience and an unpleasant one; and three and a half days of unpleasant experience quickly starts to feel very unpleasant indeed. There is also the question of what this deterioration in WWDC’s surface quality implies about Apple’s attitude towards its developers. Apple used to honor its developers, as being the creators of the front line of Macintosh usability; now it feeds them like rats and herds them like cattle. Is that really the message Apple wants to send?

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