Monday, March 28, 2011

On WWDC Now Being "Broken"

Over at TUAW, fellow author Erica Sadun opines that WWDC is broken because it sold out fast. And she's right. It's so horribly broken that more people want to attend than they've got room for. Th… wait, what? Where I come from, that's called "success", and it usually indicates that you're doing something right. It's not usually a big red flag that you need to make a complete about face in your approach.

But that's exactly what Erica is suggesting Apple do.

I used to work in the Enterprise software world and know all about these large conferences that Erica is referencing. I was a developer at PeopleSoft (now part of Oracle), and I've been to (and have even spoken at) mega Enterprise conferences like the old PeopleSoft conferences (20k attendees at its peak) and OracleWorld (which is now, I guess, called Oracle OpenWorld because Oracle is so… open).

Making WWDC more like these giant, soulless, "enterprise" conferences is not the answer. Scaling WWDC to 10k, 20k or 40k is fixing the problem by shooting the golden goose. Trying to scale up WWDC like that would utterly destroy everything that is wonderful about it.

WWDC is community. WWDC is actually being able to talk with the engineers who wrote the software you're having problems using. WWDC is a chance to get on a first name basis with people in our community, including (if you're lucky) some of the awesome people who make the APIs we use to make our living. It's a time for learning, absolutely, but it's also for making friendships, making business connections, and looking for future employees/employers/subcontractors. The current size of WWDC is part of what makes it great and is part of why so many people want to attend. In fact, the past few years, it's bordered on being too big, with lab slots becoming harder to get and many sessions having long lines and being standing room only.

What WWDC is, is not what giant corporate conferences like OracleWorld are. If anything, they're the polar opposite. Which is not to knock what those big conferences are - they serve a particular market, and they serve it well, but we are not their market and our needs cannot be met by adopting their model. Conferences like Oracle World are places where groups of people from the same large company or government entity go together, hang out together, and then leave together. They're places that people go because their employer is paying for them to go and has instructed them to go. They're places where people wander through large convention halls picking up swag they don't really want while being sold on the merits of various products their employers don't really need. They're vendor fair as much as a place to learn. In fact, they're usually more like one big fucking advertisement that your company pays for you to attend.

They are not events (by and large) that people save up and do without in order to attend. They're not events that people make sacrifices in order to find a way to go.

But that's exactly what WWDC is. WWDC is a conference that people want to go to even if they have to pay money out of their own pocket. It's something people look forward to attending and talk about having attended for months afterwards. It's a conference where a great many people pay their own way to attend and are thrilled to do so.

Monstrous mega-conferences don't develop community. That's simply not what they're there for. Forty thousand people isn't a community: It's a city. Forty thousand people is so far beyond anybody's monkeysphere as to make the concept of "community" meaningless. Wandering around conferences like OpenWorld no more engenders a sense of community than does walking through Times Square.

I don't want WWDC to become that. You don't want WWDC to become that. I honestly don't even think Erica really wants WWDC to become that. I think what she wants is a perfectly egalitarian world where everybody gets what they want. But that only exists in fiction. In real life, everything involves tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs with her suggested solution would be disastrous for our community.

Scarcity always increases value. Apple could have chosen to jack up the WWDC ticket price until they stopped selling out, but they didn't do that. In fact, the price hasn't increased in years. Yes, they did get rid of the early-bird pricing and group rates, but the base ticket price for WWDC has remained unchanged for quite some time (8 years maybe? Anyone know?). Apple could gouge us and many of us would pay the inflated price happily. But they don't do that. In fact, they charge us less than the early bird prices at big mega-conferences like Oracle OpenWorld, Tech Ed, and PDC, despite the fact that WWDC has no sponsors or advertisers and no vendor floor.

The simple fact of the matter is that any mechanism that Apple might implement to "level the playing field" for tickets would result in somebody feeling like they didn't get a fair chance to purchase. The more complex the scheme and the more advance notice Apple were to give, the more opportunities there would be for people to game the system and create true inequity in the process.

What Apple did do was put WWDC tickets on sale without advance notice and sold them on a first come, first served basis. That's not perfect, but it is about as close to a level playing field as you can get. Yes, some people were on planes, and some people were sleeping (including people in Silicon Valley, it should be noted), and some just weren't paying attention to the Internet when the tickets went on sale. But those tickets were available for over ten hours and everybody should have known they were going to sell out quickly. Yes, people got left out, and it sucks. That's the nature of scarcity.

This is not an artificial scarcity, however. WWDC tickets are like money, you can't just solve the scarcity by printing more tickets. Every additional ticket reduces the value of the conference to the rest of the attendees. Letting everybody have what they want means nobody gets what they really want, or need.

I'll take scarcity and a once-a-year scramble to buy tickets before they sell out over a soulless commodity conference like OpenWorld any day, thank you.


zbowling said...

Sure, it's a success problem. But it's a big problem.

The Oracle conference is more a sales conference on pitching you to buy into new technology than a developer conference. Not all conferences are like that.

They should really extend WWDC out though. Maybe split up iOS and Mac. Sell different tracks to under different tickets. They could even rent out Mascone North/South.

The small size may have been good at letting you speak with the developers. Saying "community" is silly though. It's only community because Apple hides the developers that work for them behind an iron wall and don't allow them to speak publicly (so we never get to know them), the only time you get to see a human developers at Apple is WWDC.

If Apple wants to keep what they have now, they can do the same model bigger and keep what they have.

Look at SXSW. Lots more people and I pay out of pocket to go.

Look at Microsoft. Their PDC conferences are 2x the size and manage great.

ants said...

It's just like signing up for an IRONMAN. Entries for IRONMAN New Zealand 2012 filled up within a couple of hours after .

The good thing was the date and time the when entries were being taking was released 2 weeks beforehand, giving everyone a fair chance at entering.

Maybe Apple could consider that? At least then everyone would know when to try to register.

Adam Eberbach said...

I think some of the problem could be alleviated by holding more events worldwide. Right now there is only one and the whole world wants to go. Multiple worldwide events certainly would dilute the community aspect somewhat but it could build alternative communities away from the mother ship. A burden on Apple, sending engineers internationally to host of course, but far better than turning into a mega-conference at one location once per year. Benefits to the developers are obvious - less time away from family, no 48 hours of travel, connectedness to local Apple people etc.

We need some love outside North America.

W. Dana Nuon said...

Well said Jeff. Having attended WWDC before it started selling out, I think it's crowded enough as it is, with standing room-only sessions and lines everywhere. Moving the beer bash from the Mothership to Yerba Buena was a necessary compromise to handle the larger crowds, so what other sacrifices would be necessary to further expand the conference?

I don't think I've been to a conference that's challenged me mentally as much as WWDC. Since almost all the presenters are Apple engineers, the sessions are typically of a much higher quality than I've found elsewhere, where the speakers are hit or miss, if they're not outright trying to promote their product or company.

A lot of people complain about WWDC's pricing, but don't realize it's actually cheaper than many other industry conferences, as you pointed out. I do wish Apple would give us the option to skip lunch and discount the ticket by the $40 or so per day the Moscone caterer charges for those boxed lunches. You can get a really nice lunch nearby for that much!

I know I lot of people have to miss out this year because they had to get permission from their company's bean counters first. That sucks, but you know what? Not every developer has to attend WWDC in person. Apple did a really great job making the sessions available to all developers, for free, shortly after the close of WWDC last year. How many other conferences do that? But if you knew that you had to attend WWDC (and why), you would have whipped out your own plastic on the spot this morning and asked questions later.

See you all in June!

Matt Rix said...

I have to disagree strongly on this one. I went to GDC a month ago, which had 19k attendees, and there was still a strong sense of community. Let's not pretend that 5k is a small, tight-knit group of people, that's still huge. Selling out this quickly is definitely a problem, and it's only going to get worse next year.

8 days was fine, that was enough time for anyone to make a decision, but 10 hours is way too short. Would you really feel the exact same way if you had happened to be travelling today, and missed the 10 hour window? Someone could have been at busy at work for 10 hours and missed it. People in certain timezones could have been sleeping during the whole 10 hour period! Surely you can see that this is a problem. This isn't meant to be a concert, or some sort of hyper-exclusive event.

The really silly thing is that by being exclusive, it'll actually attract more people who will go mostly *because* it's exclusive. Next year there will be even more people who are going just because they can, not because they really want to be there; they won't want to miss out.

If you really feel strongly that 5000 is the upper limit for the size of the conference, then surely there are other ways this problem could be approached. I think Erica's suggestion of separate OSX and iOS conference is solid. I think raising the price is a great way to ensure people are serious about attending. It's not perfect, but it's better than what they have now.

Vlad Alexa said...

This reminds me of when mac's went mainstream after the intel switch, as humans we crave exclusivity, and it pains us when things go mainstream but that does not necessarily mean it's a bad thing.

Plus this happens to absolutely every single conference as it goes mainstream, it happened to SXSW, LeWeb etc.

Abe said...


I dropped the ball and didn't order a ticket. I agree with W. Dana Nuon's statement however: "if you knew that you had to attend WWDC (and why), you would have whipped out your own plastic on the spot this morning and asked questions later."

I don't think that "fixing" WWDC would have helped any of us get tickets.

Anyway, the reason I planned on going was to follow your advice from your December 21 post "Non-Deterministic Problems aka Finding Talent."

Is there value in being in the neighborhood (without a ticket) to attend the socializing that you talked about in your post? I'm just curious.

AndreaZ said...

How about a middle way? Sell an additional 1000 tix this year and give a few more a chance, or have a few keynote only tix for cheaper. Then next year have 2 conferences - one for iOS and one for Mac developers if possible.

Aaron said...

I think its great that it sold out so fast - it means that people really want to develop for iOS and MacOS.

One problem though - I live in Australia and the tickets were sold out by the time I woke up - and they were put on sale after I went to sleep.

Maybe they could better plan the sale of the tickets - I agree that notice of a sale date would have been awesome. I could have waited up to get a ticket had I known that the tickets were going on sale.

john said...

I don't think making the event even bigger would help. The labs are already packed. Doubling the event (iOS and Mac, for example) might deal with the problem, but it's a big deal to put on one event, and having two, even with significant overlap, risks watering both down.

I think the best option is to let third parties organize smaller developer conferences. Different. Focused. Geographically diverse. It's already happening, and I think it's a good thing.

K. A. Barber said...

It's kinda like missing out on good seats to a concert that all of your friends got tickets to. You win some you loose some. A buddy of mine got a pass but I wasn't fast enough so no go for me this year. Even with all of his gloating I don't feel like any less a developer for it. I am, though, hoping the sessions will be available for view on iTunes like last year. I believe, there is nothing to "fix". They could have seperate IOS and OSX events but I kinda think the 2 OS/APIs will merge in the future so I don't think they will.

Chris said...

I agree with what John said earlier. Local events like Tech Talks roadshow on 2009 were a good initiative. Maybe an in-between solution with a Local Developer Conference would reduce developers frustration.

Apple should check attendance at OSX and iOS presentations during WWDC. This will help them deciding whether conferences should be splitted or not.

pippin said...

Well, if selling out fast means broken one should look at the competition. Google I/O (in the same place) sold out in under an hour this year.

That said: If this continues Apple has to do something about it.
I was lucky since I was fast and I anticipated it. But especially for bigger companies this will be impossible to handle in such a time. So if you want to avoid WWDC becoming an event for people who go there for the event only or who are lucky enough to only be on their own but you also want to appeal to a bigger professional community, you have to do something about it.

Maybe just re-opening the Tech Talks they did a few years ago would be a start since it takes some pressure from the WWDC.
Or doing two of the events per year in different places, something like that.

But maybe things will calm down a bit _someday_....

Peter Lorent said...

Sometimes people - in this case Erica Sadun - say something just because they need to say something.

kgelner said...

I really don't like the thought of splitting out the conference into iOS and OS X tracks, there are a lot of similarities between the two platforms, and I like being able to see potential divergence or convergence between the two where the API's differ. Also for Apple, it only makes sense to keep the two combined if you are trying to lure iOS developers into writing Mac software.

I see people that wanted to get tickets but couldn't as two distinct groups:

1) People that were going for mostly "from the horses mouth" technical content.

2) People that are there for the social connectivity aspect.

For the first group, you can get by with watching the videos after and emailing some of the presenters if you have specific questions - or hooking up with people at a local Cocoaheads group to ask for further details.

For the second group, there's nothing to stop you from flying to SF on June 6th and hanging out with all of the people you want to meet.

I too have been to the mega conferences (JavaOne through the peak years) and I saw how those conferences started out great and then declined with size. I don't even know that the decline is community related, I think it may be instead a factor of the logistics of putting on a huger and huger show and the watering down of content as each session becomes more and more specialized. After all there is only one of you that can attend one session at any time, and if the conference is too big you lose track of the philosophy behind the API's that I think is the real technical insight to be gleaned from a conference where you see the developers of the API's speak on the things they have built.

As another poster noted there are also a lot of great third party conferences to attend as well - 360iDev and iDevCon and NSConf to name just a few. I've spoken at and attended many sessions at 360iDev and they have speakers that help further distill the content Apple provides through the lens of experienced developers, so those conferences are not second place prizes by any means.

Dan Hamilton said...

The solution to this is not 1 bigger conference but 3. Keep wwdc as is but create 2 more mini conferences - 3 days or so around iOS and mac os. Schedule them to coincide with apples normal product release cycle - ie iOS in the fall with the fall idevice launch and mac os in late summer when new macs are usually refreshed. Keep attendance at both to around 2500.

Another option might be to stream wwdc for a small fee ( say 300$). That along with more tech talk road shows would work too. Yes, I know apple makes videos available after wwdc, but it still takes a few weeks to get them, giving developers at wwdc a competitive advantage. Streaming would also allow participants to ask questions at the end if sessions (something the videos edit out)

Dan Hamilton said...

One thing more...exacerbating the problem is apples decision several years ago to stop macworld and other conferences, making wwdc a must attend to get FaceTime with anyone from apple. I understand why they did it (attending those events was driving apples product schedules), but I think now it's gone too far since wwdc is it and only 5k can get into it. Apple has to do something - they need to open up a bit more in some manner if wwdc is going to sell out so fast that thousands of developers can't get in. The days of apple being the underdog are over they are the worlds most valuable and valued tech company and they need to start acting like it.

Michael Rose said...

Just FYI, the original post suggests multiple ways WWDC could change (winter/summer split, iOS/Mac separate conferences) before this statement is made:

"And there are only 5000 seats available? What worked for a niche OS isn't scaling to a popular mobile platform. Compare with Oracle's conference, where they entirely shut down streets to serve more than 40,000 participants."

Simply comparing OracleWorld to WWDC in scale is not necessarily the same thing as suggesting WWDC needs to be open to 40,000 people. I get that you don't want WWDC to become OracleWorld, but you're going after the strawman of "Erica says WWDC should be 40K oh noes!" rather than noodling the real scale challenges Apple faces as its developer community is growing by orders of magnitude.

Apple cannot have it both ways. It's not that Erica is looking for a utopian solution, and no changes to WWDC are without tradeoffs. But it's not possible to have a developer base for two separate platforms that is soaring into the tens or hundreds of thousands of participants and still keep a lid on the 'official' dev conference in this fashion.

Maybe it means freeing up engineers to go to third-party events. Maybe it means an OS split. Maybe there's some other improvement or evolution that's possible, and none of us are thinking of it because everyone who's invested in WWDC staying as-is has had their hackles raised by a "WWDC is broken" headline.

If the TUAW post had been titled "How WWDC can change and grow without losing its essential character," would there be such angst and frustration? It's not an idle question -- I write a lot of TUAW headlines, although I can't take personal credit for this one.

Michael Rose said...

"I'll take scarcity and a once-a-year scramble to buy tickets before they sell out over a soulless commodity conference like OpenWorld any day, thank you."

Are you really convinced those are the only two possibilities?

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Information Workshop said...

I think it's important to also consider some bits of reality about WWDC (after attending the last three)…

Over half of the attendees each year are first-timers, so there's a lot of churn.

As of last year, things have changed, making it so the ONLY real reason to go is to meet with the Apple engineers (that's significant) and/or to hobnob with people you know.

But now with tickets sold out in a day you'll be hobnobbing with a more random set. I didn't know anyone, as many first-timers won't, so that's not important to me. I met tons of cool people and made a couple life-long friends even, but didn't end up working with any of them in any significant way.

And here is the most significant reality that must be faced…

While physically there, you can only attend a fraction of the sessions you care about, and the information is usually an overview and flies by very fast. Since EVERYONE planet-wide will be getting the session videos the following week, what's the point of actually being there with regard to the information I need to advance my products and skills?

Lastly, we have to acknowledge that different people get different things from the conference. While it makes little realistic sense for ME to actually attend given that I will NOT now miss out on the bulk of the information, other people should go, at least as a rite of passage if nothing else!

But myself and thousands others JUST DON'T NEED TO BE THERE to remain at the top of our game. It's the 21st century now in an interconnected multimedia planet-wide working space.

Mark Hernandez

Kris said...

As a developer who missed out on yet another WWDC, sure I am disappointed. But, would I rather go if I knew it was less personal? No way. If I pay the price for a ticket, I expect it to be smaller in nature and have an opportunity to talk one-on-one with engineers and a chance to meet/greet other developers.

I'm not sure if this is a valid solution or not. But, it seems like it would be nice if Apple utilized an educational system to where developers unable to attend can either watch their choice of sessions live (for a fee of course) with some sort of interactive component (chat, forums, engineer engagement following a session). Apple does provide the videos of sessions and that's great. But, it would be nice to have a live or more interactive component to that during WWDC.

danyowdee said...

One recurring theme in the comments here and where not is the notion of "If you're working for a large company, you don't have time to get the approval".

Sorry, but I am the little boy to tell that this emperor has no clothes!

WWDC has been mid June at least the third time in a row.
It always costs ~1600$.
And, since last year sold out in a little more than a week and the flux of new developers is all but decreasing, the writing was on the wall, that this year was going to sell out even faster.

With all due respect:
If you worked for a big company, wanted to attend WWDC and haven't lobbied them since around January to give you some sort of "okay go", then you failed.
If, on the other hand, you did, in fact, lobby your big co. since January and couldn't get a ticket because they wouldn't want to give you an "okay go": Whose responsibiliy is that? Apple's or big co.'s?

If you missed out because of living in a different timezone, then that is a major problem. And Apple needs to do something about that.
One way might be having two batches of tickets, going on sale at different times — maybe 3500 in a first one starting to be sold at, say, 10AM PST and the remainder a day or so after that at 10AM UTC+5.

iheariam said...

I think a wwdc on the east coast as a second one is the answer to this issue, who would second it

pippin said...

If you have no clou about what you are talking about: just shut up.
Big co's just don't work like that. A lot of this has to do with tax codes and things like this. There is NO WAY you can get this through at most big companies, the only exception being ones that run the whole process upfront and even that would be very, very close.
Everything speeding things up can get you in trouble in a lot of ways, SEC rules and code of conduct requirements for gov contracts just being a few.

pippin said...

Oh, and btw: This is not Apple's "fault". But "fault" misses the point. It's not about "fault", it's about: whom do you want on such an event:
BigCo employees may not be the most inspiring types around, but if it's only party people and newbies that want to get into the business that are left over, the value will decline. It may still be a lot of fun, but at least for myself: I would want some types around who do already do serious development, too.

CocoaNative said...

"Community" isn't 5000. Community is 1300 attendees in the San Jose Convention Center and parties on the Apple campus. 5000 is a mob by comparison, and stresses its current venue.

Yes this makes WWDC a huge success, but it's also broken. If Apple could only make 1 million iPads each year, and sold out in 10 hours, that would also be success, but it doesn't serve the community it needs to serve.

To keep the conference small and personal with such increased worldwide demand is as much a fantasy scenario as the one you derided Erica about. Apple needs a solution. I hope they at least release the videos for free soon after the conference again this year. Next year I'd like to see them come up with a real solution.

Michael said...

If you want a "level playing field" which gives a carefree dilettante in New York City with $1600 burning a hole in his pocket a vast advantage over a hard-working and dedicated Apple developer in Australia, then I suppose Apple's approach to WWDC sounds great. Me, I want an approach which maximizes the value to the community and to me, which is not at all compatible with this supposedly-level playing field.

David Lam said...

Can Apple even expand the conference given its resources? The most valuable aspect of WWDC is the labs, connecting with Apple engineers in front of a computer. Right now, there's 5000 WWDC spots and 1000 Apple engineers will show up. At the risk of being simplistic, that's a 5-1 "student-teacher ratio". It's not a matter of conference _space_, but a question of engineer availability. Apple has 46,600 full time employees, of whom only a (small) portion are engineers. And out of that small portion some of the engineers are not developers (QA for example).

jcr said...

Former WWDR engineer here. Jeff, I completely disagree with you. WWDC started selling out around the time I left the company back in '05, and the 5K limit is woefully inadequate given Apple's dominance of the mobile market and the resurgence of the Mac.


jcr said...

Speaking of Apple engineers going to third-party events, I did that. We used to go to MacHack in Michigan, but due to the Carbon/Cocoa politics at the time, and the prevalence of the Carbon die-hards at Mac Hack, when Bertrand Serlet attended one year, he met with a huge amount of hostility. So much so, that he decided that he wouldn't spend any of his department's budget on sending people to MacHack anymore.

That meant that anyone from Bertrand's division that went would have to be paid for by WWDR, and WWDR has been resource-starved for many, many years.


admin said...

Has anyone actually looked at eBay lately? I am starting to wonder how many of those WWDC 2011 were bought by scalpers?

BTW, a problem Apple could fix easily by giving registered developers with apps in their store first preference.

kgelner said...

@admin: I think you may be on to something there, I know a few people that bought extra tickets to sell.

I don't know how you deal with that really in any way that is fair, other than making the tickets non-transferrable. But that's not great for a company buying a few for employees.

Also I'm not sure I like limiting sales to people who already have apps out, as it's people without apps in the store that probably need more help!

If there are a ton of people selling tickets online though, it acts as a fair distribution mechanism as prices will fall if that's the case.

benzado said...

In the nine hours between the announcement and the sell-out, I was busy moving furniture out of my old apartment. At least if I had some warning of when they would go on sale I'd have a chance of buying one.

But I guess I can get one from this guy:

Doug said...

Re: the "big company" problem

I work for a big company (which shall remain nameless) on the mobile development team. We were ready with corporate credit cards in our sweaty little hands, we knew that it would sell out quick and were just waiting for the announcement that tickets were on sale. My boss, the person with the power of expense report approval, was the first one of us to see the announcement and he gave us the go-ahead to buy our tickets within an hour of the announcement.

So a 10-hour sell-out is not necessarily a problem at big companies. If I had waited until the announcement to ask for permission to go, then yes, I might have missed out. But it would have been my fault and not Apple's or my employer's.

As far as the size of the event, last year was my first WWDC. I wrote up a list of things I thought needed to be improved and size of the venue was one of them. Don't drink too much coffee before a session because the lines to the bathrooms during breaks get mighty long. Which then makes you late getting in line for the next session which means you'll be standing in the back for the more popular sessions.

Personally, I don't go to conferences to find a community, I go for knowledge I can use to do my job properly. WWDC gave me what I was looking for last year, I give Apple very high marks for content, somewhat lower marks for execution. The fact that I'm going again this year is proof that I must have found it at least "OK".

Bart said...

ever heard a similar discussion about sold-out music concerts? it's a fact of life you will miss a lot of events, sometimes you will get lucky and have a ticket. lucky Apple posts the videos of events for all, never seen a concert registration of bands, never a discussion about concertprices. the only thing Apple could consider is more specialized events and similar events at other places, but let's be fair: the California setting akes it a bit like visiting Woodstock, a special event, once in a lifetime

Brad O'Hearne said...

Here's another perspective, and suggested solution:

WWDC Registration: Broken or Not?

Jeff -- I really enjoy your posts, and follow you on Twitter. I think Apple could improve on this one though. said...

Yes it is a big problem. Especially when considering that the day after WWDC was sold out, you could buy tickets at eBay for 3500$. That sucks big.

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Khang Vo said...

I agree that we should not expand the WWDC too much to become a bigger and bigger size. What do you think about make it more often, like twice a year. It may contain some duplicate content but it will help everybody having a chance