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.