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No More Illusions: WWDC Adjustments Needed

 
Hidden Dimensions - No More Illusions: WWDC Adjustments Needed

by
June 21st, 2007

"It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful."

- Alan Cohen

WWDC is once again behind us, and I believe it's time for a post-mortem, in the style of Chess analysis. What went wrong and what went right.

I should point out that I have been to 14 of the past 15 WWDCs. While that may have some advantages, I also recognize that it can be a disadvantage. Those developers who attended WWDC for the first time this year were probably overwhelmed, just as I was in 1993 at the San Jose Convention Center. There's something to be said for being overwhelmed and starry eyed, because it leads to tremendous energy, action, and initiative. In light of that, I will do my best not to let my experience jade me, rather I hope it will guide me.

The Matter of Excellence

The tradition of excellence promoted by Steve Jobs is legendary. Every book about him or Apple is replete with stories about how he has pushed people beyond their own perceived limits and achieved excellence in every aspect of Apple, both before and since his hiatus. Witness, for example, the expense and the effort of the CBC bound notebook that Mr. Jobs uses during his keynote demos.

It seems to me, however, that WWDC is falling out of that mold. Here are some areas where I think a fanatical attention to excellence needs to be resurrected at WWDC.

Sessions. Not every session merits an exactly equal partition of 75 minutes. Some sessions are more technical than others, and that's just fine. So why not reengineer some of the sessions, still within the 75 minute global block, to get out a little early? Or start a little late. It's just an everyday operations research problem. There would be no schedule conflicts by doing this, but it would have the effect of leveling out the after session flow into the hallways, food tables, and restrooms. Some outside the box thinking is called for here.

Epansion. It is not beyond reason to move a whole track to another location, say the Marriott meetings rooms or Moscone N/S. Both are only a 3-5 minute walk away, but the offloading of the bursting-at-the-seams Moscone West would also serve to create more convenience for the attendees.

Illusion. It is absolutely high time Apple stopped being so needy in the sense that they want to create a sense of "standing room only." There is a certain Apple mentality that says, if a meeting to which the public is invited isn't S.R.O., cancel it. It's bad for appearances to have a lightly attended presentation.

For WWDC, the illusion has gone too far. Okay, we get it already. There are far more than 5,000 people who want to attend WWDC. Some are able to make it, and some not. For those who pay a considerable sum of money, they want excellence, convenience and thoughtfulness. Illusion is so yesterday at this particular event.

Food. We also get the fact that feeding 5,000 people breakfast, lunch and snacks is almost a military exercise in logistics. Even so, exhausted developers who are away from home for a week and at the mercy of WWDR need to feel appreciated. Some are from outside the country, suffering from jet lag. Some are working late to re-compile apps under some pressure. The very least Apple can do is feed the developers well. Nourishment is essential for body and soul. If Mr. Jobs wants that to happen, it will happen.

E-mail Addresses. There are those in Developer Relations who are responsible for communicating with Apple developers. While occasionally, a junior engineer, a person who should not be harassed by developers, does a demo on stage, the primary speaker in a session is either a product manager, an evangelist or some other Apple senior manager. As such, they should be making it easy for developers to communicate with them.

What I'm driving at is the decade-long silliness of putting up slide #2 with the presenter's e-mail, then taking it down after it's been displayed for a second or so. This kind of contempt for the audience, false humility, and sneaky immaturity has to come to an end. Henceforth, any presenter who should be showing an e-mail address and doesn't leave it on the screen for at least ten seconds will be asked to do 20 pushups. Next year, just yell it out. "Pushups!"

Adult Supervision. I was in a session, which I shall not name, in which Apple reversed a prior decision, and that decision had an effect on the developers' promises to customers. A (relatively) young Apple employee was left to deal with the impact of that decision, and it did not go well, either during the Q&A session or after the session when developers descended upon the presenters. There was some failure to step up, and there was some callousness displayed by Apple.

What I was hoping for was that the most senior person in that brouhaha would take charge, and say something like, "We understand the problem. We are resource limited. We didn't make this decision lightly, and we know it will affect some of your customers. Let's sit down and talk about ways we can fix the problem together as partners instead of yelling about water under the dam."

That, regrettably, did not happen.

Another weakness that seems to crop up more often than it should is the decision making process for the Xcode team. It's nice to see the emphasis on vastly improving Xcode, and it's nice to see great new performance tools. What's not so nice, however, is when loose ends aren't attended to, and developers -- wowed at the State of the Union presentation -- often find out about the nagging omissions and details later. Java, (gnu)Fortran, and C++ should all get equal respect and diligence in Xcode as Objective-C because Apple is a large and successful company, and the diversity of its many developers should be respected and catered to.

The Keynote. One of the things Apple did, when it bowed out of Macworld New York was save itself tremendous time, energy and money shipping people and equipment to New York each summer -- especially so soon after WWDC when it was always in May back in the 90s. I agree with the decision. As compensation for that, Apple is expected to make a bit of a fuss with the press in June. In support of that, Apple makes the Keynote open to the press.

The dangers of that "let's have it both ways" philosophy became clear this year. Steve got to be in front of the cameras, but the message wasn't 100 percent devoted to developers. The first hour or so of the keynote recapped the Leopard features for the public and the press, leaving the developers wondering when Mr. Jobs would say something of import for them. He finally did, when he got around to iPhone development and Safari for Windows, but it all seemed to fall a bit flat at that point.

There is more illusion going on here. Serious consideration should be given to making the WWDC Keynote 100 percent focused on the 5,000 developers who dragged themselves out of bed at 6:00 AM to get into a very long line. Either that, or the Keynote should be recast for what it is -- an opportunity for Apple to speak to the public with massive throngs of acolytes in attendance. In that case, some fairly nifty announcements should be saved up for that event. After all, when the public gets excited, they end up thirsting for more Apple software and peripherals created by developers. Perhaps Apple's stock won't deflate next year during WWDC with a crisper approach to what the Keynote is intended to accomplish.

Fridays. Once again, the eternal struggle over Friday emerges. This year, it seemed, Moscone West was a ghost town on Friday. The Friday sessions, are a grave yard for sessions that some people want to have but which are not deemed important enough to run earlier in the week. Why not just give up the illusion, finish up on Friday morning, and put away the illusion that Friday is valued at one-fifth of US$1295.00? For most of us in the U.S., at least, we'd all get home at a decent hour on Friday afternoon.

Even so, I am mindful that this has been an eternal problem for Apple, and it's a tough call. What's crucial is that if a session isn't important enough to run earlier in the week, then it isn't worth our time at all. That's how Mr. Jobs would view it, and so should we. No more illusions.

Ushers and Placards. Apple must have paid the ushers some non-trivial bucks to stand in the session aisles with placards that urged us to move to the front. Puhleeze. We are all adults here. Sometimes we want to check out a session from the back and discreetly duck out if it's a bust. Or, if it's just a few minutes before an obviously geeky, lightly attended session, why jam in with people in the front when there's air, space, and comfort near the rear. These ushers were ignored anyway. I think some money was left on the table there.

Leadership

There are many things at WWDC that are done right. Many more right than wrong. I was very pleased with all but three sessions I attended. The sessions are obviously well rehearsed and soundly put together. I was particularly impressed with the Java team's presentations. I was also impressed with the graphics and video sessions. The session on building Web 2.0 apps for the iPhone was so good, it was given an encore performance.

The Apple Design awards are a terrific way to reward and motivate developers. John Geleynse and Shaan Pruden did a fabulous job. Also, Stump the Experts was terrific, as usual, and Mark Harlan was in exceptionally good form as was Fred Huxham.

By the way. Don't forget to bring a clean spork to Stump next year.

The Apple labs are a terrific way to meet Apple engineers and debug code. These labs should stay just as they are.

What I'd like to see is more leadership by WWDR. This is a huge event. The impact on the Apple community as a whole and many thousands of developers is without doubt now. How about some senior Apple people sitting on on sessions that are bound to be controversial and encourage them to add a professional touch to the proceedings. How about thinking outside the box when it comes to session and time management. Not all sessions need to run in the same, fixed amount of time, and more encore performances would help the attendee decision making process and reduce the huge lines. How about feeding the attendees well and treating them well. (I heard a story about a woman who, after registering on Sunday, was denied access to the restroom.)

I won't say that WWDC is out of control. What I will say is that, if it's to continue at this level, it needs more attention to detail, some more creative thinking, and more fanatic devotion to excellence. It would be good to come away from the event feeling as if it's the finest event of its kind in the world, not one that's sagging under the weight of its own success and a perpetual victim of penny pinching.

WWDC is probably a money loser for Apple. What I'd like to see is just a tad more loss combined with the genuine feeling that the organizers had excellence in mind for every aspect of the event. We've come to expect that from Apple.

John Martellaro is a senior scientist and author. A former U.S. Air Force officer,he has worked for NASA, White Sands Missile Range, Lockheed Martin Astronautics, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Apple Computer. During his five years at Apple, he worked as a Senior Marketing Manager for science and technology, Federal Account Executive, and High Performance Computing Manager. His interests include alpine skiing, SciFi, astronomy, and Perl. John lives in Denver, Colorado.

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