Apple announced Tuesday that WWDC 2021 will be an entirely online event. The same happened in 2020, of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That was clearly not just the right decision, but the best one that could have been made then. It meant company engineers could still work with developers in the run-up to new OS releases even though mass in-person events could not go ahead. Many people will, quite reasonably, argue the same is true this year given that the event is just over two months away and the virus is still very much with us. What is concerning though is what this decision might mean for the longer-term future.
It Suits Apple for WWDC to Be Online Only
It is noticeable that in the press release announcing an online WWDC 2021 Apple does not mention coronavirus, COVID-19, health, or safety at all. Not once. It’s unlikely, but that might have just been a simple oversight, with Apple assuming we’d all get why the event is online again. However, to my mind, it indicates something else – that Apple wanted to make this move anyway and the COVID-19 pandemic has given it a reason to do so. Apple has an almost pathological need for control, and thousands of humans, including Apple staff, at a conference, are unpredictable and messy. People talk and information is let slip in such an environment. Things can go wrong.
Often Apple’s need for control works for customers, giving us beautifully crafted devices and services that work together seamlessly. However, an online-only conference gives the company the chance to limit journalists pestering its executives or more junior staff. It means developers may find it harder to ask candid questions to engineers. None of this helps customers but it does mean there is almost no chance of the keynote, State of the Union, or of the other key moments being anything other than perfect. Apple is totally in control. Just how it likes things.
Let’s go Hybrid
Of course, there are various parts of an online WWDC that work great for many attendees. It reduces the costs involved, allows orders of magnitude more people to attend than the usual 5,000, and even means people like me, who live on the other side of the world, can be part of it. That’s all really excellent. So while I hope WWDC returns as an in-person in 2022 and beyond, there should still be an online element for those reasons.
However, as anyone who has ever attended any kind of conference or event knows, the real reason to be there is not the set pieces but the moments of serendipity where you meet someone or learn something and it could only have happened there and then. Who knows what conversations came about after the photo above was taken in 2019! Apple must not permanently remove that element from WWDC, however convenient it may find it do so.