Apple Developers Speak Out: WWDC Must Change

Exactly none of the Apple developers that TMO contacted are happy with the current WWDC sign up process. When all the developers who wanted to attend were huddled at their keyboards at the magic hour, only a small fraction got through, subject to the vagaries of the Internet's TCP packet bingo.

One full-time OS X developer, Don Carlile (Quandir Solutions), who had a continuous record, attending WWDC for the last 27 years, told me (and Apple) "...that streak ended this morning at 10:02 AM, when I was just unlucky enough to have my refresh miss the exact instant when it went live and 5000 people got in. Couldn't have been more than a 10 second window, really."

What can be done? TMO contacted several developers to see what they think of the current sign up process and even WWDC's value in general. The responses were awesome.

A Lottery

One way to make the process just as random, but perhaps a little more satisfying, is to introduce a formal lottery. I asked the developers what they thought about that.

On April 1 each year, a developer of record is able to check a box in the developer account and register an intention to attend WWDC.

On April 10, Apple randomly selects 5000 developers from those who registred intent. The developer has 10 days to accept or decline.

Decliners' seats (and anyone else who must bow out before the event) go into the pool and their seats are reassigned on a continuing random basis to those who have registered their intent."


Some developers didn't think a lottery is a sustainable solution and expressed dismay about a wider range of issues.

Paul Kafasis (Rogue Amoeba) wrote: "I think there are a lot of possible tweaks, and most of them would have to be better than what we had this year. However, I think you’re attacking the wrong aspect of it. Simply put, I don’t think the conference as it stands is sustainable. Apple must know this, after last year.

They tried something different this year, but it only exacerbated the problem. Instead of being locked out by not being awake yet, even more folks (who were able to schedule things) got locked out by server errors. The pent-up demand waiting was obviously enormous. A decently big sample size of long-term Mac developers (50 or so) indicates about 1 in 5 who tried to get a ticket succeeded.

If 25,000 people want to go to something that only seats 5000, something should probably change. Apple’s got lots of options --- raising the price or increasing the size are the most obvious things, but more outlandish ideas (like shifting away from one WWDC to multiple regional conferences, splitting game development off from app dev, splitting iOS off from Mac OS) could also work. I’ve heard protests that WWDC is very expensive for Apple, given the resources required (with so many engineers away from work). When one of the world’s biggest corporations complains about keeping costs down while pocketing 30 percent of your sales, you should really demand to see the books."

Brent Simmons (Inessential) wrote: "Rather than a lottery, I'd rather see Apple create multiple events with different purposes. One way to slice it would be three events: one for mainstream iOS developers, another for game developers, and a third for Mac developers. Each developer would have to pick just one to attend."

Andrew Stone (Stone Design) took an interesting approach. "Make no mistake, what just went down was a lottery! Actually, it was more like NYSE automated trading software -- the closer you are to 80 Hudson Street where the wires all come together in Manhattan, the more nanoseconds you can shave off the trades being made. I ran over to my local ISP so I could plug into some fiber wired to the backbone and I got my ticket."

Steve Kelly (Intego)* wrote: "I got through the checkout process, clicked confirm (or whatever it was called) and got a big error message saying 'Oops' in large font followed by 'there was some error, click here to continue shopping' at which point my ticket was gone. So I like your idea of having 10 days for the winners to accept or decline such that if you win the lottery, you've actually won."

Stefan Reitshamer (Haystack) said, "I think the WWDC format needs to be re-imagined now that Apple has gone from a niche computer maker with thousands of 3rd party developers to a massive smart phone maker with hundreds of thousands of 3rd party developers. If Apple's objective is to generate excitement or spread the word about new stuff, it should be open to as many people as possible."

Oliver Breidenbach (Boinx) wrote: "You pretty much nailed my view on this. A lottery won't be much more satisfying for those who lose out, but Apple would get an idea about the real demand and may be able to investigate alternative venues. There are conferences with more than 5000 attendees. Of course, the argument, that the access to Apple engineers would be much more limited with a bigger audience is valid, but now the access is also very limited -- to those fortunate enough to win a ticket.

Will developers who did not get a ticket around the world gather at Un-WWDCs and partly recreate the feeling of being at WWDC? Of course they will still miss out on the access to Apple engineers in the labs, which was a big part of the return on investment in past years."

Steve Shepard (Storyist) agreed that a lottery is a good idea but added a valuable twist: "I wholeheartedly agree that Apple needs to introduce a lottery system, and your proposal is a good one. I would also suggest, with a nod to the Hunger Games' annual Reaping, that names of tributes who aren't chosen remain in the pool, so that their name is entered twice the following year, three times the year after that, and so on until they are selected."

More Fundamental Change

Max Seelemann (The Soulmen) went farther and expressed a very articulate and sensible view of the WWDC proceedings.

I don't think a (pure) lottery system is something both the developers and Apple want. You have to think about the purpose of WWDC -- it is Apple's most powerful instrument of developer influence. Nothing less, nothing more. It's not the developer's interests that count, it's purely Apple's. And Apple wants its platform to grow, its technologies to be used and its innovations backed. They want solutions that are exclusive to their devices. Stuff they can feature, brag about and show off in commercials.

There has recently been the comparison of the Apple-Developer relationship being similar to a master and its dogs. I think that's actually a pretty good fit -- especially of how things have evolved. A single dog is not all that important, but the master wants to make sure it has the best dogs in his stable. In an ideal world, the master (Apple) would train all dogs (developers) with all resources. They obviously can't. Instead they have to make a selection -- willingly or unwillingly.

Randomly selecting developers in a lottery goes against Apple's interests. If they want their platform to continue prospering, so they must keep their bests dogs close. They are not as dependent as they were 10 years ago, and the individual developer is much less important than back then. But a set of certain developers (say 1000 or 2000) are definitely more important to Apple than others. If all they do is just a random selection, they are risking loosing too many of the good guys. In fact, they already are. Looking through my Twitter timeline there are a lot of guys that have been involved in the Apple eco system longer and deeper than myself -- but while I accidentally got a ticket they didn't. Of course they are upset. And rightfully so.

Apple can no longer treat all developers equally. Everything has just become too big. In my opinion, they should go for an invitation system.... Then after a week, open it up like they did now. Or do a lottery of the remaining tickets."

One of the universal threads I saw in this outreach, also reiterated by Peter Kelly (UX Prodctivity, Sydney, AUS) was that Apple needs to break up WWDC into multiple conferences, both logically (OS X, iOS, Games) and geographically (U.S., Asia, Europe). That solves part of the problem, but also introduces enormous logistic and financial challenges for Apple.

Bring an End to WWDC?

One sentiment that I saw was that it's time for Apple to bring WWDC to an end. Dan Burcaw (Double Encore), a former Apple employee, suggested that the reasoning Apple used to bow out of the Macworlds in New York and San Francisco, being better served by its own retail stores, could be, by analogy, applied to WWDC in some fashion. But what that might be has to be worked out. His logic:

MacWorld : Apple Retail Stores  ::  WWDC : What ?

Daniel Jalkut (Red Sweater) apologized for not getting back to me sooner. He was in the process of writing his own essay about how it's time to bring WWDC to a close -- an essay that seems to have obtained some traction. There, Mr. Jalkut wrote:

... The whole point of the conference needs to be rethought, and the goals addressed from scratch using new approaches. As the greatest challenge for WWDC is in scaling to meet demand, I think it’s obvious that the rethought WWDC should be considered in terms of digital solutions. Call it WWDC if you like, but it needs to take place 365 days a year instead of 4. It needs to serve 300,000 developers, not 5,000, and it needs to take place online, not within the cramped confines of a small convention center in San Francisco, CA....

... I have loved the times I’ve attended WWDC, and I may yet end up enjoying it again, but its time has past. It’s time to move on. In 1983, 1993, and 2003 it was the right tool for the job because it largely fulfilled the objectives for both Apple and developers. In 2013 it’s a strangely exclusive, rotating club with arbitrary membership rules, and increasingly dubious advantages. It’s a source of annual stress and uncertainty for would-be attendees, and has just delivered a whopping blow to thousands of developers who didn’t make the cut for this year’s show.

I would miss many things about WWDC, but the things I would miss could easily be offset by superior, scalable solutions. And I would be happy to leave behind the increasing number of obnoxious aspects of the yearly ritual. It’s time for something better. It’s time to end WWDC."

End Game

A great deal of valuable sentiment has been expressed here. In the end, it's hard to see how many tens of thousands of eager developers who applied this year, many of who have been profitably attending WWDC for many years, can be happy with the current state of affairs.

Apple had a year to figure this out, yet the company hasn't made many developers happy, even the ones lucky enough to win the game of Internet packet bingo. In the end, Apple would do well to figure out, fundamentally, what developers are really telling them and come up with a solution befitting Apple's reputation for elegant, inspiring solutions.

That could be a process of invitation only for a number of critical developers combined with a random selection lottery for the rest who express interest. Or a series of separate events. Or shutting WWDC down altogether. Or something else quite brilliant. In any case, the current registration process, in some ways a tiring act of hubris for Apple, has become an embarrassment to the venerable event.

These developers are passionate that something has to change for the better.


* Steve Kelly (Intego) followed up this morning: "I would mention in fairness to Apple, I did get an e-mail late yesterday saying they realized an error occurred on checkout for me.  Apparently a
number of people received those.  It also said, I'd receive a follow up mail within 12 hours with instructions on purchasing a ticket.  That follow-up has not arrived just yet."