Off-Road WWDC: Day Three (Updated)

Continuing on from yesterday's Day 2 blog, here's Day 3 of my "off-road" observations of WWDC events and related topics. Get the scoop on two of the best events of the conference: Apple Design Awards and Stump the Experts.

Wednesday 1:00 PM

The WWDC is more than a series of conferences. There are also the Apple Labs. Here, you and an Apple engineer can sit down, one-to-one, in front of computer and go over whatever problem you may want help with. There are labs for Snow Leopard, iPhone, and more. There are also scheduled Lab sessions on specific topics, such as one today on Push Notification for the iPhone. Many developers I spoke with said that the Labs, and the chance to talk directly with Apple engineers, were the single most important reason they come to WWDC.

So, just how much of a cash cow is the WWDC for Apple? To find out, let's do a brief calculation. The Early Bird fee for the conference was $1300. For simplicity, let's assume that all attendees took advantage of this bargain price. Second, Apple stated that approximately 5400 people are in attendance. Let's keep it conservative and assume that there are only 5000 paid attendees. The calculation is $1300 x 5000 = $6,500,000. That's 6 and a half million dollars! Which is a hefty amount of cash by anyone's standards (unless you work on Wall Street or deal with U.S. deficits and bail-outs). But don't get too excited for Apple. Off-setting this gross intake is all of Apple's WWDC expenses. Renting Moscone West for a week is far from cheap. Plus, there must be like 1000 computers in the Labs (okay, maybe not that many; but there a lot!). Add to that the cost for sending the many dozens of Apple employees here. Plus all the other equipment and preparation time needed to pull this off. I figure Apple still makes a decent profit in the end. But Apple isn't doing this primarily for the money, despite how expensive the registration fee may seem to attendees. The main point of WWDC for Apple is to "energize the developer base": get developers enthusiastic about writing software for the Mac or iPhone. Apple makes money when people buy Macs and iPhones because of all the great software that runs on it. This is especially true for the iPhone right now.

Speaking of Apple making money, Apple does have a branch of its Company Store here at the WWDC. You can buy Apple logo shirts, jackets, and other paraphernalia (for exorbitant prices in my view), if you have money to burn.

Heard in the hallways outside the conference rooms: complaints that, after installing the Developer Preview version of Snow Leopard on their MacBooks, the Mac's batteries started draining significantly faster. Apple claims that Snow Leopard is at least twice as fast as Leopard. Still, I don't think this was the "fast" that they had in mind.

Also debated in the hallways: Is the 15" MacBook Pro still a Pro even though it traded an ExpressCard slot for an SD card slot? Opinions were a bit mixed. Some complained about the loss of expandability without the ExpressCard. But the majority view was that most users never used the ExpressCard slot anyway, except perhaps to add an SD card reader. The SD card slot is likely to get much more use. Personally, I haven't used an ExpressCard slot for as far back as I can remember. So I am with the majority here. Also, I just read a tweet from Dan Frakes, claiming that you can boot a MacBook Pro from an SD card with Mac OS X installed. Very cool!

A few more notes about last night's Stump the Experts (see below for the prior entry). I almost won a t-shirt. Except the guy in line in front of me answered the question I was gonna answer. Bummer...Anyway, where else could you find an audience of several thousand people and have the guy on stage request that everyone go to a particular Web page "now" and have no one complain about not having a computer or smart phone handy? Not many I would guess...Speaking of guessing, my favorite question last night went something like this: "What part of Mac OS X is best left to a software apiarist?" The answer: the Sync Services folder. Why? Because of this Knowledge Base article, which refers to avoiding the folder as if it were a "swarm of bees" (and which may still be the only Knowledge Base article that contains even a hint of humor).

Wednesday 9:00 AM

Last night, Apple presented its annual Apple Design Awards to Mac and iPhone apps that offered the best in innovation, design and quality. You can see the complete list of winners here.

Each winner was showered with prizes: A 15" MacBook Pro (they didn't say if it was the just-released updated model or not), a 30" Cinema Display (the 24" model, which is designed especially to work with MacBooks, would seem a better fit, but I expect Apple found it financially preferable to give away the older 30" model), an ADC membership, enough cash to cover all expenses to attend the WWDC, and a trophy (a very cool-looking cube with an Apple logo that lights up when you touch the trophy). Whew! Congratulations to all!

The two application winners that most knocked my socks off were both in the Mac OS X category: Fontcase and Things.

Normally, I find font software not only boring but unnecessary, at least for most users. Not having any professional demands and using only a few fonts, I have never needed more than the font tools that come with Mac OS X. However, Fontcase makes managing fonts look both fun and practical. What is especially cool is its superbly designed user interface, allowing you to see and organize your fonts with ease and elegance. You have to see it to believe it. I'm buying a copy today.

Based on the demo, Things gets my vote for the best "to do" manager I have ever seen. It is both feature-rich and easy to navigate. I was especially impressed with how you could use a hot key to add tasks "on the fly," filling in more details later as you have time. There's also a companion iPhone app.

All but one of the five winning applications employed an iTunes/iPhoto style layout for its main window. This now appears to be the de facto standard for Mac OS X software (at least all the ones that Apple favors with awards).

Perhaps because I was already familiar with all but one of the winners in the iPhone category, I did not find them as exciting as the Mac apps. Still, they were all impressive. If you want to show someone just how incredible and versatile the iPhone can be, all you need to do is demo's At Bat. The only winner that I did not already know has not yet been released: AccuTerra. It requires iPhone OS 3.0 and is still in beta. Offering a way to plan, track and share hiking and biking trips, it may eliminate any need to carry maps or notebooks while you're enjoying the great outdoors.

The other big event last night was Stump the Experts. If, like me, you've never attended a WWDC before, you may not have even heard of this extravaganza. Yet it has been a staple of the WWDC for 18 years. Hosted by Fred Huxham and Mark Harlan, you can get a feel for its zaniness by checking out the rules (such as they are). They key rule: "If we say you're wrong, you are. Especially if you're right."

Essentially, Stump the Experts is a contest between the audience and a few dozen Apple experts on stage. Questions, both technical and trivial, are asked and hopefully answered. Audience winners get a t-shirt. It's all played for fun, with the mood vacillating between merely amusing to laugh-out-loud hilarious. It's unquestionably the most fun you will have at WWDC.

When the Experts were asked why Stump the Experts is the only WWDC session that Apple does not make available for download via iTunes, they replied: "The simplest answer is...there is no way Apple would ever let this get online." Apple's official position is apparently that the event does not even exist.

On Monday, I mentioned Apple's impressive pulsating live display of App Store downloads. You can now see the display for yourself here.

Okay, I have learned that the correct way to spell the name of Apple's new iPhone in plain text is: iPhone 3G S, not iPhone 3GS as I had been doing. I stand corrected.