Apple's annual conference is going remote — here's what attendees will miss most

Key Points
  • Apple's annual developer conference is being held through videos and videoconferencing this year because of Covid-19.
  • In past years, developers have been able to network with other software makers and get in-person help from Apple engineers at the show.
  • But at least they'll save money on plane tickets and hotel rooms. 
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, California on Monday, June 4, 2018.
Josh Edelson | AFP | Getty Images

When Apple's annual World Wide Developers Conference kicks off later this month, it will look markedly different than its previous 30 iterations. Instead of a in-person conference held in San Jose, California with parties, sushi dinners, and hands-on workshops, WWDC will be held online this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For the public, the draw is Apple's so-called "keynote" on the first day of the conference where CEO Tim Cook and other executives reveal the latest version of iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac software, which will come out in the fall. Like in earlier years, the keynote presentation will be streamed online around the world. 

But for developers who have nicknamed the gathering "Dub Dub," a significant draw is the opportunity to receive detailed technical help with their current projects after the keynote ends. This year, instead of one-on-one time with Apple employees, they'll be watching recorded videos, applying for limited videoconferencing spots and asking questions on Apple's developer forums. 

"WWDC is when developers around the world fly into a high production-quality event, to learn things, ask questions at labs, get the idea and so forth. So if you want to launch a big idea, like moving to SwiftUI, you have to get developers together, to ask questions, and get things solved and move on," Paul Hudson, author of Hacking With Swift, and a four-time WWDC attendee, said. 

Apple is not the only big tech company to move its developer conference to an online, video-first format this year -- Google and Microsoft did the same, and Facebook canceled its entirely. But WWDC is a critical event for Apple as well as its only public-facing conference, and the success of its new format will partially determine how many apps optimized for the new operating systems will launch alongside the new software this fall. Apple said in its most recent annual filing that its future financial performance depends in part on support from third-party software developers. 

'Straight from the horse's mouth'

Not all developers go to WWDC — last year, most tickets were distributed through a lottery, so some people who wanted to go couldn't.

77.5% of respondents to an iOS developer survey conducted in December and January said that they believe it's important to follow along with Apple's videos and news remotely, and only 10% said it was important to attend if they had a ticket. 

But for the 6,000 people who would have attended an in-person WWDC this year, the remote format eliminates two of the biggest draws for the conference: face time with Apple engineers who built the software and networking with similar-minded people and friends. 

Apple said earlier this week that it will upload over 100 videos featuring Apple engineers during WWDC week. A batch of videos will be uploaded each morning at 10am, and can be viewed on the web or in Apple apps. These are a replacement for class-like "sessions" on topics like Apple's App Store review process or the specific peculiarities of under-the-hood software that were traditionally held at the conference center.

"Dub Dub, one of the best things about it is that all the talks are done by the engineers that who made the stuff. They're not done by marketing or product managers," Hudson said. "The folks on stage, they're saying 'I coded this feature pretty much,' and you're getting it straight from the horse's mouth."

In addition to sessions, Apple holds "labs" which gives attendees the chance to get in-person help from an Apple engineer on a specific topic. This year, to replace the labs, Apple is turning to videoconferencing. Anyone who has a registered Apple developer account will be able to request a lab appointment, and availability is limited, Apple said.

Apple will also redesign developer forums on its website to make it easier for people to ask questions of Apple engineers remotely. The new design will launch on June 18.

The remote format will also limit the social aspects of the conference. In previous years, attendees have gone to events including morning runs, sushi dinners, and even trips to Costco during WWDC week. Attendees have played games like collecting a full set of free enamel pins that Apple gave out. This year, all of that is cancelled. 

Many developers are responding by trying to create community online by creating Slack groups, wrangling developer blogs, and scheduling online Zoom meetups. On Kickstarter, Apple fans have paid over $15,000 for unofficial WWDC enamel pins. 

Adrian Eves, an iOS developer based in Alabama, said he plans to take all of WWDC week off work so he can follow along with the videos and announcements. He's created a Slack group called WWDC Lobby to discuss the announcements in real-time with other fans, including Apple employees. 

"Since everything's remote, we need a way to adapt ourselves to this experience. I've been to different conferences, and the best thing is, besides the subject matter, the networking," Eves said. 

On the plus side, developers will save a lot of money by not traveling to San Jose. Hotels are frequently fully booked during WWDC week, and in past years, a ticket to the conference cost $1,599 per person.

For independent developers and companies that send several people, the savings could be substantial.

"WWDC moving online is terrific for smaller developers, particularly those based abroad. Even for us, WWDC being online will save us upwards of $100,000 on event sponsorships, travel, and accommodation, since most of our team is based in Europe," said Oleksandr Kosovan, CEO of MacPaw, a software developer focused on Apple products. 

Because there won't be 6,000 people pumping money into the restaurants, hotels, and bars near the San Jose convention center, Apple said in March that it planned to give $1 million to local San Jose organizations to offset revenue loss. An Apple representative declined to give further information on the donation.

Even with the high cost of attending and potential safety risks associated with the ongoing pandemic, there is significant demand from developers if WWDC goes back to a in-person event next year. Eves said he would "absolutely" go next year.

Here's the advice Apple CEO Tim Cook gave to 2020 graduates
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