(Non-)Secrets of WWDC

Monday, August 13, 2007 at 6:03 PM

by Mike Morton, Mac Team Engineer

Each summer for more than 25 years, thousands of developers have flocked to Northern California to attend Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (which everyone calls WWDC). It’s a week of lectures and labs, schmoozing and socializing, and it concentrates Apple geekery on a scale unmatched by anything else.

Recently most of Google’s Mac developers attended WWDC at San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As usual, we learned a lot of cool new stuff and, also as usual, Apple asked everyone not to talk about the stuff we learned: only the Steve Jobs keynote speech is public information. So instead, I’d like to tell you about the experience of attending the keynote and the rest of WWDC.

The build-up

So what’s the attraction? Isn’t all of Apple’s developer info available on the web? Yes, eventually, it is. But WWDC offers early information, in depth and in person. Some presentations are quite small and informal, and there are labs staffed by Apple engineers where you can ask questions or ask for help.

On top of that, there’s the social component. We all know the cliche that engineers are asocial, but the truth is that most of us really aren't. WWDC gives everyone a chance to see old school friends, former colleagues, and meet cyber-friends and -colleagues for the first time. I tend to look at nametags as people whiz by, just in case I spot a name I recognize under a face I’ve never seen.

There’s organized socializing, too, in the form of WWDC-sponsored parties and events held by companies, organizations, and individuals. Many folks believe that the technology industry exists to give us all a chance to drink beer, and they take good advantage of the opportunity.

Well before the conference starts, Apple posts a detailed schedule on its website. The schedule usually has some slots labeled TBA (to be announced). This usually means that Steve Jobs is going to tell us some big news on Monday, and those sessions later in the week will fill in the details. I plan my schedule in advance, meticulously choosing talks and other sessions like a first-year college student trying to plan all four years in advance. It’s fun, but nearly pointless, because you can't know what's in the TBA sessions.

Lining up

Experienced attendees fly in a few days before to shake the jet lag. This time, I didn’t: I walked into my hotel in the city about one minute past midnight on the first day of the conference. Still, I didn’t need my alarm to get up early, because the first day of WWDC is a big deal. I guess everyone else thought so, too, because when I arrived at Moscone Center at 7:00 a.m., the line outside was two blocks long and growing fast.

They let us in without too much of a wait, and registration went quickly. Everyone gets a badge, and tries not to lose it during the week — security folks really do check them every time you come in.

Then we line up again. There’s only one event the first morning: Steve Jobs’ keynote. Waiting two to three hours in line means lots of time to reconnect with old friends and exchange business cards with new ones. Sitting up front is a big deal. When the doors finally open, some folks want those seats badly enough that they will sprint the entire length of the auditorium. Since some of them don’t get much exercise, let alone running while lugging a laptop, the resulting race isn’t exactly the human drama of athletic competition. For me, this is when WWDC really begins, and I like to call it The Running Of The Geeks.

The Keynote

Nobody rallies the troops like Steve Jobs, and… this year's keynote began with nobody like Steve Jobs. It was John Hodgman (“I’m a PC” in Apple’s ads) on video, claiming to be Steve Jobs, telling us that Apple was disbanding and… well, you can watch it for yourself.

When the real Steve walked on stage, he wasted no time in telling us that Apple was doing well. He showed some upcoming games, previewed a bunch of features of Leopard… and then showed Safari running on Windows. That last was my favorite, not for the technical or marketing implications, but for the moment when he sat down at a Windows box, paused, and said (almost to himself) “This is odd”.

After the keynote, everyone headed to lunch, then to a “Mac OS X State of the Union” talk (the only one in that time slot), a survey of major changes affecting developers. By the end of Monday, regular sessions have begun, and I try hard to pay attention as I realize I’m at the beginning of a week full of new things to absorb.


There are things to do nearly every evening: Monday night was a reception hosted by Apple Developer Connection. Tuesday night was the Apple Design Awards, which left a lot of people Wednesday morning saying “Did you see that cool BART widget?!”. Later that evening was Stump The Experts, a sort of quiz show featuring impossibly hard tech trivia questions (but looking on the web for answers isn’t cheating). Thursday night is a big party — for many years it was held on the Apple campus, but this year it was outdoors in San Francisco.

For my money, the best entertainment of the week is Apple engineer James Dempsey, who performs original songs about Apple’s latest technology. I still remember laughing through Model View Controller when he did it live. This year I missed his two new songs, I love View and Release Me. If you don’t think these performances are hilarious — well, maybe you’re not nerdy enough (take that as you will).

Eventually it's Friday

WWDC always feels like a long week, but it's great fun. When it ended, I wanted to get home and start working on cool Google products using everything new in OS X!

Getting into the shuttle from the hotel to SFO, I realized all four of us were carrying WWDC bags. Somehow we managed to not get them mixed up as we rushed for our flights. Now that might have been interesting.