WWDC 2009 journal (part 1)

Monday, August 17, 2009 at 2:02 PM

by Mike Morton, Google Mac Team

Every year, Google engineer Mike Morton becomes intrepid reporter Mike Morton as he ventures to Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference. Apple doesn't allow attendees to disclose the technical bits of the conference, so he writes about other important observations and details: general survival tips for the week, how to figure out in advance when the conference will be held, and insight into how WWDC is like the Soviet Union. Here's part 1 of Mike's annual report.

When’s vacation?

For one week this past June, it was unusually hard to get your AT&T cell phone to work if you got too near San Francisco’s Moscone Center. Over five thousand Apple developers came from around the world to learn about Apple’s latest news at the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Most of them had iPhones, and to make up for the few who didn’t, some folks brought more than one. You could usually place a call, but most of my incoming calls never rang.

I had planned my summer carefully, scheduling vacations and other events to make sure I wouldn’t miss the conference. Advance planning is difficult, because Apple doesn’t announce the dates very far ahead of time. My partner works as a counselor in an elementary school, so summer months are precious. This year, I thought of a way to help me plan: I guessed that the conference would again be in Moscone West, and watched Moscone’s web site to see when it was booked. When I saw something like an orthodontists' convention at Moscone West, overlapping even part of the week, I knew we could consider that week for vacation, not WWDC.

Of course, Apple is smarter (and more secretive) than that. They booked Moscone West way in advance, but had Moscone list it as “Corporate Event” until Apple announced the date. Luckily, I didn’t plan my vacation during that Corporate Event week. Now that I’ve spilled the beans, they’ll have to pick a new name to pre-book under. Probably “Orthodontists' Convention”.

Having planned my summer perhaps more thoroughly than needed, I sat on the plane to California, thinking about the usual rumors that precede any Apple event. (I had to think about the rumors: my seat on the 757 had no window for watching the Rockies go by.) There was lots of speculation about both iPhone and desktop models, but I was mostly curious about something else: would Steve Jobs address the troops, even briefly, weeks before his medical leave was scheduled to end?

I checked into my corporate apartment (my first time in one; it was, well, corporate) and walked 20 minutes to Moscone to register. To my horror, I had forgotten that they would hand me tchotchkes. Nothing much, just the usual t-shirt and backpack. But I was traveling for 15 days with nothing but carry-on luggage, with not a cubic centimeter of room to spare. An Apple staffer saw my face fall. Perhaps she figured I was thinking “yet another backpack”? She burbled, “This one’s a Brenthaven!” It is indeed a very nice pack, and I quickly found a new home for it on the west coast. Perhaps next year they’ll give out iPhone cozies instead and I’ll have room to bring one home.

Lining up

No, I didn't sleep under the bridge

On Monday I woke before my alarm, and got to Moscone a little after 5:30 a.m. I asked one of the first dozen people how early he had been there. “Midnight!” Thinking of Keith Laumer’s short story In The Queue, about people spending their lives in line, I shuddered and joined the back of the line, which was only about a block long at this point. This is closer than I usually get to the front of the line, and I thought I was just earlier than I usually am, but I learned that others thought a Phil Schiller keynote was less of a draw than a Steve Jobs. (Would we show up earlier if Apple invented an RDF generator?) I chatted with strangers and old friends. Some colleagues joined me (cutting in line in this way is generally accepted). An Apple staffer came by, counting us. I was number 269.

Various people walked by offering freebies: tech magazines, brochures, pastries, and other goodies. The only thing most of us wanted was coffee; I’m surprised nobody was out selling that. I heard that later in the morning that a bunch of bikini-clad promotional models (AKA "booth babes") came by. Perhaps it was too cold for them when I arrived. And why were there no bikinied booth boys? This was open-minded San Francisco, after all.

The keynote was good. Phil is no Steve, but he and the other speakers had a lot of interesting products to hold our attention. They threw plenty of numbers at us, especially the number of apps available, and dissed various competitors. Plus we had to pay attention to the keynote, because most of us couldn’t get WiFi to work in a room that crowded. Perhaps it worked better in the overflow rooms (or “coverflow rooms”, as my colleague Mark Dalrymple calls them).

Personally, I was most thrilled by the new iPhone’s video recording feature and the keyboard going landscape. Tethering sounds great, too, but the audience was very disappointed that Apple won’t say when it’ll work in the U.S., as you can observe when watching the keynote on the web.

Another thing that struck me: in the mobile world, hacking is going to be nastier than the desktop world. If Apple can Find Your iPhone, can a hacker find you? If you can unlock your Zipcar with your iPhone, how hard will it be for someone else to do the same? It's not that these two applications are any less secure than others, but the consequences of security problems will be different for mobile apps.

The keynote ended with no Steve Jobs cameo. I wasn’t the only one hoping. The New York Times Bits blog was headlined “New Software, New iPhone, New Steve?”. Oh, well, we found out later that he was back at work by the end of June.

Oh, one more thing: my best laugh of the day came in one of the afternoon sessions. An Apple designer named Max Drukman stood up to show us Dashcode and greeted us with “Good afternoon, developers … developers … developers”. His timing was perfect homage to Steve Ballmer’s famous greeting to another bunch of developers.

Everything’s digital

I don’t know how the show does it, but by Tuesday morning I feel like I’ve already been here all week. I’m struggling to recognize faces and remember names and, when I’m lucky, put them together. Why doesn’t Apple put the name badges in a bigger font?

One thing I don’t have to remember any more is which sessions I want to go to. It used to be that Apple would hand you a small paper schedule of the week, which was nearly useless because it had lots of To Be Announced sessions. This was because when they gave it to you on Sunday or early Monday, it couldn’t list sessions about technologies that were going to be introduced mid-Monday. This year they did something great: they gave us an iPhone app listing the sessions, including updates during the week! The app let you mark favorites, and even showed you where the sessions were in Moscone. It did almost everything I wanted, but perhaps next year’s version could help me coordinate with my colleagues, to help us decide who’s covering which sessions.

A highlight of the show was a huge wall display (20 large monitors) showing icons for 20,000 top iPhone apps. Each time an app got downloaded, its icon bounced a little and jostled its neighbors. The apps weren’t organized alphabetically, though. They were sorted by icon color, creating a big spectrum. A lot of developers spent a lot of time looking for their apps. Several of us agreed that Apple could have made money by charging a dollar to find your icon for you. I never did find the icon for Google Earth. Maybe it gets downloaded so often that Apple thought the constant bouncing would just be distracting. Yeah, that must have been it.

Strange sight for the day: An attendee walking around holding a Steve Jobs doll like this one. I doubt it's RDF-enabled.

Coming soon: part 2, featuring Nerdvana and more.