WWDC 2008 journal (part 1)

Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 10:42 AM

Every year, Google engineer Mike Morton becomes intrepid reporter Mike Morton as he ventures to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. Apple doesn't allow attendees to disclose the technical bits of the conference, so he writes about other important observations and juicy details: how the crowd behaves, interesting sights and sounds, and (as always with Mike) fun with anagrams. Here's part 1 of his two-part report on WWDC 2008.

If I’d thought about it, I would have realized ahead of time that this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference would be different. Since last year’s gathering of the faithful, Apple has begun to allow developers to write their own products for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and that means a new crop of developers coming to learn about a new machine, Apple’s smallest yet.

I’m used to seeing an unusual number of Apple T-shirts in airports while traveling to WWDC, but it seemed like there were more this year. And when I accidentally opened my laptop with the WiFi still on, it found three computer-to-computer wireless networks on my flight to SFO. I didn’t think much of all this until I looked up the aisle of the plane. Three rows up on the other side of the aisle, some guy had his laptop open. At a glance, I could see he was using Interface Builder, one of the tools developers use to build software for both Mac and iPhone. Then he picked up a book on introductory Cocoa programming, and it hit me: the conference was going to be big this year.

Of course, WWDC is always big, with several thousand people attending and huge numbers of Apple and convention center staff helping out. This year, for the first time, the conference sold out — Steve Jobs announced there were 5,200 attendees.

As usual, folks who attended the conference aren’t allowed to write about what they learned in the sessions and labs, so I thought I’d jot down a few impressions of the rest of the week. The only session we're allowed to talk about is Steve’s keynote address, but since everyone and their sibling has blogged about that one, I won’t add to that discussion… except to say I’m really bummed that OS X 10.6 is named “Snow Leopard”, because it was originally going to be “Ocelot” — and “Michael Morton” anagrams to “Hi, Mr. Ocelot Man”.

Herding the hordes

The most striking thing at WWDC was the number of people. The halls were packed, the escalators were crowded (nobody seemed to notice the stairs), and the rooms were full. At least one popular introductory session on Monday was repeated on Tuesday night. Apple staff, some borrowed from Apple retail stores, worked hard to pack us in, holding “Move Forward” signs and finding empty seats like patient ushers. You’d think that a bunch of engineers would be logical and self-organizing and efficiently fill a room, but… well, it didn’t work that way. Some of the problem is that we’re easily distracted, and some of the problem is that many of us are not-very-social geeks who don’t want to sit right next to another geek. But the biggest reason to not squeeze in is that it’s hard to take notes on a laptop when you have no elbow room. These seats are narrower than economy class, but with no armrests. To type, I found myself holding my arms as a T. Rex did. It didn’t work for T. Rex in the end, and it didn’t feel sustainable to me, either.

I give a lot of credit to Apple and convention center staff. They were mostly patient, and kept the rows full. Sometimes they resorted to friendly disinformation like “The air conditioning is better at the front of the room!” They also had to keep a straight face while asking “Please place your personal belongings under the seat in front of you!”, which got them a lot of dumb flight attendant jokes like “Are you serving coffee later?”.

For all their efforts, Apple staff get snubbed when it comes to attending sessions. They wait outside in a sort of stand-by line and get in last if there’s room. Staff guard the doors to a session and stop people whose badges give them away as Apple employees. I did see one Apple guy get in, breezily saying “I’m with the presenter”. It sounded a lot like a teenager trying “I’m with the band”, except that it worked.

Seen and heard

Along with large numbers of newbies, there were also plenty of old-timers. I spotted people I’ve known for ages, and a few who I know only from WWDC. There was John Draper, aka Captain Crunch, who spent time in prison for learning Ma Bell’s secrets before most of these attendees were born. I chased after Apple folks I knew, pumping them shamelessly for details on the iPhone, and even tried a few folks I didn’t know that well. They were very nice about it.

When Aaron Hillegass, well-regarded author and trainer, announced in an OpenGL session that his Big Nerd Ranch had an upcoming course on OpenGL, several people walked over to him. I assumed they were signing up for the course, but the first said “Would you autograph my book?” and the second wanted his photo taken with Aaron. Rock stars walk among us.

While I see myself as just an engineer working for a technology company, of course there are varied reactions when someone spots the “Google” on my name badge. I’m not really sure what to say when someone says “Oh, you work for a famous company”. I much preferred the straight-faced, “And what does your company do?” Lots of people ask what I’m working on, and all I can say is “a project involving the iPhone”. One Googler recently told me when someone asks a question she can’t answer, she deflects it with the Blazing Saddles line “Mongo only pawn in game of life”. I need to try that.

(Coming in part 2: evening diversions, what Mike learned about learning, and Friday, the day of reflection and going home.)