WWDC 2008 journal (part 2)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 5:11 PM

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 in the finale of his two-part report on WWDC 2008, Mike discusses those exciting WWDC evenings, what he learned about learning, and Friday, the day of reflection and going home. (Be sure you read part 1 first.)

Evening diversions

As usual, Monday night was Apple's reception. It’s a chance to get in long lines for food (the mushroom tartlets were the best among the vegetarian options this year) and also to schmooze and gossip.

The real big night was Wednesday, with the Apple Design Awards (ADA) in the early evening. The ADA is a gala affair, featuring presenters dressed to the nines (well, maybe the sevens), spotlights, demos of the winning products, and enthusiastic applause for each winner. You can see a complete list of winning programs here. The winners all impressed me, especially with the effort that went into making them look slick.

For those with more stamina than I, Wednesday evening continued with Stump The Experts.

Thursday evening was a party at nearby Yerba Buena Gardens. A staffer checked my ID and asked if I was over 21. I guess he meant in hexadecimal. Being well over 21, I moved to the far end of the garden from the band that was setting up. Only later did I discover that what sounded like a cover band for Barenaked Ladies with a bad sound system was in fact Barenaked Ladies themselves with a bad sound system. I hear they did some Mac humor, and I'm sorry I missed it.

A lot to learn

As I sat in session after session, absorbing what I hoped was a reasonable fraction of the material, I thought a lot about what it must be like to come to WWDC from worlds like Windows or Linux. Cocoa has grown a lot from the days when it was supposed to be simple to learn. It’s still easy starting out, but there are a lot of subsystems it works with. Some of the names get confusing: Core Graphics and Core Image are very different, even though a newcomer might think otherwise. Core Animation isn’t so much about animation as it is about layers. You could almost use the term "multi-core" to describe Apple's software as well as its hardware.

Things have changed for experienced Cocoa developers, too. Although a background working with the AppKit in Objective-C gives you a big head start on developing for the iPhone, it’s not exactly the same. The Apple engineers developing UIKit, AppKit’s counterpart on the iPhone, felt free to break with tradition in some areas. They changed enough that it reminds me of the chapter in the original Inside Macintosh which had the unnerving title “Everything You Know Is Wrong”. (That chapter alluded to the Firesign Theatre album of the same name, in case you’re curious.)

One of the most important iPhone development principles is learning to work in a limited environment. The iPhone is a zippy little thing, but it still has limited RAM, a CPU which would be called fast only in the last millennium, and — most significantly — limited battery life. This represents a huge change from desktop machines. As usual for WWDC, I was working hard to make my laptop’s battery last while I took notes in session after session, so typing notes about iPhone battery life was an interesting juxtaposition. And to my surprise, a few seats in some rooms had power strips for us technomads.

Everyone wanted to know the technical details of the iPhone. Apple people are careful not to disclose too much. They’ll let you know the RAM size, CPU speed, and model of GPU, but they won’t tell you things which they might want to change. They don’t want their future hardware to break your product and upset consumers. For example, during a question-and-answer session, one attendee asked if Apple could reveal exactly where in the device they’ve put the accelerometer, the chip that notices when you turn the iPhone on its side. The official answer was “We can’t tell you that.” An engineer grabbed the mic to offer an unofficial answer: “You could put it on a turntable and figure it out.”


As the WWDC week goes by, the pace slows. Fewer people arrive in time for the continental breakfast each morning. More people sack out on beanbags during the day. The music that plays before sessions gets mellower, too: this year while waiting for a Friday morning session to begin, I realized they were playing all acoustic versions of rock songs. I hope someone’s having fun programming our mood.

Actually, the mood changes the most when you walk in the last morning and see a long line of people checking their bags for the day. The week has rushed by. People are exchanging business cards, promising to get in touch before another year goes by, or trying to track down that One Apple Engineer who might know the answer to their Really Important But Obscure Question.

On the flight home, I thought about all that I’d learned, and about all the stuff I want to do with my new knowledge. Then I watched David Levy’s talk No Time To Think, about how we rush so much that we have no time for deep thinking. I played the video at 25% above normal speed, trying not to think about the irony.