Is an online-only WWDC better for developers? Here’s what they said

For Apple fans and journalists, the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is all about the flashy lights and big product announcements. We want to see the next version of iOS, and a new MacBook, and maybe even a new Apple TV. Not getting to see the products in person this year is a bummer, but with everything now being livestreamed, it’s not the end of the world.

For developers, moving WWDC online only has the potential for both negative and positive consequences. The event, which usually takes place in early June, is the one time Apple opens its doors to developers all around the world to come and partner on new software and hardware announcements.

What happens when attendees can’t come in person? Does that mean some who could never afford to attend WWDC will have access? We spoke to developers to find out how they feel, and if there’s any reason to think WWDC might actually be better off as an online-only event this June.

Leveling the playing field

WWDC
Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

WWDC has always had an accessibility problem. Between the high costs of travel and the lottery system Apple uses to distribute tickets, many developers are simply unable to attend. Around 5,000 tickets are up for grabs every year, but there are 23 million developers making apps for Apple’s ecosystems around the world.

For some developers, that means attending WWDC has always been largely out of reach. An online-only WWDC would level the playing field.

Leveling the playing field doesn’t necessarily fix the accessibility problem.

Lukas Burgstaller makes apps like RSS reader Fiery Feeds and customizable timer Tidur through his Cocoacake company. According to him, leveling the playing field doesn’t necessarily fix the problem.

“I’m not particularly disappointed [at being unable to attend],” he told Digital Trends. “Between travel from Europe and the ticket lottery, I haven’t made it to the previous WWDCs either. I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference that it’s online only — those 5,000 attendees have only been a tiny slice of all iOS/MacOS developers following dub dub [short for WWDC] for years now.”

Burgstaller made the point that Apple’s online offerings were already quite good. He was, however, interested in how Apple could supplement the WWDC app and online learning.

“Maybe this is the time to improve the written documentation,” Burgstaller said. “I’ve had to look up WWDC videos from time to time while programming — that would definitely be easier with better written documentation.”

Apple

Kevin Reutter, an independent developer who has created apps like Planny and Flippy, had similar hopes for this year’s WWDC.

“I hope that they document all the new APIs this year, so we don’t have the same issues as last year (especially for Catalyst),” said Reutter. “I also hope that there will be additional virtual one-to-one meetings or chats with Apple engineers.”

That last point is even something that Reutter would be willing to pay for, he suggests, given the value of the help on offer from Apple. Another developer even suggested the idea of group labs, one-on-one calls, and meet-ups.

For these developers who have never had an opportunity to go to WWDC, this year’s online event could have more to offer. That seems to be what Apple is hoping for too. Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller says the new format will bring “the entire developer community together with a new experience.”

If done right, it could be the first WWDC where many more developers will have the chance to take a more active role. But the stakes are high. If Apple misses the mark, there are going to be a lot of dissatisfied developers out there.

Maintaining the sense of community

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For developers who make an annual pilgrimage to WWDC, have much more to lose in an online-only WWDC. We spoke with Gabriel Jourdan of Time Base Technology, the company that created the GoodNotes app, for Mac and iOS.

“WWDC is always a lot of fun because not only do you get the chance to talk to Apple’s engineers in person and attend awesome keynotes live, but you get to meet so many app developers from all over the world,” he told us, adding that it was a “major reason” to make the trip. “So yes, it is a bit disappointing because WWDC is not only about the event itself but about everything that happens in and around San Jose [California] for these couple of days.”

He previously told us that he was hoping for more development guidelines from Apple when it came to Mac Catalyst, Apple’s attempt to make it easier for developers to port their iOS apps across to the Mac. How did he feel about not being able to quiz Apple engineers — and other developers — in the flesh?

“I’m personally hoping that Apple will try to bring as many of the great experiences of the in-person WWDC online. Maybe even social events where you can connect with other participants,” he said.

“The labs are certainly the most useful thing — getting to spend one-on-one time with the engineers who are actually building the OS.”

For Jourdan, maintaining the elements that have made past WWDC shows special, including the sense of community with other developers, is something Apple needs to work hard to re-create this year.

That’s a feeling echoed by James Thomson of TLA Systems. Thomson develops calculator app PCalc, a favorite of iPhone users since 2008 (and of Mac users for even longer). When we asked him about making a Mac Catalyst version of PCalc, he told us he felt the technology wasn’t quite ready, but he would be open to using it in the future. Was he going to miss the opportunity to discuss development issues with Apple staff?

“It’s been the case for a while that the sessions are not the best use of your time at the conference — they are all recorded, so you can always catch up with them later,” he explained. “Within the conference, the labs are certainly the most useful thing — getting to spend one-on-one time with the engineers who are actually building the OS. It would be nice if there was a way to speak to the Apple engineers, in the form of virtual labs. But I suspect it will be unworkable to match the supply and demand.”

AR could be a notable casualty

But what happens when you’re working on something that is still in its infancy for both developers and Apple — something like augmented reality (AR) — and need to talk to Apple engineers directly to help solve problems you’re facing in these largely uncharted waters?

That’s the situation Perjan Duro has found himself in. When we last spoke to him, he was working on bringing his financial app MoneyCoach from the iPad to the Mac using Mac Catalyst. After taking it for a spin, we found it to be one of the better Mac Catalyst apps on the market, though not without the odd quirk. Would his work on this be affected by the new WWDC format?

“It will definitely have an impact on our Mac Catalyst project,” he said, “because I was planning on attending the labs and talking to the engineers that are working on Catalyst. Hopefully there will be a way to reach out to them somehow at this WWDC.”

His next project is Particular AR, a platform to create and share AR experiences. That, too, will be affected. “I was hoping to be this year present because I believe AR will be… [under] the spotlight. Since we are working on our new startup, Particular AR, I would love to get some questions answered and get insights from the team itself that is working on that,” he said.

iPad Lego AR game

With something as new as AR is on Apple’s platforms, talking face-to-face with an Apple engineer who is developing the systems that your app must work on can be invaluable. After all, Apple needs developers on board so that its AR offering is well-supported. It’s the same with any new development, including the new AR-focused lidar sensor on the latest iPad Pro — if developers don’t know how to use the technology, it won’t take off.

Duro continued: “I do feel that hands-on sessions and labs are one of the most important aspects of every WWDC. You have to be there to experience it for yourself. Apple’s engineers are extremely helpful and humble when it comes to questions or issues you might have. They also love it when you start tinkering with tech they developed under strict secrecy for the last months or years. I am going to miss that.”

Will the new online format at least make up for that? Duro doubts it: “Even with the old format, everyone gets access to the latest content and talks. I don’t see this as an added value for people that didn’t attend.”

Duro’s case seems to be exceptional, as he’s working on something that could have featured prominently at this year’s event. Most of the other developers we spoke to seemed cautiously optimistic about what lay ahead, albeit disappointed at the reality of not being able to attend in person.

Whatever Apple comes up with, it’ll be a WWDC like no other — for better or worse.

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