Why go to WWDC when you can go to C4?

It’s hard to use mere words to convey just how much fun the C4 conference is. For one thing, it kind of presupposes that your idea of fun is being crammed into the windowless basement of a hotel along with over 150 other Mac nerds. Let’s be honest: you’ve probably got places you’d rather be. But just in case you missed out, let me tell you what, exactly, you could have been doing with your past weekend.

Sure, Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference might be the place that developers go to get the word straight from the horse’s mouth, but for the independent Mac developer, the place to be is increasingly not San Francisco in June, but Chicago in September.

The C4 conference, created by Mac developer Jonathan “Wolf” Rentzsch, is now into its third year. This year’s installment was appropriately dubbed C4[2] (the previous iterations were, logically, C4[0] and C4[1]) and was the biggest yet, with more attendees and more sessions than either of the previous years.

Over three days, attendees packed the Doubuletree Hotel’s conference room to hear from more than a dozen different speakers. The topics ranged from the intensely technical (a look at the programming language Scala by Twitter engineer Alex Payne) to the just-as-complicated issues of business (the opportunities and pitfalls of contract programming by Andy Finnell).

Boasting more than 170 attendees, this year’s conference hit the upper ceiling, prompting Rentzsch to suggest that next year’s registration might operate on a lottery system, in an attempt to keep things fair. Most developers were admittedly not thrilled with the prospect that they might not be able to attend—a testament to just how popular the conference is.

And the talks are only one part of the conference. In between the sessions, developers swapped stories, jokes, tips, and techniques with their colleagues, showcasing once again the tight-knit camaraderie of the Mac development community, even when it comes to programmers with competing products. Friendly digs during presentations are far from an uncommon sight at C4, and this year was no exception.

A “backchannel” on the social networking site Twitter was as much a part of the conference as the face-to-face contact. During a panel session moderated by Delicious Monster founder Wil Shipley, attendees were invited to pose questions to the panel via the service, and voting for the Iron Coder competition was done on Twitter as well.

The high point of the conference, for many of the attendees that I talked to, was a presentation on security by a trio of security researchers, led by Thomas Ptacek of Matsanao Security. The three led probably the most entertaining and amusing doom-and-gloom session that I’ve ever seen. The upshot? The only way to be secure is really to not own a computer—so don’t worry about it. Attendees laughed; they cried; they shared their desire to lock themselves in a dark basement and curl up in the fetal position.

Even if it wasn’t the main topic of the conference, the tacit acknowledgement was that developing for the iPhone was just as big as the Mac. At last year’s event, iPhone development was rare, limited to the few who had jailbroken their iPhones and puzzled together their own way of creating applications for the device.

This year, by contrast, comes in the wake of Apple’s iPhone Software Development Kit and the opening of the App Store. A substantial number of attendees are selling software on the App Store, and nearly every attendee has an iPhone. While excitement about the platform continues to run high, a current of dissatisfaction is clearly evident among developers. Plenty of them could be heard voicing their dissatisfaction over Apple’s “black box” approach to application vetting on the App Store, and references to “Apple’s [expletive] NDA,” which denies devs the opportunity to discuss the details of iPhone programming with each other, could be found in several presentations—and even on t-shirts.

The show wrapped up with its annual Iron Coder competition, a throwback to the MacHack conferences of yesteryear. Developers were invited to submit a hack based on a programming framework and a theme, this year the iPhone’s Core Location framework and “paranoia” respectively. Ecamm Network’s Ken and Glen Aspeslagh took home the prize—a MacBook Air filled with donated Mac software—for the second year running, thanks to their program that combined an iPhone rigged with infrared LEDs and the remote from a Nintendo Wii to create an app, called “PoorLocation,” that allowed the person holding the iPhone to draw pictures on their Mac by moving the iPhone around. Useful? Not really, but that’s kind of the point.

Developers were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the conference, with pretty much everyone I spoke to looking forward to next year. Suggestions of bribery, cajolery, and even blackmail ran rampant as attendees tried to figure out ways of ensuring that they’d be guaranteed a spot for C4[3], and on Monday morning goodbyes continued to ripple outwards on Twitter on as the attendees made their tired, sleepy ways home, saving up just enough energy so that they can return once again next year.

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