Apple needs to rethink its WWDC approach

As a company, Apple gets a lot of things right. It built a phone that set the standard for an entire industry, with handset makers still playing catch up with the iPhone five years after that product’s debut. With the iPad, Apple created a product we didn’t even realize we needed and now can’t possibly imagine living without. And, lest we forget, it also does a respectable business making computers.

Yes, the list of things that Apple absolutely nails is a long and accomplished one. Which is good, because it’s pretty terrible at announcing developer conferences.

In case you missed it—and if you live west of the Rockies, there’s a pretty good chance you did—Apple announced the dates for the 2012 edition of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference at the slightly-less-than-godly hour of 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time Wednesday. That’s when WWDC tickets went on sale, and eager developers promptly snapped them up—so promptly, in fact, that it took just two hours for WWDC to sell out. That means, if you’re a Mac or iOS developer doing business in the Pacific time zone, chances are good that WWDC 2012 was announced and sold out long before you stumbled out of bed and had that first cup of coffee to begin your work day.

On the scale of knuckleheaded moves, that’s Ninth Level Stooge-ism. Creating software isn’t typically an early-to-bed/early-to-rise kind of profession. The odds are pretty good that West Coast-based developers weren’t perched in front of their Macs, iPhones, and iPads before the sun was up on the off chance that Wednesday would be the day of all days that Apple finally revealed its WWDC plans. “You snooze, you lose” may be a snappy rejoinder for online forums, but it doesn’t seem a particularly smart way to treat a sizable chunk of the people who enthusiastically build things for your assorted platforms.

And that’s why we shouldn’t off-handedly dismiss complaints about WWDC ticketing as sour grapes from people who found themselves on the wrong side of the Continental Divide. Apple values its secrecy, and on the product release front, that serves the company well—I say that as an ink-stained wretch who experiences comet-sightings more frequently than returned phone calls from Cupertino. But a developers conference isn’t a new iPad or a hush-hush OS feature or some unexpected Mac upgrade: It’s an actual event that people who make their livelihood in this racket might want a shot at attending. Yes, by springing the news of WWDC on everyone, Apple reaps the benefits from headlines of how quickly the event sold out, underscoring how popular its products are. But it’s doing so at the expense of people who have contributed to the popularity of those products.

On Tuesday, during Apple’s quarterly earnings conference call, Apple executives boasted about the more than 600,000 apps currently available for download from the iOS App Store. Those apps didn’t wind up there as if by magic. They were built by developers, some of whom probably benefited from attending past developer conferences and who might have appreciated a fair shot at buying a ticket for this year’s WWDC.

Over at Ars Technica, Jacqui Cheng had an in-depth report on the WWDC ticket crunch, including some really great insights from developers about how to satisfy the ramped-up interest in the conference. There are pros and cons to some of the solutions proposed in that article—expanding the size of the conference, I think, would reduce the all-important face time attendees can enjoy with Apple engineers, for example. But I don’t think there’s any dispute that ticketing to Apple’s major event for developers should be handled with greater care than a radio DJ giving away tickets to the Foghat concert at the Fairplex to the lucky 10th caller.

Apple does seem open to try and fix the process, at least if some of the changes it instituted this year are any indication. It limited buyers to just one ticket (or five for an organization), ostensibly to give more developers a shot at grabbing a ticket. And it put the clamps on ticket resales to quash the kind of profiteering that’s sprung up in past years. Of course, some of these new policies may be creating new problems—as I write this article, there’s an understandable uproar on Twitter from developers who bought multiple tickets for their employees using the same credit card only to discover that their orders have been cancelled. If anything, it illustrates the need for Apple to put even more care into how it handles WWDC.

So how should Apple handle things? Well, there is one element of an iPad launch that Apple would do well to replicate with WWDC ticketing—a delay between announcement and release. Apple doesn’t issue a press release at 5:30 a.m. that it’s shipped iPads to random Apple Stores around the country, so why do that with WWDC tickets? Announce when the event is taking place and then a few days later, open up the ticket window. Developers would still have to take their chances on getting a ticket, but at least they’d have fair notice.

Another possibility: institute a lottery system where registered developers could enter a drawing for the right to buy a WWDC ticket. If their name gets pulled from the hat, they have the option of paying the $1600 entry fee or making way for someone else. Again, not every developer is going to get the chance to attend this way, but at least it doesn’t leave things up the vagaries of an Internet connection.

Finally, in this age of video conferencing, it seems like the technology exists to include more developers even without expanding the capacity at WWDC. Yes, Apple makes videos of WWDC sessions available to developers after the event, and that’s a great move, but those videos aren’t available until weeks later. (On its WWDC Web page informing developers that the 2012 event is sold out, Apple indicates that it will make videos of all sessions available for free “shortly after the conference.”) A separate remote video track for developers who don’t have the opportunity to be at WWDC in person may not provide all the depth that attendees in San Francisco enjoy, but it gives more iOS and Mac software makers the chance to participate in some way.

It’s possible—more than possible really—that any one of these ideas brings its own set of flaws and drawbacks. But they strike me as more fair and reasonable than what Apple rolled out on Wednesday. More important, they acknowledge in some way that Apple values the developers who’ve contributed in some way to the company’s recent successes.

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