Life at WWDC

(Editor’s Note: Although in this piece Rob Griffiths describes generally what life is like at WWDC, it doesn’t contain anything about the content of the show. The actual content of WWDC, beyond the keynote address, is completely confidential and nobody—not attendees, not members of the media, nobody—is allowed to report on it. Our story is merely meant to give non-attendees some sense of the atmosphere of the event.)

If you’re a Mac developer, then Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference may be the single most important event on your calendar. It’s where you’ll see Apple’s latest additions to OS X, get one-on-one time with Apple engineers (more than 1,200 Apple engineers, in fact), get advice on bringing your program to market, consult with human interface designers, get help with graphics and media in your apps or making your code run faster, and attend a wide-ranging selection of informative presentations. There are six distinct tracks and more than 240 sessions and labs this year. In short, it’s the place to be (and be seen) for developers from all over the world—and there are more than 5,000 of them here.

So what’s a business major and Macworld writer doing here, wearing his WWDC Attendee badge and sitting in on sessions with people much brighter than he?

As it turns out, even if you don’t make a living building software, the WWDC can be an enlightening experience. I thought I’d share exactly what goes behind the scenes at WWDC. Keep in mind that the content of the conference is protected by a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t write about that. Instead I’ll focus on the event in general, how it feels to be the least-technical person in a room of hundreds, and what I think I’ll take away at the end of the week.

The event itself

Moscone West plays host to the 5,000 attendees and 1,200 Apple engineers for the week. On the ground floor is the registration area and a huge room that holds the dining hall (hundreds of tables), and it also happens to be where I’m sitting now as I type this dispatch. This room also holds the hands-on labs where developers get one-on-one assistance with their code, a wall of power strips for recharging while computing, and a gaming area with about 25 Macs networked together. The Macs are running a variety of games, including Quake 4 and Redline Racing—and no, that’s not all I’ve been doing! The gaming area is a popular destination for between-session time, and all machines have headphones, so the room doesn’t sound like some over-sized video arcade.

The second and third floors are where you’ll find the sessions. The really huge rooms are on the third floor, where Monday’s keynote room (Presidio) is used for the more popular sessions—there are seats for literally thousands of people, and I’ve seen those seats mostly full for a few sessions.

Apple developers, as you might expect, are not a passive group—several times I witnessed roars of approval that rivaled those you’ll hear during a Jobs keynote. As a Mac user, I find it reassuring to see so many developers interested in (and clearly excited by) the platform and its future direction. The smaller rooms are still large, seating hundreds of people. Every room has an excellent projection and sound system, so hearing and seeing the presentations isn’t a problem.

Due to the multi-floor layout, I’d probably say the most-utilized tool at WWDC isn’t a Mac or a cell phone, but rather the escalators, which stay busy all day long, shuffling attendees between the cafeteria and the two sessions floors. (The cafeteria is heavily used, as food and drink are included in the price of admission.)

Stranger in a strange land

There are times when I feel like I’m a somewhat technically-oriented Mac user. I can work my way through Terminal commands, I’ve written a couple tiny AppleScripts, I can handle Excel and Word macros, and Automator is one of my favorite OS X 10.4 applications. That feeling quickly vanishes, though, when I sit down in one of the WWDC sessions, where the vast majority of the content goes flying by, way above my head. So exactly why do I go, and what do I get out such sessions?

The main thing to realize is that WWDC sessions run the gamut from extremely technical to high-level overview. For instance, I didn’t bother to attend the session on Fundamentals of Kernel Debugging, knowing that I’d get absolutely nothing out of it. However, sessions such as Effective Widget Creation with Dashcode, Creating Leading-edge 2-D Graphics with Quartz, and Design Innovation behind Apple.com are a different story. Dashcode, for instance, is a tool (available as a public beta for 10.4 ) that makes it quite simple to create basic Dashboard widgets, even for non-technical folks like myself. So while much of the session will still be over my head, I’ll be able to learn a bit more about how Dashcode works, which will help me write some basic widgets for my own use, as well as sharing that knowledge with others through future articles.

Other sessions, such as Time Machine In-Depth, are useful for understanding just how new features in OS X are going to work, and how they came to be. Sometimes by listening to the engineering background behind a given feature, I gain useful knowledge as a user of that technology. Knowing how Time Machine works, for instance, may change how I choose to store my files, or what kinds of programs I choose to use, or my overall backup strategy.

These sessions also provide an appreciation for just how much engineering work went into a given feature. Consider Time Machine from a user’s perspective: “Oh cool, I can keep backup copies of all my data quickly and easily. That’s neat!” But behind that seemingly-simple operation, there were a lot of very difficult questions to address: How do we handle files that are updated while the backup is running? How do we make this work such that it won’t interfere with the user’s normal use of the machine? What happens if a file is busy when it’s time to back it up? How do we know what files have been changed on the system without searching through all 2 million of them every time? As users, we never think about such questions, but that’s because the engineers do spend time—a lot of it—thinking about them!

In the WWDC sessions, you learn how the Apple engineers addressed these challenges, and what changes they may have had to make to OS X to get everything working. You quickly learn that it’s really, really hard to make something as complex as Time Machine easy for the typical user to understand and use. You also see that Apple engineers have a clear passion for the things they’re working on—they’re excited about the new features in Leopard, and want to help developers put them to use in their own applications.

As someone who works with OS X for a living, knowing these behind-the-scenes details will help me in the future. With a deeper knowledge of how Time Machine works, for instance, I may be able to better answer users’ queries, or to recommend programs that work best with its technology.

But make no mistake—this is a very technical conference, and it’s clearly targeted at those who make their living developing OS X applications. So in a very real sense, I do feel like a stranger in a strange land, and quite privileged to listen in on the conversations, even if most of them are well beyond my skill level.

Conclusion

Attendees pay for the privilege of attending WWDC, and it’s not an inexpensive ticket. But the cost of the ticket gives Mac developers excellent access to Apple engineering resources, a variety of targeted technical discussions, and lab time to help solve their most vexing issues. As but one example, I had lunch today with a one-person development shop, and he was quite excited about his upcoming lab time with the human interface group. He doesn’t live anywhere near Cupertino, so WWDC is his once-a-year opportunity to get one-on-one help with his interface questions, directly from those who should know the best. It’s meeting time that he values highly, and that would otherwise be quite difficult to set up.

For me, though, this week is all about the future. It’s a great chance to talk to developers about what they’re working on, to peak behind the curtains at the next version of OS X, and with any luck, to leave with some real world knowledge I can put to good use once Leopard ships this fall.

It’s also a great way to get rejuvenated about the Mac platform: after spending a week with 6,200-plus Mac-focused individuals, it’s hard not to leave feeling good about our platform of choice and its future. Between the improvements Apple is making to OS X in 10.5, and the things that these developers will be able to do with those improvements, the future of OS X looks quite strong.

  
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