WWDC goes mainstream

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An annual trade show has only a certain number of decent years in it when it can remain an intimate, low-key affair where the members of an industry can congregate, set the stage for future business and innovation, get a few drinks on the company expense account, and then go home. Because if it truly is an important conference, then inevitably the jackasses who wear their Bluetooth headsets everywhere they go will sniff it out and ruin it.

(If you wear a Bluetooth headset everywhere you go and you are not a jackass, I really should apologize. Don’t worry; I’ll get to all 82 of you eventually… just be patient. Though I should warn you that when I call you, if you answer simply by saying “Go” I’ll be forced to use my influence to have you removed from the International Database Of People Who Wear Bluetooth Headsets Everywhere But Who Are Not Jackasses.)

I suppose the San Diego Comic-Con is the classic example of this sort of thing. It’s the biggest annual comics and science-fiction convention in America. I attended it in 1999, when it was pretty huge but was still a place where professionals and wannabe-professionals could network, and fans could buy dead treeware and artwork and meet their favorite creators.

Now it’s a place where fans can wait in line for three hours for the pleasure of being told that the auditorium has already reached capacity and they won’t be able to hear the producer of Iron Man III explain why he replaced Robert Downey, Jr. with someone younger and cheaper.

I come not to bemoan this phenomenon, but to praise it. At the 2009 Comic-Con, you’ll be in the same facility as Kate Bosworth, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson. In 1999, I was in a facility with a heartbreaking number of fat 40-year-old men wearing a set of Batman tights with no underpants.

Steve Jobs at WWDC.
Patient Zero at a previous WWDC keynote.

So I’m monitoring the ongoing Bluetoothification of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference with great interest. The lion-haired men and women of the developer community have the cunning, reflexes and savagery of a mongoose in a basket of cobras but they breed at such a slow rate compared to the Bluetooth bunch that they’ll inevitably be outnumbered soon.

The vector for this infection is easy to identify. It’s Steve Jobs.

WWDC has been an annual event since 1983, when it was a deeply insider event. Most of what was discussed was for developers’ ears only and even the contents of the keynote was delivered under a non-disclosure agreement that kept the press and the general public away. Which isn’t to say that the things announced at WWDC were of any possible interest to anybody who wasn’t writing device drivers for an AppleTalk-to-Centronics hardware print spooler.

But the transmogrification of the first WWDC session from a simple “state of the nerdly union” address to a full-blown Stevenote in 1998 made the change in the conference’s character inevitable and irrevocable. The family of viruses responsible for Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fever fear nothing and yet they all steer clear of any room that Steve is keynoting in. When His Royal Steveness gets up there and starts spinning plates, everything else in the room starves and dies for lack of attention. Documentation of the methodology for binding Python scripts to Cocoa in XCode never had a chance.

An image from the in the guys-in-Batman-tights days of WWDC.

This year just made it all official: WWDC is just another keynote on the tour schedule. Months before June 9, anticipation about the new iPhone had crowded out any other possible expectation and ensured that the only questions the audiences were interested in would be “How much?” and “I know that this is technically supposed to be Q&A, but I just wanted to take this opportunity to personally thank you, Steve, and the entire iPhone team for…”

Honest to God. It’s as though Apple had been cheating on its developers with consumers and the mainstream press, and WWDC 2008 was the year when they got so shameless about it that they told their collective mistress “You know what? It’d be a lot simpler if you just started calling me at the house instead of at the office.”

So: goodbye to the clubby and technical industry event. Hello to a new opportunity to spot someone in the crowd who you think might have been that guy in that movie with Nicolas Cage a couple of years ago. Here’s what we can look forward to in future WWDC keynotes:

  • 2009: Steve is introduced by a former Beatle (living).

  • 2010: A personal guest of Jonathan Ive is pulled from the auditorium so that Simon Cowell can be seated at the last minute.

  • 2011: First appearance of some sort of teary plea for an end to global warming or, quote “that thing with all those poor kids over there, you know, recently”

  • 2012: Has-been and wannabe movie starlets stroll up and down Howard Street in front of the convention center on Keynote Morning, trolling for paparazzi. They have paid the designer of their gown the customary extra $280 for the special mechanism that causes the strap holding the top up to “accidentally” disengage when triggered by multiple flashes.

  • 2013: Keynote is concluded with a musical performance by two former Beatles (Paul plus a tastefully-reanimated John or George; let’s just say that Apple’s new product that year will turn a damned many heads).

I can only see one single downside to this overall shift. In the past, I’ve been unable to attend WWDC beyond the keynote because of my status as a journalist. Apple has told me that I wield too much power in this industry (in so many words), and that sends me away from those closed doors with a certain spring in my step.

In the future, it’ll be because a 6’5” former nationally-ranked Ultimate Fighter manning the door tells me I’m not on the list.

“But you didn’t even ask my name,” I’ll protest. The man will continue staring off into the middle-distance, trying to work out whether it’s rabbit or deer that he thinks he smells over there in the bushes.

It’ll be just like I’m at a fancy Academy Awards afterparty. It’ll be awesome.

[Andy Ihnatko is a technology columnist and author whose work appears regularly in Macworld and elsewhere. He is also technology columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.]

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