Reflections after WWDC21

June 13, 2021

Apple’s annual developer conference WWDC happened this week. The conference keynote session is aimed at the public. The rest is a developer-oriented event where the Apple developer community learns of Apple software platform changes and updates for the coming year.

WWDC21

I don’t have much to say about the content that’s not already been said elsewhere. I posted my notes for Keynote and Platforms State of the Union on the Tact blog.

This WWDC was a fully virtual event for the second time in the row. As I went through the conference experience, it struck me that there is a very curious and diverse mix of channels this year that I use to access the event. Unlike last year where Apple had to scramble to make the event online (COVID happened just a few months before the event), this year they had proper time to prepare. I think the whole mix of channels is interesting to study for other future virtual events, and provides some intriguing clues about Apple’s thinking.

Truth be told, I haven’t been to many virtual conferences (ever, or over the past year) so I can’t compare the experience with other similar events. I have been to a few WWDC-s in person, though, and can definitely make a comparison between the in-person and online WWDC flavors.

Let’s dive right in and go through the different ways to participate in WWDC.

Sessions

Sessions are the heart of WWDC. They are focused presentations about a specific subject, often complemented by code snippets and example projects. You watch the sessions either on the web, or in the dedicated Developer app which exists for macOS and iOS (and maybe tvOS too? I don’t know about tvOS).

WWDC sessions on the web

WWDC sessions in Developer app

One WWDC session in Developer app

During the in-person conferences, the sessions were presented live on stage (and recorded for video distribution in more recent years). They were divided into a daily schedule of roughly hour-long blocks. A big part of live WWDC was moving around between the different rooms and sessions (and often standing in line to get into the more popular ones, with some of the rooms even being full sometimes, overflow rooms sometimes used etc).

The modern video sessions have a high production value, are all released at the same time on a given day, and have varying lengths according to the actual content needs. I join those who find the video experience to be much more usable, as you are not dependent on a strict daily schedule and can watch them at your own pace. You don’t have worries like “these two things I’d like to see are happening at the same time”, “can I fit in the room”, “none of the sessions during this hour apply to me so it’s almost an hour of the conference wasted”.

The Developer app is useful for watching the sessions, as you can manage your own playlist across all year’s WWDC-s, and each session includes a transcript and direct links to extra resources.

Digital Lounges

Digital Lounges were a new and exciting thing this year. Essentially, a heavily moderated Slack community with a packed program including trivia quizes, coding exercises, “watch a session together” events, “meet the presenter”, and more.

Most of the time, you couldn’t speak freely in channels. To ask a question, you submitted it to a form, and it was then posted with an answer in the public channel (or sometimes replied to privately, e.g to direct you to a similar question already answered before). Discussion was open in many threads though.

The lounges were open during Californian business hours because those were formally the hours of the conference, and I suppose that’s when the staff manning the channels was working. There was massive staff participation. You could indeed see many presenters or experts answer questions and actively participate in thread discussions.

It was curious to note that the profiles of all Apple staff were Memoji. This syncs with the opening of the keynote, where Tim Cook walked into a theater full of emoji audience, which I suppose was all the Apple staff participating in the event. I didn’t check if the emoji in that opening scene were random or actually corresponded to Apple staff, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter was the case.

It would be great to post a screenshot of the Lounges, but I think the Lounges terms prohibit us from doing that, so I won’t. The information was freely moving though. As one of the staff members said, “The Digital Lounges are not confidential spaces, and you may share the information you’ve learned with others.” Not much to see on the screenshot though—it looked and worked just like regular Slack.

Participants were encouraged to take any notes and screenshots for their own reference, since the lounges would close after the event. Many participants thought the closing was a shame, as there was lots of great knowledge shared there by Apple staff, some of it quite unique, and it would be useful to have this as a searchable resource. On the other hand, I also understand treating it as a real “event lounge“ which is an experience limited to a specific time and place.

I cannot help but note that Apple seems to be endorsing Slack big time. They don’t do frequent integrations with third parties in this fashion. So for example, the fact that Xcode Cloud can natively post notifications to Slack has quite a lot of weight and meaning. I suppose Apple has decided that Slack simply is the state of the art in professional enterprise business chat space. Yet, it’s not so important that they’d want to have it in house (yet?), as they do with their core technologies, at least at this time.

Labs

Labs have made a successful transition from physical to virtual space. I’ve participated in both kinds, and the virtual format has worked better for me.

For those who haven’t been in the labs – you book an appointment on a given topic, and you get assigned a call slot of half an hour. At that time, you call in, and have a regular video call, possibly with screen sharing, with Apple engineers who are experts in that area. Myself and many other lab participants can say that these have always been useful, and the all the engineers I have spoken with are knowledgeable, helpful, and kind.

A thought struck me about labs, though. Essentially, they’re customer support for developers. Can you think of another product where customer support is available only once a year for one week? I’m exaggerating, of course, as there are many other ways for developers to get support besides the labs.

Developer forums

Apple developer forums

The sessions refer to developer forums that are a public platform for discussing Apple technology, with varying level of participation from the staff. All WWDC sessions are numbered and have their own corresponding tag in the forums, with varying levels of activity. Somehow I didn’t feel the same excitement with forums as with other channels, where there seemed to be a larger amount of more consistent participation by the staff.

Swift forums

Swift forums

Although not formally a WWDC channel, Swift forums are another valuable source of developer information, related to Swift language and ecosystem. This WWDC brought us a particularly contentious issue of concurrency in Swift. While it was anticipated to be released with Swift 5.5 and announced at WWDC, it was a surprise and disappointment to many developers that it wasn’t backported to previous platforms. As of this writing, Apple has said that it isn’t backported, but they are considering doing it. This is a highly informative thread on the matter that accurately presents all information and viewpoints, and also modes of speaking and behavior.

Employee Twitter

A curious thing has happened over the past year or so. More and more Apple staff is making an appearance on Twitter. The company hasn’t acknowledged this in any of its official channels, but the staff presence on Twitter is surely sanctioned, if not encouraged, by the company.

Unlike Digital Lounges where all of the staff used the same style of Memoji as their avatar and the language was somewhat scripted and sugar-coated, the staff Twitter often feature their true photos and authentic selves. Although much of the talk is about work, there’s often personal reflection that would have been unthinkable to publicly see from someone working at Apple just a few years ago.

There’s no directory or list of Apple people on Twitter. Well, sure, there are many Twitter lists curated by different people, but there’s no single official or authoritative one. Twitter’s discovery works quite well for me: I follow interesting people in the Apple developer community, and through mentions and Twitter recommendations, I find more.

Employee Twitter augmented the WWDC experience really nicely. The staff encouraged audience to join labs, highlighted interesting things from the sessions, and followed up on questions.

Social and community events

Above were all the channels and events tied to Apple company and staff. There is a surrounding universe of community events too numerous to list here. Many Apple educators, journalists and podcasters provide live stream and commentary, and there are social events.

The one event not replicated in virtual WWDC is the official Beer Bash, which was a social after-hours event for WWDC members with food, drinks, and music. I wonder what a virtual Beer Bash would look like? Throughout the COVID isolation times, I had quite a few small-scale beer bashes with various circles of friends using various calling tools. Some tools are interesting, like spatial.chat, which lets you sort of recreate a party atmosphere where you move around between groups. I wonder what would that be like for thousands of WWDC participants?

Live near WWDC is an institution that I was lucky enough to see live a few times, and that now made the transition to the online world. I had to miss the current one because timezones.

Summary

What does all this mean? Where are the Apple community and WWDC going?

Two trends stand out to me: openness, and diversity+inclusion (D&I). Which, perhaps, are not too far from each other.

It was not too long ago when the whole WWDC was under lock and key. The content was available strictly to developer program members, forums were under a confidentiality agreement, and you could not discuss anything about the beta publicly. Fast forward to today, where all of the content is online and freely distributed, sharing is encouraged, and we have real Apple people on Twitter providing nuance and direct unfiltered thoughts on it all.

Perhaps touching both openness and D&I, virtual WWDC is surely available and accessible to more people around the world. The amount of real-event tickets was limited and distributed with a lottery during the more recent years, and the cost of attendance was prohibitive to many. (Do you remember WWDC used to cost $1500+ just for attendance? Not to mention travel, lodging etc.)

I love to see how Apple is steadfast committed to D&I. This is pervasive through all aspects of WWDC: the showcased software features, the large share of accessibility sessions, the composition of session presenters, and events like Diversity in Swift Community Meetup. I truly believe they are showing the way to other companies and communities around the world who have not yet decided to fully embrace D&I.

What does the future hold? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to it. It feels fitting to end this with the newest James Dempsey song, first performed at the Live near WWDC event this year.