WWDC Labs Without WWDC

Today the 5,000 or so tickets for WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference, sold out in a couple of minutes. That’s a new record. In 2008 the conference sold out for the first time but it took two months. In 2009 it sold out in one month, in 2010 it took a week. 2011 took that down to a day and in 2012 the tickets were available for 70 minutes. The increasing demand for tickets is despite Apple making the session videos freely available within days of the conference and this year they are intending to post videos of the sessions during the conference.

To me the attraction of WWDC falls into three areas. There are the sessions themselves where you get to hear about all of the new and exciting things Apple are letting developers do via new APIs. There is the social aspect; the parties, both official and unofficial, as well as the chance to mingle with thousands of other developers. Finally there are the labs where you can go and talk to Apple’s engineers and have them help you solve your coding problems.

Apple have made the sessions themselves less important over the years by releasing the videos for free and promptly after the event. This year they are potentially allowing developers to see the content in real-time. The demand probably isn’t driven by the sessions themselves.

The social aspect is a strong draw but the increasing number of great independent conferences is probably having a bit of an impact on this too, at least for longer term Cocoa developers. Newer developers will definitely get a buzz from just going to a WWDC. However the last couple of years have seen increasing numbers of developers descend on San Francisco during WWDC week despite not actually attending the conference just for the social element so perhaps this too is less of a draw than it used to be.

The labs are massively valuable and important however. People new to WWDC or to Cocoa development might not realise this or have a particular need to go but many developers try to attend the conference just for the labs. Being able to talk over a problem you’ve encountered with the guys who wrote the frameworks you’re fighting is a great experience and incredibly useful. This is the bit of WWDC I’d like to see expanded and opened up to many more developers.

In November 2011 I was lucky enough to attend an Apple Tech Talk one-day event in London. In addition to there being the usual high-quality Apple presentations they also ran a mini-lab. There weren’t a vast number of engineers there but there were enough spanning the frameworks to help with a broad range of topics. I had a couple of questions which were answered in minutes and saved me hours of research and stumbling around.

Apple do allow developers to raise Technical Support Incidents where engineers will help you out with coding issues and you get two in each of the annual developer programme subscriptions. These are dealt with via email and can span several days and whilst they generally work it is not as easy to have a discussion about a problem due to the nature of email.

So what I’d love to see is for Apple to take the labs out on the road around the world. I’d not expecting vast number of Apple engineers to attend but perhaps additional ones who are back in California could take part via screen sharing and video chat sessions. If I knew that Apple were hosting a lab in London every three or six months I’d put it in my diary and try to buy tickets so that I could spend a day mingling with developers and talking to Apple’s engineers.

I wonder if mobile labs would help bring the demand for WWDC tickets back down to a sensible level. Possibly not. However it would be a great service for the developer community to buy into. Literally.