The Case for In-Person Conferences
Recently Apple announced that WWDC 2022 would primarily be an online event, as it has been the last two years. Much of the Apple commentariat has been talking since the 2020 conference about the superiority of online only WWDC, with many calling for a permanent shift away from an in-person annual gathering. There are a couple of reasons people cite for this which I think are valid:
A $1600 ticket and a week's worth of travel and existence in California were very expensive.
Better content for virtual attendees
Many people found the videos designed from the beginning to be online-only more compelling when viewed at home than previous years' solution of filming the in-person sessions. In addition to the presentation style, they didn't have to form a coherent schedule, so an API which took 12 minutes to explain could have a 12 minute video explaining it, rather than a 30 or 60 minute presentation.
There's another reason people often cite which I'm not convinced by: inclusivity. To be sure, in-person WWDC excludes people - it excludes people who can't afford it, it excludes people who can't travel to California for a week, and, having sold out every year since 2008, it excludes people who didn't win the ticket lottery. Is this a reason not to have an in-person event at all, though? I'm not sure. In the first place, many other parts of the "writing software for Apple platforms" world are exclusive - the developer program costs $99 per year, and of course a device to write apps with costs anywhere from
$999 whoops forgot about Swift Playgrounds for iPad $329 to $52,999.
Additionally, Apple has been making the conference content more available than ever over the years - session videos were first available for purchase, then free with a developer account, and eventually free with a developer account and posted during the conference, giving those who couldn't attend the chance to get the same content with only a few days delay. Of course, there were many more people each year who wanted to attend than could attend, but given the efforts made to make the content more widely available, I don't think that's a slam dunk reason not to have an in-person conference at all.
There are also a couple of real benefits to an in-person event which some of the commentary is too quick to dismiss:
Whether someone is a professional iOS developer or a bedroom tinkerer, or even just an interested fan, opportunities to make connections with people who share your interests are not always widely available, even without all of the
truthsstereotypes about most of us being introverted basement dwellers. It's one of the reasons, for people who like such things, that sports events and concerts are so exhilarating - for a short time, the thing you like is a normal thing people like. And people often meet there.
I'm sure those suggesting that the era of in-person WWDC is over don't mean their comments in this way, but sometimes there's a bit of an "I got mine" feeling to the discussion. Yes, people who have been there before might not feel like there's any further value to them personally to future in-person conferences. But calling for something to be cancelled after you've had your turn is the most exclusive take of all.
As I write this, it's been 944 days since Apple announced products in front of real live people. The company has all sorts of ways of getting user feedback, but anyone who has ever presented at an in-person event knows how much the reality of the crowd focuses your mind and drives up your desire to get things right, even way back in the product design stage. "How are people going to react when we show them the demo?" adds good pressure to a product process, and for two years now this has been missing.
There have been some memorable audience reactions at WWDC over the years, from Craig Federighi's surprise at the amount of applause they got for fixing multiple displays in 2013, to the huge intake of breath that followed John Ternus' announcement of the price of the Pro Stand in 2019. And WWDC is the one time of year where Apple has to brace for an audience reaction from people they didn't invite - the crowd is well disposed to the company, certainly, but it's not the same as a press pack. I can't help wonder how the anticipation of facing people in person might have helped them avoid last year's Safari misadventure.
I have no idea whether there will be another in-person WWDC, but I hope there is. I even hope the lunches are still bad.