No WWDC This Year For Me

Well, I missed out on WWDC, mainly because of unfortunate timing. I’ve been checking the site every day for the past month now (last year, the tickets went on sale at the end of March) because no one knows for sure when they will go on sale. Of course, the one day I have a morning appointment is the day they go on sale, and I missed out by maybe 20 minutes. Now, of course, discussion about how to revamp the ticket process is underway (Ars Technica has a piece out today, and I expect more as the day goes on). It is interesting to understand something about WWDC to see why it is structured the way it is. It is also useful to explore possible ways to make it more “fair”, recognizing that the current approach really isn’t as unfair as some may believe.

Hot Tickets and Fairness

There are a couple of things to consider about WWDC when thinking about allocating tickets. First, WWDC isn’t the only hot-topic developer conference. Google’s own conference, Google I/O, also sold out in a very, very short period of time. Granted, it doesn’t get the attention that WWDC gets (in part because WWDC has the all-so-important keynote where major product announcements usually occur). But it is equally sought after.

Second, no matter what system is put into place, there will always be cries of “foul”. The biggest complaints about WWDC revolve around timing, limited availability and non-developers getting in on the act. No one knows in advance when the tickets are going on sale. It isn’t just what time, but what day. The time they are released does seem to be geared toward Eastern time, so unless you are an early-riser like myself, people west of the Mississippi can easily miss out. There are also a limited number of tickets available, with the 5,000 limit being based what Moscone West will handle. The last issue is that, supposedly, members of the media will get tickets just to attend the keynote. It is apparently done by those that aren’t on the regular media invite list, and it means one of the few times that anyone outside of Apple-approved media participants can get into an Apple announcement.

The Limits on WWDC

There are some limitations on WWDC in its current form. First, there aren’t that many large convention facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Moscone complex is the largest, and of the 3 venues (West, North and South), West is apparently the biggest with the right kind of infrastructure.

So why not move to a bigger venue outside of the Bay Area? Simple: Apple brings about 1,000 of their own engineers to the event. They are the presenters, they staff the UX consulting sessions, and the various technology labs. When you talk to someone at a lab session, you are talking to a person that actually works on the hardware or software for the product in question. This isn’t a sales support engineer, or someone who mans a 1-800 help line for first-level support. They are the people that are actually building the Apple products that are used today. This means that you stand a very good chance of getting the answer you need, or finding the person you need through one degree of separation.

In many cases, those engineers are only at a particular lab or presentation for a specific day. Not all of the Apple engineers spend the entire day at the conference. They are there for their assigned presentations or lab time, and many will head back to work when they are done. But, if Apple held the event at a larger venue in another city (for example, in Las Vegas, which has truly huge conference facilities available), that means Apple now has to pay for travel, accommodations and food for 1,000 people. Sure, some could fly in first thing in the morning, do their thing, and fly out that same day. But that won’t necessarily work for all of them. The cost to hold the conference would skyrocket, not only because of the added costs to get Apple staff to and from the event, but they have more downtime where they are travelling or at the event and not at work.

Another idea is to have multiple conferences. The biggest challenge is resource availability. Apparently, preparation for WWDC inside Apple starts 3 months in advance. That means drafting, reviewing and revising the presentations, building and packaging any supporting downloads, and prepping other media and support artifacts. Granted, a “repeat WWDC” (so one in June and one September) wouldn’t require a second 3-month effort from most people. But there is still some prep time involved, and that is time not spent working on product.

Anything “Fair” Would Be Complicated

I have seen discussions about alternate approaches like staggered release (only so many tickets are sold in a set time period, meaning that sales would be spread out over the course of a day), a lottery system or other such mechanisms. There are probably a few things that I would suggest, and that would be imminently workable, to try to bring a more balanced approach to ticket sales. They are (or should be) pretty simple.

The first would be to pre-announce the on-sale date and time (or times if they go with spreading the sale out over the day). This levels the playing field for everyone. Last year, the tickets when on sale in late March. This year it is late April. Even the on-sale time is apparently different. I’m not sure what Apple is hoping to gain by making this thing a game, and it doesn’t serve any reasonable purpose to do so. Let everyone know a month or so in advance when the event is scheduled, and when tickets will go on sale. That, at least, gives everyone a fighting chance. It also gives people a chance to plan the rest of the trip (travel, accommodation) further in advance.

The second (and I’ll probably get roasted for this) is to de-emphasize the keynote and don’t use it for product announcements. Apparently, some portion of the tickets sold are bought by members of the media that aren’t on Apple’s invite list for new product announcements. WWDC is the one time they can get into an Apple product announcement without a special invite from Apple. Yes, it is very cool to be at the keynote and see new stuff rolled out. But I go to WWDC for the sessions, not just the keynote. By removing the product announcements, you take away the incentive for non-developers to buy a ticket just for the Monday keynote. That’s a ticket that is now no longer available for a legitimate developer who needs or wants to learn something. I would happily forego attending a new product announcement to have a better shot at getting to the rest of the event.

The last would be to put some limits on the number of people from each company or organization. I don’t have hard numbers, but I imagine that a certain number of tickets are sold to send multiple people from larger companies. Being bigger shouldn’t make their attendance more important. There are some one-person shops that are very important to Apple, and they should have a reasonable chance at getting into the conference. Again, I don’t know for certain that this is an issue, but it is one that I would imagine could be an issue. The Apple Store on-line already has mechanisms in place to limit purchases to “N per customer”, so implementing this should be fairly simple.

Other ideas I’ve read about (expand to use the other 3 Moscone buildings and expand the available tickets, lottery of some kind) are probably non-starters. Even if all Apple did was announce when the tickets would be available, that would go a long way in giving everyone some kind of chance. As it is now, it isn’t exactly a level playing field. The other items would be nice to have, but I think announcing the sale date is by far the most important.

No System Would Be Perfectly “Fair”

No matter what Apple does, there will always be some element that some (or many) will perceive as unfair. It isn’t that the current approach (Guess The On-Sale Date!) is inherently unfair. A lottery system wouldn’t be radically different than the somewhat random chance that exists today. No matter what system is in place, there will more people who didn’t get a ticket than did, and you can bet some portion of them will be dissatisfied no matter what changes were put into place.

Am I disappointed that I can’t go this year? Sure I am. Do I think the current approach is “unfair”? Maybe a little, but not so much that I think Apple needs to completely rework it (unless they redo it so it works in my favour, in which case I’m all for it 🙂 ). A few tweaks would be nice, but in the end, it is still something of a long-shot to get tickets. The simple fact is that there are substantially more people who want to go than there is space available. That means that, no matter what system is used, there is still a better chance I won’t get a ticket than will.

The benefit of this ticket frenzy? I know that Apple has a healthy developer ecosystem, which bodes well for potential success supporting Apple products. I’d rather have a vibrant and growing potential market that features a conference that is hard to attend, than a conference that I know I can go to because few others want to bother. That is an upside I can live with.