Like many Apple events over the past several years, the keynote at this year's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) tomorrow has created a superstorm of hype and speculation. The Apple rumor mill has been on overdrive in recent days, in part because Apple hasn't held a media event or launched any major new products since October. With a seemingly unrelenting chorus that Apple has ceased innovating and lost its way -- you can blame Wall Street, some in the tech media or even mainstream press outlets for the doom and gloom -- there's an extra sense of urgency about this particular keynote and what Apple CEO Tim Cook may or may not announce.
A couple of important unveilings are certain to occur: Apple has already said it will offer developers, both those at the event and those that couldn't make it, preview releases of iOS 7 and OS X 10.9. Apple will almost certainly deliver its roadmap for when and how both OS updates will be released and offer some insights into their new features.
The list of possible announcements -- possible, not necessarily likely -- includes more information about next-generation iPhones and iPads, including a low cost/low-end iPhone model; new Mac laptops; a revamped tower to replace the aging Mac Pro; a streaming music service; the much-hyped iWatch; updates to iCloud; the ability to build apps for the Apple TV; and a new version of iWork (the current Mac version of the iWork apps originally came bundled as iWork '09). iOS 7 is also presumed to have a significantly updated user interface as a result of Jony Ive's guidance as well as a much improved Maps solution and potential expansion of Siri's capabilities (which might also migrate into OS X).
All the speculation leading up to Monday's keynote has largely been driven by pundits, investors and Apple fans and critics -- and most of them are missing the point about just what WWDC is about.
WWDC is the single most important event in Apple's calendar this year (and every year), but not because of the keynote address and anything the company may roll out. In fact, the really important announcements at WWDC will be the ones that occur later in the day or week, the ones that the media isn't invited to watch.
WWDC isn't about the media and the public, as much as Apple might use it to tease everyone with glimpses of what's coming down the technology pike. It's about the 5,000 developers that were lucky enough to score a ticket for $1,599 (not including flights or hotels) in the roughly two minutes before they all sold out in April. And, for the first time, it's also about the developers that aren't in San Francisco, but will be soaking in much of that same information via session videos Apple has promised to make available this week -- while the conference is still under way.
More than any other company, Apple has proven how important a committed and engaged developer community is to success in today's technology business. Without that community, the iPhone might never have gained much traction and the iPad might never have made it to market at all. There's a reason Apple's App Store has such a healthy retinue of apps, and that ecosystem is a big reason for the success of Apple's iDevices.
Other companies are often judged in comparison to Apple and Google because of the communities both mobile leaders have created. One of the most common reasons cited for Windows RT's failure in the market is its lack of apps. BlackBerry, hoping to gain some ground on its own, has piggy-backed on the success of Android developers while Barnes & Noble recently found itself opening its Nook platform to the Google Play store because of the limited apps and content available for its devices.
WWDC is the event where Apple gets buy-in from developers for its upcoming OS revisions. It doesn't matter what system features, new hardware, APIs, or user experience elements Apple creates for iOS or OS X if developers don't incorporate them. Multitouch gestures have limited use or appeal if they only work in Apple's apps, Passbook would be pretty pointless if the only stores where it worked were Apple stores, the enterprise mobile management features that have helped iOS conquer the competition in the Fortune 500 would be near useless if companies like MobileIron and Airwatch didn't support and integrate them into existing enterprise infrastructures.
Whatever Apple unveils this week, publicly or behind the screen of any non-disclosure agreements, it needs to get its developers fired up about their products. That is particularly acute if the company does unveil plans for a completely new product like an iWatch or even a major upgrade to an existing product such as additional apps for Apple TVs. Even something as basic as a new form factor for iOS devices will need active developer support. Imagine if no developers had chosen to build specific apps for the iPad and it had come to market relying almost entirely on scaled-up iPhone apps. Not only does a new product require developer engagement, it requires developers to get up to speed on creating apps for it and to get those apps to market in a very short time-frame.
For developers (and some IT professionals), WWDC is not just about finding out what Apple is planning. It's more about learning how Apple software works, what they can do with it, how they can market it, how they can integrate new features with their existing iOS and Mac apps, and how they can integrate the changes with other products or solutions. It's also about learning how to write cleaner code, debug software better and more efficiently, use Apple's developer tools to their best, and get help from the Apple's engineers -- the ultimate experts -- in fixing a stubborn problems. It's also about networking opportunities that simply don't exist in everyday contexts.
Over the years, I've heard many Apple fans complain about the price of admission to the conference. For a fan, $1,599 is a lot for any event. For a developer or IT professional building or updating their skill set, it's a bargain. Most week-long IT training classes are two to three times more expensive and they're generally pretty limited by comparison. That Apple is making so much of the core WWDC experience, the 100+ sessions, available to anyone who drops $99 for an iOS or Mac developer membership and signs Apple's NDA is almost shocking value for money.
The reason Apple makes all of this available -- and the reason it announced it will offer a series of tech talks around the world for developers that couldn't get into WWDC -- is because it knows its success rests on its relationship with developers, the resources it gives them, and the income it helps them generate. Remember that when Cook steps off the stage at the end of the keynote. After the camera lights go dark and the last tweets go out, that's when the real work of WWDC, the important work, gets started.
Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. He has been a Computerworld columnist since 2003 and is a frequent contributor to CITEworld.com. Faas is also the author of iPhone for Work (Apress, 2009). You can find out more about him at RyanFaas.com and follow him on Twitter ( @ryanfaas).
This article, Forget the keynote. WWDC is still about the developers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
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