Apple is hosting its annual WWDC developer conference at its Apple Park campus this week, after two years of virtual events. Even now, the scene in Cupertino is a scaled-back affair, with fewer developers and fewer media. Yet the company has rarely seemed so jubilant at gathering the Apple Faithful.
The first thing you encounter here are the greeters, who are extra friendly this year. They’re everywhere; you’re never more than 15 feet from one–or a clump of 10— of them, from the time you park your car to the time you leave. They all wear yellow T-shirts that read “hello” in an understated-yet stylish-font. They are a diverse bunch, yet all are sparkly, energetic, and, above all, friendly. Every time a group of developers approaches the entrance gate, the greeters let out a big “Whoooooooo” and begin clapping. Event greeters are always friendly, but this year Apple’s seemed to have dialed the cheerful up a couple of notches. No telling why. Perhaps its because it’s the first in-person Apple event since 2019. Or maybe it’s a business reason.
It’s important that Apple stay engaged with its developers. Apple makes billions from its App Store business every year. And these developers, who come from all over the world to be here, are the people who make the products—the apps—that Apple sells.
In fact, it might be more important than ever before that Apple please and appease its developers. The issue of the fairness of the app stores, and how Apple deals with developers, has gone from something developers grumbled about in private to something that’s discussed openly in courtrooms and in Congressional hearings. Apple made some concessions in its app store practices and prices, but many in Congress believe it’s too little, too late. A little extra love at Apple Park probably won’t do much to hurt the tech giant’s cause.
The second thing you notice at WWDC is the perfection. I’ve visited Apple Park many times and I can’t remember once coming here on a stormy day. Today is no exception. The weather’s at about 70 degrees. I even got a mild sunburn.
This morning’s keynote was the first Apple event I can remember that was held outside. In a clearing in the trees just next to the Apple Spaceship, the company sat out perhaps a thousand canvas beach chairs in front of a large stage with a big monolithic video screen and a fancy sound system. The sun smiled down. Dragonflies and hummingbirds danced through the air above the crowd. Robins flew by higher up.
Just before the keynote started, some of the greeters were dancing in the aisles, yelling “C’mon!” Then Tim Cook came out onto the stage. He gave some welcoming remarks, as did software chief Craig Federighi.
The keynote, in some ways, seemed like a throwback to the pandemic years. After Cook’s and Federighi’s opening remarks, it was pretty much all infomercial. Apple started making their event’s slick infomercials during the pandemic, which makes sense, and they do it very well. I thought perhaps that Apple would take advantage of the live event to return to human presenters, but no. The new products and features developers saw today were demo’d by human presenters in the videos. It was a bit bizarre sitting with a couple thousand other people basically watching TV.
Nobody seemed to mind. And I didn’t really, either. After all, how much does it really matter if a software presenter is live on stage or shown in a video?
At the same time, the developers in the crowd at the keynote were far from rowdy, as Apple developers have been during WWDC keynotes past. I heard a couple of enthusiastic rounds of applause (one for the return of the MagSafe plug on the new MacBook Air, one for the new CarPlay design that will fill up the whole instrument panel of new cars), but no wild ovations for new innovations they didn’t see coming. Not this year.
Cook came onstage (in person) again at the end to thank the audience and tell everybody how excited he is about the directions Apple is headed in.
Then there was a “surprise” media event after the keynote. Apple PR people guided members of the media down a pathway to some location, but would provide no information on where we were going and why. It turned out to be a hands-on session with the new MacBook Air laptop held on the top level of the Steve Jobs Theater. About 20 of the machines were set around a big circular table, each one attended by an Apple employee. All around the table people were lined up two and three deep, waiting to get some time with the new iThing. After two years of COVID, I wasn’t keen on standing so close to so many people I didn’t know, but I did it anyway, and got a quick demo.
After that, I couldn’t think of a good reason for being there, so I headed for the exit. I’d heard there’d be free food and endless lattes at the visitor center, and I had a chance at snagging a table. But as I approached I noticed that the PR people and media had somehow cleared a large circular space in front of the door. Nobody was going in or out–I couldn’t see why. Then Tim Cook walked in and stood in the middle of the circular space smiling and waving as camera shutters clicked all around him. It was like old times, I thought, like WWDCs past when Apple’s star was ascending fast.
Apple is a different company than it was before the pandemic. It’s a big, money-making machine, if not the innovation engine and cultural force it once was.
That fact, I suppose, changes the company’s pitch to developers. The developers I saw here–many of them in their twenties–were Apple devotees, and they seemed to be pretty stoked to be on Apple’s campus. But it wasn’t quite the cult-like devotion one could witness during the Jobs years and in the couple years of afterglow that followed.