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WWDC will be virtual again. Are tech giants done with in-person events?

Tech conferences in their traditional, physical form don’t scale and are prone to embarrassing gaffes. Going streaming-first forever could look smart.

WWDC will be virtual again. Are tech giants done with in-person events?
[Image: Apple]

Someday, a tech giant may hold a major event in person again. But this year’s Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) won’t be it.

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Now officially on the schedule for June 6-10, the venerable event will stream live for free, as it did in 2020 and 2021. In a small nod to the virtue of in-person gatherings, Apple will invite selected coders and students to its Apple Park HQ on WWDC’s first day to watch the keynote and “state of the union” session. However, even that will be a video watch party, not a return to live onstage presentations.

Apple’s announcement came soon after Google and Microsoft said that their own big developer conferences would be virtual (at least for most of us: Certain Googlers and Google partners will be able to attend the I/O conference in person). A new Meta conference, Conversations, will also be online.

If COVID-19 seems to be on the wane as the fall approaches, we might see some tech company opt to hold a flesh-and-blood confab of the sort that were the default until March 2020. But after two years of virtual conferences, it feels entirely possible that—by and large—the industry will decide that it likes holding streaming-first events and has no desire to return to the old way.

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This is not a remarkable insight on my part. My colleague Mark Sullivan said something similar way back in June 2020, after Apple held its first virtual WWDC keynote. I wasn’t immediately convinced, in part because I have a conflict of interest: As a member of the press, I have attended hundreds—thousands?—of live tech events in person. There was a time when such events often weren’t livestreamed at all, giving us journalists in the room the happy opportunity to relay the news in real time to folks who desperately wanted to get it as quickly as possible. (Apple appeared to have mixed feelings about that arrangement: In the early years of live-blogging, it didn’t provide Wi-Fi and was not thrilled with reporters snapping photographs from their seats.)

By prerecording everything, it’s possible to polish it up in a way that isn’t possible with a conventional stage performance.

For some types of events, in-person attendance will always be preferable. CES is all about physical stuff—from tiny wearables to huge honkin’ TVs—that you can’t gauge purely by staring at it on a screen. At SXSW, exclusivity is part of the draw and at least half the fun is in the random conversations you strike up in hotel lobbies and other unofficial venues.

Developer conferences are different. The fact that in-person WWDC used to sell out in minutes might have been tangible proof of the Apple ecosystem’s vibrant good health, but it was also a problem for the company. The whole point of educating developers is to encourage the building of as many great apps as possible, thereby strengthening a platform; by limiting attendance to the capacity of the San Jose Convention Center, Apple was cutting off the vast majority of its developer base.

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And since developer conferences skew heavily toward matters of software rather than hardware, remote attendance is less of an issue. When Apple unveils a new iPhone or Mac, it’s still nice to see it in person if you have the chance—but upgrades to iOS and MacOS can be demonstrated adequately via a video stream.

Prepackaged and perfect

Apple in particular has been reveling in another benefit of virtual presentations: By prerecording everything, it’s possible to polish it up in a way that isn’t possible with a conventional stage performance. Like all of the company’s pandemic-era events, last year’s WWDC keynote had a Hollywood-like sheen, with fancy camera shots, background music, digital transitions, and other touches that made it feel more like a high-end infomercial than a press conference. And if any of the presenters flubbed their lines, retakes eliminated the evidence.

Again, my interests here are not the same as those of Apple, Google, or Microsoft. I’ve witnessed some memorably odd unplanned scenes at tech events, from Steve Jobs pleading with bloggers to turn off their Wi-Fi hot spots to director Michael Bay abandoning a Samsung CES launch in progress. When Google cofounder Larry Page took questions at one I/O, he mused about technologists needing safe spaces where they could test their inventions’ impact on society without consequence. The single most famous moment in any Bill Gates presentation might have been a scanner crashing Windows 98.

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I love this sort of stuff—not because I take pleasure in other people’s pain but because it’s a reminder that humans are unpredictable and technology is oh-so-very fallible. But if I were one of the folks responsible for planning tech events, I’d probably seize on every opportunity to eliminate surprises of any kind. Kudos, then, to Google, who will be broadcasting I/O live from Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre. These days, that counts as working without a net.

If the tech industry never does bring back splashy in-person gatherings in great volume, I won’t brood. Instead, I’ll remind myself that the vast majority I ever attended weren’t all that scintillating. (There was only one Steve Jobs, after all.) And even those of us who are used to being one of the privileged few should acknowledge the democratizing effect of making events available to everybody who wants to experience them, in exactly the same form. Ultimately, it’s a positive development for the technology world.

See you—metaphorically, at least—at WWDC.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the global technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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