Apple's WWDC keynote was like no other. Why that's a good thing
If you've ever wondered how quickly 5,000 seats in a convention center auditorium can fill up, Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference is a good gauge. I can say from personal experience that the running crowd of enthusiastic Apple fans, some of whom have literally knocked me down to the carpeted ground in their rush to get a seat up front near company executives and celebrity guests, has clocked in at five minutes -- or less.
Which is why Apple's decision to host a virtual version of WWDC this year in a nod to social distancing amid the coronavirus -- and after Facebook and Google canceled their developer events in May -- was viewed as a kind of a moment in tech land.
Could Apple, whose slickly staged events have set a high bar for product unveilings, pull off a virtual keynote with the flourish and flair of its in-person extravaganzas and without the clapping crowds? Could Apple come up with a model for delivering product news that the rest of the industry might copy while we're in lockdown? Would reporters, investors and partners tune in and find something interesting to watch, without first being plied with gourmet pastries, vegan snacks and high-octane espressos brewed by Cafe Mac baristas?
The answer, judging by the reaction I've heard from developers, industry analysts, users and even many of us journalists who've also rushed for seats: Yep. And the virtual event may be the start of more to come.
"While it cannot possibly feel the same in here without you," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the outset of Monday's keynote speech, "this year we're delivering the conference in a whole new way to all of you around the world, directly to your home."
It might not feel the same as being there in person -- and don't get me wrong, there's value in having face-to-face time with executives and others. But Apple showed that we really don't need to travel to cover every big product event in person, particularly during a pandemic.
In a one hour, 48 minute show mostly filmed at the Steve Jobs Theater at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, California, Cook and a cadre of executives talked about updated versions of Apple's key software. They demoed the new iOS 14 mobile operating system that powers its money-making iPhone, the latest iteration of the MacOS system software, dubbed Big Sur, and new software features for the Apple Watch, including an app that monitors when you're washing your hands to let you know if you've scrubbed them for long enough. Apple plans to dig deeper into each topic in sessions that are now available to the public.
"This will probably be the most effective WWDC Apple has ever had since it allowed them to bring in more developers than the 5.000 they can squeeze into a physical event," said longtime analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, who has attended hundreds of Apple events. "In that sense, it was a highly successful format that meets the needs of Apple developers."
Apple didn't tell me how many people tuned in for the keynote, but WWDC was a trending topic on social media during the event, and iOS 14 remained a top trending term throughout the day. Apple's shares were also up during the keynote and closed up 2.6 percent to $358.87 in regular trading on Monday, a sign that investors were happy with the software news and the company's decision to start making Mac computers with its own chips.
While the 5,000 tickets to the developers' conference typically cost $1,600 and sell out within hours, Apple is making this week's WWDC demos, product labs and 100 engineering video sessions free to its 23 million registered developers around the world as well as "anyone interested" in joining in, Cook said.
"It's about moving the platforms forward," said one Apple insider, who asked not to be named. "The world is counting on all of us -- Apple and our developer community -- to help move forward. That's why we felt it was incredibly important to hold the conference this year but to do it in an entirely new and unique way."
Apple isn't the first company to stage a big product rollout during the coronavirus. In April, OnePlus did an hour-long live keynote with a single presenter onstage addressing a "big empty room" to unveil its new handset. Executives around the world dropped in, Zoom-like, to add their thoughts amid the recorded marketing videos. (One of my colleagues described watching it as "brutal.")
In May, Microsoft's Xbox team Xbox team held a virtual event, announcing new games for its Xbox Series X console launching in the fall. But Microsoft's presentation, billed as a reveal of new games and what it'll look like playing them, was panned by fans who felt it didn't give them what they wanted, my colleague Ian Sherr reported. "Clearly we set some wrong expectations & that's on us," tweeted Aaron Greenberg, a general manager of Xbox games marketing.
In contrast, Apple took us many places, passing the screen back and forth between Cook and executives in other parts of the Apple Park headquarters, showing software chief Craig Federighi running around the Steve Jobs Theater and even cutting to an executive in an "undisclosed location" where its new silicon was developed, a nod to Apple's penchant for secrecy. The video quality was, as usual, pretty slick. "Apple excels in its video and graphics," said Bajarin.
He wasn't the only one who gave Apple high marks for its production.
Instead of hosting the keynote live, Apple recorded it in a way that struck the "right balance between being well produced but not overproduced," said Carolina Milanesi, another longtime tech analyst who's attended dozens of Apple events in person over the years.
"The advantage [with] everybody being digital is that we all get first-row seats, which really democratizes the event," she said. "Digital events might also bring a more inclusive lineup of speakers, and that is simply because you have access to people in different locations and the advantage of recording versus being live. And this morning did feel more inclusive than usual."
In addition to Cook, Apple had eight men and 11 women take us through the news -- probably the most women I've ever seen on stage at one of Apple's product events.
Milanesi also applauded Cook for kicking off the keynote by voicing his support for Black Lives Matter and acknowledging the civil unrest in the US after George Floyd was killed by police. Apple has pledged $100 million to fight against racial injustice. He also thanked those on the frontlines battling the coronavirus. And Apple closed the keynote with credits describing the health and safety precautions it put in place to produce the event, including daily health screenings and temperature checks, social distancing, having its executives wear masks except when talking on-camera and making sure production locations were sanitized.
"Many big companies were watching it for how it was created and delivered," said Bajarin. "I do think that we will see more events move to this model in the future. It is much cheaper than holding in-person events. And it also still gets the information to the people that count."
And it does that without anyone getting trampled after waiting in line.