As the world continues to feel the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, many tech conferences and other international events have been getting cancelled due in part to travel restrictions impacting attendance along with a desire to avoid having too many people congregate in a single location that could promote the spread of the contagion.
The first to fall was Mobile World Congress, which wasn’t all that surprising since it was scheduled to be held in late February, at the peak of the world’s uncertainty about the coronavirus. However, soon after Facebook announced the cancellation of its F8 developer conference, which was scheduled to be held in early May, and at the end of last week GDC also postponed its March Game Developers Conference, following the withdrawal of major anchors Sony, Facebook, Unity, and Microsoft.
This naturally left us pondering the fate of this Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, which is normally held in early June. While that’s still three months away, by which time we certainly all hope that the coronavirus will be under control, the truth is that nobody knows for sure, and Apple needs to reach a decision point sooner rather than later, since it typically announces plans for WWDC by late March.
However, news yesterday that Google has cancelled I/O 2020, which would have been held from May 12th to May 14th, casts even more doubt on whether Apple is going to proceed with WWDC as planned. At this point, if Apple chooses to go ahead, it may be one of the few tech companies to actually do so.
In fact, Google went so far as to cancel I/O after it had already begun selling tickets, which means that it’s going to have to refund those who already bought into the conference, but those who were able to register for I/O 2020 will be first in line for I/O 2021 next year. Google hasn’t yet made it clear what it’s going to do to replace its I/O event, but has said that it will “explore other ways to evolve Google I/O to best connect with our developer community.”
What Apple Might Do
With it becoming more likely that WWDC may not be held in its traditional form, there’s been a lot of speculation about what Apple could do instead. Facebook and Google have only cancelled the physical, “in-person” components of their conferences, and it certainly seems likely that Apple would still hold online WWDC developer sessions in some form or another.
Writing for Macworld, Jason Snell also notes that Apple still has a bit more room to bide its time and see what happens with the coronavirus. While we usually hear about WWDC by the end of March, there have been years when Apple has announced it as late as mid-April.
At one time, the cancellation of an in-person WWDC would have been a huge slap in the face for the developer community, since Apple’s penchant for secrecy had the conference held behind closed doors for many years. More recently, however, Apple has really begun opening up WWDC to the larger internet developer community in recognition of the fact that many aspiring developers are unable to attend the conference even under the best of conditions.
WWDC serves another important purpose for Apple, however, and that’s the opening keynote where the company normally unveils their software roadmap, and sometimes tosses out a few additional hardware announcements as well. Since the keynote is largely a press event, however, there’s no reason that it couldn’t proceed more or less as any other Apple press event. Apple already controls the guest list for these events, so if it needed to limit attendance due to coronavirus concerns, that might just mean a few less people actually get the coveted media invites.
It seems far less likely, however, that Apple would simply turn it into an online-only keynote, as the cheering audience is always an important part of Apple’s presentation style. In the worst case, filling the auditorium with Apple employees could work, but might also feel a little bit contrived. Since Apple only sends out press invites 10–14 days before a media event anyway, the company also has a lot more time to weigh its options for this one.
Unfortunately, as Snell notes, one of the biggest casualties of a cancelled WWDC would be the developer connections. As Apple has opened up its sessions to the internet, the real value of showing up at WWDC is to connect with other developers and more importantly to meet up with key Apple engineers.
For the rest of the year, as a developer you can file bug reports about that issue that is making your app buggy, but at WWDC you can literally sit with the Apple engineer who is in charge of that feature and explain why your app is suffering.Jason Snell, Macworld
Of course, Apple could find other ways to replicate this, perhaps by setting up online conferences via FaceTime, but for those who don’t manage to make it to WWDC anyway, there’s no reason to suspect that things won’t otherwise be business as usual. Apple is still almost certain to take the stage to announce iOS 14 and this year’s versions of its other operating systems, and could even use the opportunity to announce more new hardware, assuming it doesn’t get it all covered at its rumoured March 31 event, which may also need to be scaled back in terms of press attendance, but isn’t likely at any risk of being called off entirely.