Can Apple Still Pull off an Online WWDC?

Apple Park Video Near Completion Credit: Duncan Sinfield
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We’ve been wondering since February exactly what Apple plans to do with its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; as other tech conferences began to shut down around the world, it became clear that Apple wouldn’t be holding WWDC in the traditional manner, but as the crisis continues to ramp up, it’s casting even more doubt on how exactly Apple might pull off its annual conference in any form.

Apple already cancelled its spring launch event that would have been held next week, but that was expected to be solely a press event, and congregating large groups of people in person — even just the press — is something that nobody is supposed to be doing right now.

When it comes to WWDC, however, Apple announced that it would debut in an all-new online format with the kind of sunny optimism that’s common to just about any other Apple announcement. An online format, of course, makes a lot of sense these days, with the idea that Apple’s engineers could interact with developers around the world from the safety of their own offices, and Apple could give its big WWDC Keynote from a sanitary soundstage rather than having to stand up in front of a public throng of journalists, developers, and fans.

Except that it’s now starting to appear that even that might be a bigger challenge than anybody had first anticipated.

A Sign of Things to Come?

On Friday, Google announced that it’s completely shutting down Google I/O, which is the Android maker and search giant’s equivalent of WWDC. While Google already cancelled the physical event earlier this month, the company had originally planned to hold its session online, in much the same way that Apple has talked about doing for WWDC, but now it’s decided that even that is risky and untenable.

Part of the problem is that the state of California, where both Google and Apple are headquartered, is continuing to tighten restrictions almost to the point of total lockdown. As of late last week, about a third of California’s 39 million residents have been told to “shelter in place,” CNN reports, which means that people are only allowed to leave their homes for “essential work or errands like buying groceries or medicine.”

In other words, while Apple may have originally anticipated that WWDC could have been conducted by Apple executives and engineers from the relative safety of Apple’s sprawling Apple Park campus, there’s a very real possibility that these employees may not be allowed to actually come to work.

At this point, most of the shelter-in-place orders are relatively short term, but with how fast things are changing, there’s no reason to assume that these won’t be extended, nor that the orders may not be expanded to more communities, so things could get worse by June.

WWDC is Serious Business for Apple

As well-known Apple journalists like John Gruber and Mark Gurman have pointed out, WWDC is a much bigger deal for Apple than the I/O developer conference is for Google. For the most part, Google rarely has anything groundbreaking to announce during I/O, whereas Apple debuts what is pretty much the heart and soul of its entire hardware and software ecosystem: iOS/iPadOS and macOS updates (and of course the lesser but still relatively important ancillary updates like tvOS and watchOS).

Further, while it may not be possible for Apple’s engineers and other key personnel who would conduct WWDC online to leave their homes, many WWDC sessions in the past have purely been slides with recorded audio, and even those cases where the presenters have been shown, it’s not really integral to the sessions.

This means that there’s really no reason that Apple staff couldn’t put together these slide decks while sitting in their bathrobes at home, and pass them on to other production staff in similar situations to prepare and package them.

Will iOS 14 Even Be Ready in Time?

The other question that’s hovering over the whole thing is whether Apple is going to be even have a developer preview of iOS 14 ready by June. There’s definitely a possibility that the process of getting it all ready could be slowed down by the need for Apple engineers to work from home instead of being directly on site in the office.

Of course, it’s unlikely the lack of an actual developer preview release would prevent Apple from showing it off during a keynote, or even holding sessions to talk about it and demonstrate the new pieces to developers, but developers will be slowed down somewhat in building apps for the new iOS platform if they can’t get their hands on early preview builds.

Apple’s Plans Remain Fluid

All of this adds up to a pretty good reason why Apple hasn’t yet shared any specific plans for this year’s WWDC beyond saying that it’s going to be online. There’s a good chance that Apple itself hasn’t yet figured out exactly how it’s going to conduct this, since things are moving and changing so quickly that it has to consider all of the possibilities, including the most extreme scenario that would suggest that Apple Park becomes a ghost town and every executive and engineer has to conduct WWDC from their living room couch. Then again, if it can be done by Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon, there’s no reason Tim Cook shouldn’t be able to pull it off with all of the resources of the world’s most valuable company behind him.

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