WWDC 2009 Wrap-Up

Across the street from Moscone West on the first day of WWDC, there remained banners from Sun’s JavaOne conference the week prior — a touching reminder that times and fortunes change, and that annual conferences often serve as markers of the state of the industry.

JavaOne is an enormous conference. Apple reported 5,200 WWDC attendees this year, and, to me, it once again felt more crowded than ever before. Sun reported three times as many attendees for JavaOne. Comparing any two conferences, especially long-standing ones such as JavaOne and WWDC, is apples-to-oranges, but there’s no denying that JavaOne has been at least as big a deal for Sun’s developer community as WWDC has been for Apple’s.

But now that Sun is in the midst of being folded into Oracle, it’s an open question as to whether there will even be another JavaOne. Even if there is another, it will surely be different, coming as it must in a future where Sun is a subsidiary of Oracle rather than a standalone industry titan. (As a complete outsider to the Sun and Java communities, I found Tim Bray’s elegiac JavaOne coverage to be compelling.)

To crudely paraphrase Dylan, a conference not busy being born is busy dying. WWDC is busy being born. The gestalt of the conference, and of Apple’s developer community, is very much in flux. Not just changing but growing. Between the Newton and iPhone eras, WWDC was effectively a Mac developer conference. That’s no longer the case, and with each passing year there’s a palpable difference to the vibe. (And it’s not just because of the iPhone, either. There are now a series of good sessions each year for web developers targeting WebKit.)

Two years ago, on the cusp of the iPhone’s release, was the last of the mostly-all-Mac WWDCs. The vibe that year boiled down to “I hope they let us write native apps for this thing.”

Both this year and last, there have been single sessions whose titles epitomized that year’s conference. Last year, the first year with an iPhone development track, that session was titled “Intro to Mac OS X”. It’s hard to imagine such a session title even one year earlier at WWDC, but I walked by that session last year just to see how crowded it was, and the line to get in ran out the door and down the hall all the way to the escalators. They had to turn people away. (Apple replayed the session on video later in the week and the replay filled to capacity, too.)

This year, the emblematic session was titled “Mac Programming for iPhone Developers”. I’m not even sure what to say about that, other than to confirm that anecdotal evidence suggests that new-to-Apple iPhone developers are indeed very much interested in developing for the Mac now, too.

On the whole, there was a palpable sense that the iPhone is a peer to the Mac in Apple’s eyes. This isn’t about counting how many sessions were devoted to each. Nor is it an indication that the Mac as a platform is slowing. Quite the opposite in fact — Apple is selling more Macs than ever, and, knock on wood, there’s a strong consensus amongst developers that Snow Leopard is going to be the best release of Mac OS X yet. It’s simply that for however fast the Mac is growing, the iPhone is growing far faster.

But the two platforms are symbiotically intertwined. The Monday schedule at WWDC is static. In the morning comes the keynote, which the press attends and where all public announcements are made. After lunch, though, there comes what is effectively a second keynote, this time with material aimed squarely at developers. A technical keynote, as compared to the morning’s marketing keynote, if you will. This technical keynote has for as long as I can remember been titled “Mac OS X State of the Union”. This year the title changed to “Core OS State of the Union”.

Hence the symbiosis: Apple now has two full-fledged developer platforms, Mac OS X and iPhone OS, derived from one core system. Neither felt more important than the other this year at WWDC, which is remarkable considering that one of them hadn’t even shipped two years ago.

But look at their vectors — their relative rates of growth — and ponder how much longer until WWDC begins to feel like an iPhone developer conference with a Mac developer track. My answer: next year. In other words, I think it will have taken just three years for the iPhone to supplant the Mac as Apple’s primary platform. By 2011 it will be obvious.

It’s simply a matter of users. During Phil Schiller’s keynote, he showed a graph of the “OS X” user base over time, with steady growth over the first part of this decade followed by a sharp jump from 25 to 75 million over the past two years. This figure was widely mis-cited, however, as showing growth in “Mac OS X” users. It did not. The graph said “OS X”, not “Mac OS X”, and what Apple meant to show were the combined number of users of Mac OS X and iPhone OS. It was a very misleading and poorly-designed chart.

The other relevant number from the keynote: 40 million total iPhones and iPod Touches sold to date. Clearly that’s not quite the same thing as 40 million iPhone OS users, given that some of us have already bought several devices, but it’s in the ballpark. So, as of last week, Apple estimates that there are about the same number of iPhone OS users as Mac OS X users.

Now consider what those numbers will look like a year from now, 12 months after the iPhone’s entry price dropped to $99.