Apple Moves WWDC Back to San Jose

Here’s an announcement from Apple that I wouldn’t have guessed in a hundred tries: they’re moving WWDC back to the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose.

The dates for WWDC 2017 are June 5–9. But the ticketing process isn’t until March 27. Like in previous years, it’ll be a lottery-type application system.

I had the chance to speak with Phil Schiller about this yesterday. The call was scheduled a few days in advance, but as usual with Apple, I didn’t know the topic. I spent the intervening days trying to guess. Moving WWDC back to San Jose truly didn’t even enter my mind. But now that I’ve had a day to think about it, I can see the logic.

First, announcing early really helps people who have to travel long distances to attend, particularly those from outside the U.S. In recent years, Apple has announced WWDC dates in April — as early as April 3 in 2014, and as late as April 28. Announcing the dates now, in mid-February, should help people save on airfare. It’s another sign that Apple is slowly getting more open. (Let’s see if they announce the dates this early next year too. It’s possible they only announced this early this year to brace people for the venue change.)

For people who will travel only if they get a conference pass, the timing doesn’t change as much. But even a few extra weeks is an improvement. And in recent years — particularly since the demise of Macworld Expo — WWDC is more than just the developer conference. It’s become the communal heart of the Apple world’s calendar. I know more people who come to WWDC without passes for the conference than who attend.

The San Jose Convention Center is the original home of WWDC — that’s where it was held from 1988 through 2002. (WWDC 2002 was the year Steve Jobs held a funeral for Mac OS 9 during the keynote.) San Jose is way closer to Apple headquarters. San Francisco is about an hour drive from 1 Infinite Loop. The San Jose Convention Center is only minutes away from Apple’s new San Jose campus, and is much closer to their Cupertino headquarters than San Francisco. Schiller emphasized to me that this is a big deal: more Apple employees from more teams will be present, simply because they won’t have to devote an entire day to being there. (This could be a particular boon to WWDC’s developer labs, where attendees can get precious face time with Apple’s engineers.)

I asked whether the move to San Jose changed the number of people who’d be able to attend. Schiller said it did not — attendance will be about the same. (To my knowledge, Apple has never revealed exact attendance figures, and Schiller didn’t offer an exact number, but it’s somewhere around 5,000.)

My first WWDC was 2006, a few years after the move to San Francisco, so I’ve never been to one in San Jose. The rap from my friends who did attend WWDC back when it was in San Jose is that San Jose was a bit of a sleepy town. It’s a work-oriented city, where it gets quiet after 5 pm. But WWDC was, compared to now, sparsely attended back then. WWDC didn’t sell out until 2008 (the first year of the iPhone App Store).

Schiller seems confident that there’s going to be a lot going on outside the convention center. Apple is working with the city and San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo to stage events around the downtown area throughout the week.

WWDC is the biggest event of the year for the Apple world. But for the city of San Francisco, it’s just another conference at Moscone. In fact, by Moscone standards, WWDC is actually kind of small. Oracle’s OpenWorld conference has over 60,000 attendees — 12 times the size of WWDC. Update: Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference had 170,000 attendees last year.

WWDC will be the biggest thing going on in San Jose that week. I don’t have a feel for San Jose — the only time I’ve ever set foot there was for Apple’s 2012 October event. I could see it going one of two ways: either dreadfully dull, or, something akin to SXSW in Austin, where the conference and its attendees more or less take over the entire convention center area downtown. In San Francisco, WWDC attendees are a small school of like-minded fish in a big pond. In San Jose, they’ll own the pond. WWDC’s presence can expand outside the confines of McEnery in a way that it can’t expand outside Moscone.

One last factor, unstated by Apple, but very obvious to anyone who knows how to comparison shop for hotel rooms: downtown San Jose is way cheaper than downtown San Francisco, and the surrounding area has a ton of good hotel rooms at very affordable rates. In San Francisco nice hotels are very expensive, and the hotels that aren’t expensive are not nice. In recent years, a lot of people who come to WWDC have been booking hotels down closer to San Jose simply because they’re so much cheaper.

So here’s my take:

  • For Apple, this is a win. They’ll cumulatively spend thousands of fewer hours driving up and down Highway 280. They have the potential to involve their soon-to-open new campus in the event somehow. They have more influence and control over the area around the convention center, rather than just inside it.

  • For attendees, it’s hard to say. For those on a budget, it’s surely a win. San Jose is way more affordable than San Francisco. (But the hotels closest to the convention center in downtown San Jose are running around $350 a night — no savings at all compared to Moscone-area hotels in San Francisco.) For those more concerned with the social scene, it’s too early to judge. If it resembles the social scene from the previous era of San Jose WWDCs, it’ll be a bust. If you’d asked me in recent years whether it’s worth it to go to WWDC even if you’re not attending the conference proper, I’d have said yes without hesitation. I really don’t know if that’s going to be true now that it’s in San Jose.

The word that comes to mind is nostalgia. For most of the regular WWDC attendees in my circle, San Francisco and Moscone are all we know. There’s an established familiarity to the places (hotels, restaurants, bars) and the schedule. Even if WWDC works out great in San Jose, there is a lot that I will miss about WWDC’s years in San Francisco. But WWDC is only moving, not ending, so it’s a very different nostalgia than that for Macworld Expo.

WWDC in San Jose hearkens back to what was truly a different era for Apple. When the last WWDC was held in San Jose in 2002, the original iPod was only six months old, and I was three months away from starting Daring Fireball. An investment in Apple stock in 2002 would have increased around a hundredfold if held through today.

Apple doesn’t like to explain itself. I don’t know why Apple moved WWDC to San Francisco in 2003. But my guess is that they sought more media attention. Apple went to where the attention was. Today, the attention comes to Apple. They could hold WWDC in the middle of a desert and it would still sell out in an instant and there’d be the same convoy of media trucks outside the hall the morning of the keynote. If a large corporation can be described as a homebody, Apple is it. And San Francisco is not Apple’s home turf.

Schiller has been at Apple (and on stage at WWDC) throughout this entire run, and he seems ready to go back. “It feels like WWDC is going home,” he told me.