This week I'm in San Francisco attending Apple's World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC). This represents a number of firsts for me. First time attending an Apple conference of any kind, first time attending a non-CAD (well, week-long) conference, might even be my first visit to San Francisco (don't remember).
It is only natural that I draw comparisons to my prior conference exposure. I attended PLM World for several years, and last year attended SolidWorks world for the first time. I don't remember if I blogged about it, but I believed at the time that SWW was hands-down the best conference experience I had witnessed. Can Apple trump that? In short, no, but they come pretty close. So let's take a look at some aspects that have jumped to my attention.
It should be noted that I have missed the last 2 PLMW conferences, so some of my information may be out of date, and my complaints may have been addressed in the meantime.
PLMW and SWW both announce their conference dates for the following year at each conference, and sometimes even 2 years in advance. Although everyone knows there will be a WWDC each year, Apple announced the early-June dates in late-March, barely 2 months of warning. That's no good. There's no reason to be so secretive about the dates.
I got used to PLMW publishing session schedules well in advance of the conference. There would often be revisions, but the bulk of the schedule was made public early on. Either SWW's site really sucked, or I am an idiot, or blind, whatever, but I didn't find session schedules until almost immediately before the event. In fact, I think it was my wife who pointed out to me where it was on the site, and I swear I didn't see it before then. So I'm willing to acknowledge it could have been my oversight, but it left a bad taste in my mouth either way. Apple only released a session list about a week or so before the event. So that's bad. BUT, they did provide the ability to broadcast a calendar subscription, and indicate on their web site which sessions I would want to attend. This updated directly into iCal, so I was quickly able to see that there were far too many interesting sessions for 1 human being to attend. And about 2 days before the event, they made an iPhone app available that hooked into the same scheduler, and also provides maps and things.
Winner: Apple for capabilities, PLMW for timeline
Loser: SWW, but might have been my fault
Registration and Schwag
The day before things kick off, you go to the registration tables to get your various badges and things. Registration is registration, so I can't say that there is anything particularly noteworthy about any of them, so let's focus on schwag.
PLM World started off pretty well for me, then quickly went downhill. The very first conference I attended, they handed out Palm Pilots to all attendees. The next year was a memory stick. The next, a shirt. The next, either another shirt, or nothing, I don't remember. Meanwhile, they found a sponsor to hand out a horribly crappy bag. Think of a re-usable canvas grocery bag, only much, much, much cheaper. That became a standard for several years, and they mostly handed it to you to keep track of all of the sponsor ads and other miscellaneous crap they also handed out. The bag was really only useful for carrying this stuff back to the hotel room, never to be touched again.
SWW was a shirt and a backpack. I still wear the shirt periodically to this day, and would be using the backpack if I didn't already have a great one. It is a pretty decent backpack.
Apple is a shirt and a backpack. It's more of a stylish backpack than a particularly useful one (cue Apple haters...). Shirt's not bad.
I should point out that I am actually carrying around a shoulder laptop bag that I got from PLM World. But, this was one of the gifts I received for being a presenter, and not part of the general handout. It's an odd bag, and has proven to be surprisingly useful at events like this, but I'm not going to count it since it is a special case.
Loser: Recent PLMW
PLMW has long gone with the fairly standard huge identification lanyard. Ugly, but always functional. Large, easy to read letters so you could catch the names of people without too much trouble, handy little slots for business cards and pens. No complaints. SWW took a slightly different route, with a clear plastic holder. But they added two particularly useful innovations. First, attached to my name card was a printout of the sessions I had indicated I was interested in during registration. THAT was handy. Second, they managed to cram the entire conference agenda into a small booklet that slid into a slot on the back of the ID holder. This is noteworthy because PLMW's conference agenda is a freaking Sears catalog. Apple has gone with a plastic card about the size of a credit card. The text is rather small, and the card has a gift for rotating around so the wrong side is facing out, so you can't see names anyway. About the only thing positive I can say about it is that it's easy to stuff in a pocket when leaving the conference center so that you aren't displaying your "please rob me, I'm from out of town" bullseye.
Winner: Tie between PLMW and SWW, slight edge to SWW
Again, PLMW got off to a great start. They handed out the Palm Pilots because they included conference software that listed the sessions and locations. They never handed out such devices again, and I don't believe they offered the conference software again (I have missed the last two, so they may have updated in the meantime). SWW didn't really go for technology in this area, but their conference agenda was very clever, and I don't mean the small one that was in the ID pouch. They produced a spiral-bound version that was roughly half as thick as PLMW's catalog, despite having significantly more content, AND the back half of that contained blank engineering paper for doodling or taking notes. You almost didn't need to carry anything else around with you. I'm not going to give Apple too much credit for having an iPhone app; after all, it's a developer conference, with particular focus on the iPhone. It would be more significant if there wasn't an iPhone app. But I'm still going to give credit for providing the calendar subscription. It's a nice touch.
Winner: Each, for different reasons
Loser: Recent PLMW
PLMW keynotes were spectacularly dull and uninteresting. I cannot think of a single positive thing to say about any of them. I don't think they understood their audience. The presentations were always geared towards my boss, or even my boss's boss, but neither of them were at the conference. I was. The keynote did not once speak to me. SWW was like a breath of fresh air. The keynote was interesting, entertaining, and relevant to me. Not my boss, not my VP, me. It was a highly charged, highly motivating experience. How does that compare to one of Apple's legendary keynotes? I didn't actually care to wait in line to see the keynote (not sure if I would have felt differently if el-Steve-o was presenting), I just wanted breakfast. But you had to wait in line to get inside to get to the conference food, so I bailed and went to Starbucks. The line was already several blocks long, and by the time I came back was nearly wrapped all the way around the conference center. I believe the line came full circle by the time they started letting people in. As is, I was in line for roughly 45 minutes, and got shuffled into an overflow room 15 minutes after the keynote had started. Was it worth it? Meh. Oh, don't get me wrong, they announced some cool stuff. But I really didn't leave with a sense of "Oh wow, I want to go write some code!" I totally wanted to go design something after the SWW keynote. It's not the same audience, not really even the same purpose, but I'm afraid to say that SWW out-keynoted Apple.
PLMW has always had decent catering. The crowd is shuffled into a large room with plenty of tables, all pre-stocked with silverware, condiments, and usually a choice of water or tea. (Hopefully) soon after being seated, food would be served, and an eager wait staff would whisk finished plates away. The food was usually fancy, but not really my thing. I won't say it was bad, just that I would have preferred a bit more of a common menu. As I type this, I can't remember what SWW meals were like, so it must not have been noteworthy in either direction. WWDC's meals are pre-packaged. They seem to offer 3 choices - yesterday was ham & cheese sandwich, chicken wrap, or vegetarian - and you move pretty quickly through a line to get what you want. Food quality isn't bad, though it is significantly lower quality than PLMW. But you can grab and go. Generally there are better things to do at a conference like this than to wait on your food to be served, so I think that's an advantage.
Winner: WWDC for speed, PLMW for quality
Loser: PLMW often had long food delays
PLMW did a pretty good job of leaving out water bottles on a regular basis, and there would be sweets in the afternoon. They typically did a pretty good job of covering a wide area in the conference center, so you wouldn't miss out on a cookie just because you were on the wrong floor. SWW stepped this up a notch, providing custom-labeled water bottles constantly, and if anything the snacks were even better than PLMW's. I kept reading tips for WWDC recommending that you grab the water bottles from your hotel room ($3 for a modest bottle). Surely this is unnecessary, I thought. They have to provide water bottles.
They don't provide water bottles! Apparently if you know where to look, you can find some office-style water jugs, with paper cups. During meals and during snacks, they basically wheel out these barrels filled with ice and a couple flavors of canned drinks, and I've seen some varieties of juices in plastic bottles. But not much water. And let's talk quantities. Maybe I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but when I wandered out for a snack, there was exactly one table available with cookies and M&Ms. One table. This is the largest conference I've attended. One table. Twice the size of PLMW, edging out SWW by a bit. One table. And of course, hungry software developers lacking in people skills descended upon this table like a pack of wild dogs. I've never seen so much interest in M&Ms, and I struggle to think of the last time I saw such a poorly organized means of delivering food. The CAD conferences typically naturally form lines and efficiently retrieve food. This was almost scary.
Winner: SWW, CAD users
Loser: WWDC, software developers
For as long as I can remember, PLMW has used custom-printed foam board propped up on easels for session topic signs. I was amazed when I attended SWW, and they had big LCD screens outside of each room indicating the next session subject. Apple has, of course, stepped that up with a level of style.
Granted, I'm not even half way through WWDC yet, but based upon initial impressions, I'd have to say that SolidWorks World will hold onto its coveted title of "Most Impressive Conference Brian Has Attended". Seemingly everyone involved genuinely cared that the attendees had a great - not merely good, or acceptable, but great - time, and SolidWorks was willing to throw around some serious dollars. PLM World has been hamstrung with budget issues, no doubt in part to being a separate entity, and being roughly half (in terms of number of attendees) the size of the other two. WWDC is falling somewhere in between, although definitely closer to the SWW end of the spectrum. Apple is throwing some money around, but I'm not certain that it is winding up in the right places, and I'm not getting quite the same level of enthusiasm. Maybe it is social differences - although engineers and programmers aren't too far apart on the introverted nerd scale - maybe it is the always-present Non Disclosure Agreement hanging over everything here. Not sure, but SWW got "it", whatever "it" was.