Apple shifts WWDC 2020 to online, will livestream keynote and sessions

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After 33 consecutive years as a physical gathering in Northern California, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) will for the first time go entirely online, the company announced today, a change that will likely have greater impact on the event’s 6,000 attendees than the general public. While the event has occupied convention center spaces in San Francisco, San Jose, or Santa Clara for years, the company is cooperating with local authorities to help limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, mandating a change in format.

“We are delivering WWDC 2020 this June in an innovative way to millions of developers around the world, bringing the entire developer community together with a new experience,” said Apple SVP Phil Schiller. “The current health situation has required that we create a new WWDC 2020 format that delivers a full program with an online keynote and sessions, offering a great learning experience for our entire developer community, all around the world. We will be sharing all of the details in the weeks ahead.”

Technically, this year’s WWDC isn’t being canceled or changed because it was never formally announced or scheduled before today; Apple routinely confirms the event’s date and location between late February and mid-March, and in recent years used a lottery system to manage overwhelming ticket demand from attending developers. Tickets were sold for $1,599 each, and included in-person access to both a keynote speech and a week full of sessions focused on current and new Apple technologies, hosted by key Apple employees.

Specifics of the event are still up in the air, but Apple appears to be ready to launch its new OSes in beta form in June. “I look forward to our developers getting their hands on the new code,” said Apple SVP Craig Federighi, “and interacting in entirely new ways with the Apple engineers building the technologies and frameworks that will shape the future across all Apple platforms.”

Apple says that it’s committing $1 million to organizations in San Jose that would lose revenue from a physical version of the event. Assuming it sold all 6,000 tickets to such an event at prior prices, Apple alone would have brought in just under $10 million in direct revenue from ticket sales – a drop in the bucket for the trillion-plus-dollar company – before accounting for facility, food, and other costs. Direct dollars aside, holding a physical event would have sent a clear signal to other companies that the coronavirus panic will be over by June, but the company apparently wasn’t prepared to do that.

On March 9, Santa Clara County banned public gatherings of 1,000 or more people in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus – a measure that will continue through at least the end of March. Although a physical WWDC event would have taken place in early June, Apple would have needed to commence ticket sales in the midst of public concerns over the virus, and likely erred on the side of caution when deciding to modify its annual format. Multiple companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Adobe, have canceled in-person gatherings over the coronavirus outbreak, and major technology conferences ranging from MWC to GDC and E3 have been scuttled or delayed.

This isn’t the first time Apple has changed elements of its developer event, but it’s arguably the most significant. Until 2003, WWDC was held in May rather than June, and even then, the event has shuffled from late in June to earlier dates, once taking place in August. Apple moved the physical gathering from Santa Clara to San Jose to San Francisco, spending 14 years at the latter city’s Moscone Convention Center before shifting back to San Jose. In-person attendance has ranged from 2,000 to 6,000 people, most recently on the high end, with attendees representing over 80 countries.

The company set the stage for some of today’s changes well before the coronavirus cast its shadow, renaming its WWDC app to Apple Developer and creating a one-stop shop for developer news, videos from past events, and livestreams. While developer-specific content will continue to be available within that app, a keynote speech will be more widely streamed through Apple’s website, as well as other sources, enabling both developers and members of the general public to hear what’s coming in the latest releases of macOS, iOS, iPadOS, watchOS, and tvOS later this year.

Apple says it will provide updates on the program by email, through the Apple Developer app, and on the Apple Developer website. It expects specific timing for the keynote and sessions to be revealed at some point between now and June.