Why is there no IT focus at Apple's developers conference?

Next week's WWDC is aimed at iPhone/iPad app development

Apple stunned longtime Mac software developers, Mac users and Apple fans when it announced the dates and other details of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in late April.

In the invitation e-mails to Mac and iPhone/iPad developers and past attendees, as well as in its press release and on its developer Web site, Apple made it abundantly clear that the focus of this year's event, which runs June 7-11, will be the iPhone and iPad.

Gone from this year's Apple Design Awards for software developers were all of the categories related to the development of Mac software.

Many of the Mac OS X developer sessions and labs have been dropped, and those that are being offered will only cover areas of development that apply to both Mac OS X and iPhone OS software creation. (The iPhone OS is a specialized version of Mac OS X, meaning it shares several core technologies, mostly for low-level programming rather than interface design. The next version, iPhone OS 4.0, is due out this summer for the iPhone and this fall for the iPad.)

The move prompted a lot of confusion and some anger from longtime Mac users and developers, and no small amount of discussion about what the move signals for the future of Mac OS X. What has gotten little attention and is in some ways more troubling is the fact that Apple removed the IT session track from WWDC.

About the IT track

The IT track at WWDC has always flown under the radar and has never been quite as well attended as other development tracks, which are focused on various aspects of software development for Apple products. But it is a fundamentally important aspect of the conference and a key to encouraging the successful adoption of Apple technologies in business, education and government sectors.

Apple is generally seen as a consumer-oriented company, even more so with this year's rollout of the iPad. However, it does produce some powerful business and enterprise technologies -- Mac OS X Server; the Xserve rack-mounted server, which can host virtualized versions of Mac OS X Server, Windows Server, Linux, and most other server platforms; the Xsan cluster file system, which can connect Macs and servers to a high-speed Fibre Channel network and RAID storage volumes; Final Cut Server; tools built into Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server for quick, large-scale deployments; and the enterprise capabilities built into Mac OS X, Mac OS X Server and the iPhone OS: support for joining Active Directory networks, cross-platform client management, access to Windows and Unix shared files and printers, and access to Microsoft Exchange servers.

The problem in the past has been that although Apple produces powerful enterprise-caliber software and builds some level of multiplatform enterprise support into pretty much every product, it still acts like a consumer company. Whereas most enterprise vendors provide long-range product road maps to organizations that use their technologies on a large scale, Apple doesn't. Nor does it do much to promote its enterprise offerings or provide details about them.

This doesn't mean that Apple leaves business, education and government buyers completely in the lurch. The company provides a wide range of enterprise resources, guides and white papers. It also offers specifically designed support agreements for large and small firms and can work with companies directly or through a range of consulting firms to provide additional engineering expertise.

Apple also produces a range of training programs to aid enterprise adoption of its technologies, including instructor-led classes and certification programs, for which the primary textbooks are sold commercially as part of Peachpit's Apple Training Series line. That series recently launched an updated line of training texts covering Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard).

Why the IT track is important

Even with the resources Apple makes available to larger customers, the IT track at WWDC is important for a couple of core reasons. First, it provides something of road map for IT managers trying to decide which mix of technologies and techniques they will use for medium- and long-term planning. While it isn't a complete road map -- and the focus is a bit different than that offered by other vendors -- it is the only way for IT managers and systems and network administrators to judge where Apple is going in the next year or two.

Even though most of the information is typically bound under nondisclosure agreements, the people who need it have been able to get it at WWDC.

Another reason the IT track is useful is that, like all the other tracks at WWDC, it allows IT professionals working with Apple technology in the enterprise to meet up with Apple engineers, enterprise technology evangelists, instructors and other IT professionals dealing with many of the same issues.

It is possible to get some of this networking, training and advice through other means, such as by attending Apple training classes; working with consultants; working with Apple sales reps and AppleCare engineers; and sharing information through online forums like AFP548, Apple's own enterprise support forums and the MacEnterprise mailing list.

But even that mix of resources isn't the same as a worldwide event that draws thousands of others working in similar environments, as well as a boatload of folks from Apple and thousands of Mac software developers that IT professionals can learn from and inspire by talking about what goes on in their companies and schools.

It's needed this year

Accepting the importance of the iPhone/iPad focus at this year's WWDC points to why an IT track might have been even more important than in the past. IPhones have been working their way into businesses of all types since they arrived in mid-2007. IPads are sure to follow and, depending on where and how they're deployed, may present more challenges to IT departments than the iPhone did. (IPads used in K-12 education, for example, will need to be managed as much as any Mac in a school.)

Although Apple began building some enterprise support into the iPhone OS two years ago, there are still very few resources detailing how to efficiently configure, deploy, secure and manage them in large-scale deployments. With Apple announcing a slew of enterprise-oriented features in iPhone OS 4, and with the iPad representing a completely new entity for IT departments to deal with, an iPhone OS IT track would have been a sorely needed way for IT professionals to learn from Apple how to do these things -- both in the current and future iPhone OS releases.

It would also serve to highlight Apple's commitment to the enterprise world, which may be one of the biggest markets for both the iPhone and the iPad. Given that there are ongoing debates about whether the iPhone and iPad even belong in the workplace, Apple could have used this as a marketing effort to help win over jaded IT professionals and managers who see the devices as mere toys.

What now?

It seems likely that the missing Mac OS X aspect of WWDC won't be permanent.

With the arrival of the iPad and an upcoming major iPhone OS release (which some have suggested delayed progress on Snow Leopard's successor, Mac OS X 10.7), it may make sense to focus the conference on Apple's mobile platform, particularly if there's scant new information for Mac developers.

Hopefully, next year will see more Mac-focused sessions -- and the return of an IT track, ideally one that has as much iPhone OS as Mac OS X information and resources. In the meantime, IT professionals disillusioned by the lack of enterprise IT-focused information this year have begun proposing a separate conference that would provide resources similar to what Apple might have included. In the long run, whether Apple's official IT track returns or not, this could benefit enterprise users, as it would provide a regular event with a complete focus on IT needs, which are generally different from the needs of developer.

Better yet, the push for a separate event might lead to Apple offer its own separate IT conference in addition to WWDC. Either way, Apple shouldn't ignore its enterprise wares for long.

Ryan Faas is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in Mac and multiplatform network issues. His most recent book is iPhone for Work, published by Apress. You can find more information at www.ryanfaas.com and can e-mail Ryan at ryan@ryanfaas.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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