WWDC 2020: Why Apple must go virtual for this year's show

I really can’t see the good corporate citizen Apple strives to be holding WWDC in June amid the Coronavirus threat.

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No matter how important this year's WWDC 2020 might be, I don't see Apple, which strives to be a good corporate citizen, holding its big show in June amid the gathering Coronavirus threat

This is global warning

We’re in the containment phase at the moment, as governments worldwide seek to slow the spread of the infection in the hope they can find some kind of solution. It’s in everybody’s interest to hold that line for as long as possible.

The problem is that the virus has a long gestation period, a high infection rate, and a far higher fatality rate than the flu. That means it can easily proliferate at public events.

Apple’s giant WWDC is the most important event in the company's calendar. It’s a fascinating place where business is done, connections made, and Apple opens up a little, sharing its ideas, new operating systems and gently guides partners into what it plans for the months and years ahead. I love to attend when I can.

The show attracts at least 6,000 people from all around the world, which, unfortunately, is a problem in the context of the coronavirus.

Not only can it spread quite rapidly in a crowded room (I’m not certain of its infection rate via air conditioning systems), but all those people at WWDC stay somewhere and interact with local services, hotels, restaurants.

If just a few people are infected at the start of the event, you can rest assured many more will be once it ends. It might be a couple of weeks before they know they’ve been hit, by which time they will have returned home, unknowingly infecting others along the way.

That’s how this particular infection works.

[Also read: Enterprise resilience: iOS, Mac tools for remote collaboration]

This is also why Mobile World Congress, Adobe Summit, Facebook F8, Games Developers Conference, Nvidia GTC, the Geneva Motor Show, and a range of sporting events (including England’s Six Nation’s rugby game) have been cancelled or delayed.

The economic consequences of this activity are being felt across almost every industry – airlines, the hospitality industry, even a relatively digital firm like Google is taking a hit as ad sales in some sectors (tourism, for example) slump.

While the economic consequences are important, the human consequences are profound.

Apple puts humans first

Apple is a user-centric company.

Its user interfaces are built around its acclaimed Human Interface Guidelines. The success of its hardware is based on that human-focused usability; this is also why it has taken a huge chunk of market share in enterprise IT across the last few years.

This stuff doesn’t come easy. Creating great solutions is precisely what those 6,000 people the company invites to its developer’s conference do. Hardware and software designers, developers, engineers – these people are essential.

Apple will not want to put any of these people at any additional risk.

It is clear we are battling a pandemic and while there is some hope the virus will be easier to fight (and the effects less critical), if we can make it into summer, most governments accept that containment has failed.

WWDC 2020: The virtual show

Apple listens to advice and this is why I’m convinced it has already decided to delay the live event part of WWDC. I imagine it may consider streaming some form of event keynote, perhaps something like a State of the Union address and selected developer sessions, while also delivering access to more closed sessions online under extraordinarily strict non-disclosure agreements.

It already does most of those things at WWDC.

The approach does lack the human connection with engineers that means so much, but Apple will absolutely want to protect its key staff. And if the virus does recede in summer, I imagine Apple may be thinking about other options.

It could consider running a larger event in September around the iPhone launch, or simply running WWDC 2020 in late July, or early August. Some expect the virus to peak in June, so running a later show may make sense – though there are no guarantees.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough

Two weeks ago, I warned that Apple has a limited window to decide on what to do about WWDC this year. Apple still has some time in which to see whether some kind of breakthrough takes place. But it doesn't have long.

Think about the challenges of assembling the infrastructure for an event of this scope. Doing so takes a great deal of planning, not to mention ensuring resources to support show-goers are locally available. When does it usually order its WWDC jackets, for example?

These logistical considerations mean it will likely take the final decision on the matter in the next couple of weeks, at most. While cancelling or delaying WWDC poses big business and continuity problems for Apple (and everyone else), it feels like it might be for the best. The protection of Apple’s employees, key partners, and local and national communities must come first.

Meanwhile, think global, act local, and work from home.

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