Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is our Super Bowl. It’s the most important time of the year for Apple fans, journalists, and of course developers. Each year for more than 20 years, Apple has brought its community together and spent a week detailing their next major software innovations.
WWDC is not just a place for Apple to show off its latest creations, it’s also a place for the Apple community to assemble in person. It’s a special place, a special time of year for many of us. We get to see a glimpse of the future and more importantly, participate in building it. Every WWDC has its moments, but there are some moments in particular that are impossible to forget. From earthshaking announcements to retrospectively goofy quotes, there are so many memories that bring a smile to our faces. As we approach WWDC 2021, let’s take a look back at some of those moments.
Even though WWDC technically started in 1990, let’s start where things got interesting, which is in 1997. Apple was on the brink and Steve Jobs had just returned to the company following the NeXT acquisition. This was the first time since his return that Steve himself appeared at WWDC. This particular conference had a different format. It was more of a Q&A type event rather than a presentation of new products. After all, Steve would end up scrapping more products than he would introduce in the beginning.
Steve held an unusual fireside chat where he sat down with all of the developers in attendance and took their questions. Questions ranged from topics like dying technologies to the future of Apple platforms. It preceded the introduction of the iMac, or any other Steve-era product, for that matter. In fact, Steve himself was only a “consultant” at the time.
The conference as a whole was focused on Apple’s plan to use NeXT software as a foundation for the next major version of Mac OS. The core technology was OpenStep, an open-source API based on the NeXT platform. Mac OS X was still years away, but this was the beginning of its development.
It wasn’t clear at the time, but Apple was on a path to a renaissance. The company could’ve gone sideways at the time had Steve not been able to fix just about every problem left behind by the disastrous previous regimes. This WWDC was one of the first steps toward building the Apple we know and love today.
Between 1998 and 2001, Apple focused on transitioning the Mac from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. All four WWDCs during that time were about introducing new technologies that were to power Mac OS X and future third-party applications. 1998 saw the introduction of Carbon and Quartz, while 1999 saw OpenStep get renamed Cocoa alongside Darwin, and 2000 brought a progress report right before the public launch of Mac OS X. In 2001, Apple continued pushing along with Mac OS 10.1. The 1999 conference is the most fun of the bunch. Steve introduced redesigned Powerbooks and held a Powerbook G3 giveaway where he randomly selected a few developers.
Over the course of the next five years, Steve would reinvent Apple. He and his crack team of designers, marketers, and engineers made it cool again. With the introduction of the colorful iMac, the iBook, the iPod, and Mac OS X, the company was back on a roll. By this time, Apple was healthy and able to have a little bit of fun now and then. Steve was known to have a good sense of humor and that was on full display at WWDC 2002. In fact, he came up with a very creative way to put Mac OS 9 to rest.
Steve held a faux funeral for Mac OS 9 as all development had finished on the platform. Mac OS X had taken off, and gone were the platinum windows of the ’90s. He gave a hilarious speech in honor of Mac OS 9 and laid it to rest in a casket that sat on stage behind him, seemingly floating above a cloud of smoke that rested on the ground. But WWDC 2002 was about much more than laying Mac OS 9 to rest.
Apple introduced the next major version of Mac OS X, “Jaguar.” The company also revealed new technologies like iSync for bringing the PDA and cellphone into the digital hub. It was the final piece of the puzzle at the time. iPod also gained its first set of non-music features like its iconic built-in games, calendars, and contacts. Mostly importantly though, Steve introduced the first iPod that worked with Windows machines. This not only expanded the market for iPod, it also began a wave of switchers who saw how great the iPod was and wondered what the Mac might be like.
Did you know that Xcode didn’t actually exist until 2003? Yup, that’s right Apple announced the first version of Xcode at WWDC 2003 alongside Mac OS X Panther. Apple employee #8 Chris Espinosa, who was still at Apple at the time, demoed the new application and lauded it as the “best thing we’ve ever done in developer tools.” He would know, he had been at Apple since it was based in a garage.
Sure enough, Chris was right. Xcode is still in use today and now acts as the core environment for developing apps for all five of Apple’s platforms. WWDC 2003 also brought important new apps like iChat AV and the first iteration of the Finder design we have today. It also saw the introduction of the first iSight camera, which was given to all attendees as a gift.
At this WWDC, Apple also brought their top-of-the-line professional Mac up to speed with their modern industrial design. The first Apple tower made out of aluminum launched as the Power Mac G5. The design would later be reused for the first Mac Pro and sit on shelves for a total of eight years.
In 2004, Apple would spend most of WWDC on Mac OS X Tiger. Tiger was a huge release and included Dashboard with widgets for the first time. This was also the conference that Apple unveiled the iconic aluminum cinema displays, including the massive 30-inch model.
Rumors had swirled for a while that Apple might be transitioning the Mac from PowerPC to Intel processors. At WWDC 2005, Steve confirmed the rumor with what I consider an iconic slide that simply said “It’s true!” with a lowered e like the one in the Intel logo. The Intel transition ended up being the focus of this WWDC, and important technologies like Rosetta and Universal were introduced to help make the transition seamless for developers.
Steve made it clear that the reason for transitioning the Mac was because they couldn’t build the next generation of groundbreaking computers with PowerPC chips. Sound familiar? It’s the same reason Apple is transitioning to their own custom silicon today. Apple couldn’t have built the new iMac with an Intel processor.
PowerPC chips simply couldn’t deliver for Apple. They couldn’t, as Steve said “shoehorn a G5 into a PowerBook” or build a Mac Pro that could hit 3.0 Ghz. Even though Apple had spent plenty of time poking fun at Intel and lauding the PowerPC chip as superior, it was time for Apple to bite the bullet and make the switch. This single transition enabled the next decade of incredible products like the ultra thin MacBook Air and the exponentially more powerful MacBooks Pros.
In 2006, Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall would preview an early version of Mac OS X Leopard. Steve made it very clear to the audience that Leopard had a lot of “Top Secret” features that he didn’t want to give Microsoft time to copy. Those of course would turn out to be things like the redesigned desktop. Bertrand Serlet also did a hilarious take down of Windows Vista, comparing it to an Elvis impersonator. This conference also marked the introduction of the first Mac Pro.
When the iPhone was introduced at Macworld 2007, took the world by storm. It was clear that the product was going to be big and it was going to change things. Developers wanted to be able to ship their own apps for the iPhone but no solution was introduced in the original presentation. At WWDC 2007, Steve capped his keynote that had been primarily focused on Mac OS X Leopard by telling developers that their “sweet solution” for developers to build iPhone apps was web apps in Safari.
Developers were furious about this decision and it helped spawn the jailbreaking community and ultimately the App Store. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber famously called it “insulting” and a “shit sandwich.” Developers would eventually go on to build great web apps, though. It even led Apple to create web clips on the iPhone’s Home Screen in January 2008.
As part of his Leopard presentation, Steve showed off the new desktop for the first time with its beautiful 3D glass dock and translucent menu bar. He also debuted Safari for Windows and hilariously demoed it on a Windows machine, saying, “This is odd.”
After introducing the iPhone SDK in March 2008, Apple introduced the App Store as the primary way for developers to distribute their apps. At WWDC, many developers previewed apps they were working on and Steve, alongside Scott Forstall, walked the developer community through the App Store and the SDK.
A few weeks after WWDC, the App Store launched with iPhone OS 2.0 and the world was never the same. The store opened with 500 apps and it quickly exploded into the wide variety available today.
Steve also spent a chunk of the keynote presenting the iPhone 3G. The idea behind the second-generation iPhone was to solve some core problems preventing customers from buying the iPhone like lowering the price to make it more accessible, making it faster and compatible with 3G networks, and making it available in more countries and more industries.
Steve had to go on medical leave for most of 2009, so like Macworld that year, WWDC 2009 was led by Phil Schiller. Alongside Scott Forstall and Bertrand Serlet, Phil introduced the next generations of iPhone OS and Mac OS X.
The real star of the show though was the third-generation iPhone. The iPhone 3GS was unveiled with long requested features like video recording, voice control, and a compass. It was significantly faster than the iPhone 3G and marked a major upgrade (even if it looked the same).
This conference also saw Apple drop the price of an iPhone down to just $99 on a two year contract. This was the first time Apple moved last year’s iPhone to a lower price and kept it in the lineup, a strategy they still use today to increase adoption around the world.
WWDC 2010 was all about the iPhone 4. Steve spent the keynote walking the developer community through each tent pole of the iPhone 4, from its all new design to FaceTime. Of course, earlier that year the iPhone 4 had been leaked entirely by Gizmodo after one of their journalists got their hands on a prototype that had been infamously left in a bar.
Steve had a little bit of fun with this during the keynote, telling the crowd “stop me if you’ve already seen this.” He then said “you ain’t seen it” and continued on showing off just how truly beautiful the new industrial design was. He compared it to an old Leica camera, a very apt comparison I’d say. The iPhone 4 is still beyond a doubt one of the most beautiful products any company has ever made.
This was also the infamous event where the Wi-Fi failed in the convention hall during Steve’s demos and he was forced to tell the crowd to put all of their devices away. In fact he even had the lights turned on and asked bloggers and attendees to police each other. His final demo was to be FaceTime and that absolutely had to work. It wasn’t quite perfect, but enough bandwidth was freed up for the demo to still be jaw-dropping.
We didn’t know it at the time, but WWDC 2011 would be Steve’s very last keynote. He was visibly thinner but still in good spirits. He got a massive standing ovation at the start of the keynote and he thanked the crowd, telling them, “It always helps.”
It’s likely no coincidence that the last product Steve introduced was iCloud, a service that ended up laying the foundation for the next decade of Apple products. Four months later, Steve would succumb to his illness and the world would mourn his passing. WWDC has never been the same without him, but his spirit has continued to be felt in products he would be so proud of.
Apple also used WWDC 2011 to unveil iOS 5 and the release version of OS X Lion, both of which served as the biggest updates to their respective platforms in years.
iOS 5 uncoupled iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch from the Mac, kicking off a new era of devices that would in many cases be a person’s only portal to the internet. It helped boost the iPad and make it a computer alternative for many people and it vastly simplified iPhone setup.
In the year that followed, the iOS team would develop their own Maps app under the leadership of Scott Forstall. WWDC 2012 would see the introduction of Apple’s own mapping solution, but later in the year it was widely panned. As a result, Scott Forstall was ousted from the company when Tim Cook restructured the executive team. Jony Ive was put in charge of software design and Craig Federighi took the reins of iOS engineering.
Once Jony Ive was put in charge of user interface design, we knew that Apple’s software would gain a very different look. Sure enough, just under a year later we got our first look at iOS 7. Apple’s marketing materials for WWDC 2013 were very clear that the update was going to be big and they didn’t disappoint. iOS 7 kicked off a new era of design, and its very existence caused brands all over the world to rethink how they designed things.
This was also the conference where Phil Schiller said, “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass,” after introducing the new Mac Pro. Of course, that Mac Pro was ill-fated but they didn’t know that at the time. He was absolutely right, he just probably shouldn’t have used that line on that particular product.
WWDC 2013 was also the first conference where Craig Federighi was leading the iOS development team following Scott Forstall’s departure the previous year. Pulling the design and engineering teams closer together than ever before proved to be one of the smartest decisions Tim Cook has made during his tenure as CEO. It laid the groundwork for products like the Apple Watch, technologies like continuity, and so much more.
WWDC 2014 was a major one. It marked the beginning of extensions on iOS and it marked the first big redesign for Mac OS since it had been introduced. But the real star of the show was Apple’s entirely new programming language.
Craig pondered what objective-C would be like without the “baggage of C.” Developers began to get excited and then he took the wraps off Swift, a new programming language built for the future.
Swift was also supposed to make it easier for new coders to learn how to build apps. It was made to make engineering for Apple platforms faster and more efficient, but also to expand the base of Apple developers.
One of the weirdest reveals in WWDC history was in 2015 with the introduction of Apple Music. Not only was Apple Music a fairly strange choice for a developers conference, it was led by Beats executive Jimmy Iovine. Jimmy’s presentation was… well let’s just say it wasn’t a Stevenote.
The audience laughed when Jimmy said that “Apple Music is three things,” thinking it was a pun on the iPhone reveal. Jimmy didn’t quite get that connection and it made for a very awkward moment. The event ended with a performance by The Weeknd, where he debuted “Can’t Feel My Face” in a very out-of-place setting.
WWDC 2015 didn’t just give us Apple’s first music service, it also gave us our first look at Apple News. This event marked the beginning of Apple’s foray into new media services. Of course they had iTunes Radio already, but this was their first core media subscription.
In the three years that followed WWDC 2015, Apple held some really interesting conferences. From the only WWDC to held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium with the first truly diverse group of presenters to the introduction of real iPad multitasking to the one that was all about refinements.
WWDC 2019 brought the reborn Mac Pro. After the debacle of the 2013 model, Apple promised that they were going to take the time to build an entirely new Mac Pro that met the needs of pro users during a roundtable with journalists and Apple executives. They delivered what they promised at WWDC 2019 with the redesigned Mac Pro and the Pro Display XDR.
The jaw-droppingly expensive computer and display were both beautiful and modular. They were exactly what developers, videographers, and photographers were looking for. They solved just about every problem that the 2013 Mac Pro had. Of course, this also meant that their price points were off the charts.
WWDC 2019 was a particularly fun one that was jam packed with announcements. We got dark mode on iOS and iPad finally gained its very own operating system independent of the iPhone.
The past year was difficult but Apple’s events made it a bit more bearable. They were something to look forward amid a very uncertain time. WWDC 2020 was the first conference that everyone all over the world was able to experience in the exact same way.
WWDC 2020 wasn’t just important and memorable because of the timing, it also saw Apple finally announce that they were transitioning the Mac to their own custom silicon.
We had been waiting so long for this transition, ever since Apple introduced their first A4 chip in the original iPad. Apple learned a lot over the past decade and was able to pour all of that knowledge into the most incredible consumer electronics processor we’ve ever seen, the M1.
WWDC means a lot of many of us. It’s not only the most fun time of the year for the community, it’s arguably the most important. As we all watch the event in real-time over a livestream and race to download the latest betas, we are simultaneously having the same experience. It’s where we all come together and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
You can dive even deeper into the history of WWDC on the Apple Wiki which has breakdowns of each and every Apple developers conference, even predating Steve’s return in 1997.
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