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A pair of WWDCs

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WWDC Line - UX Reviews

Changing Tides

I was a lucky Golden Ticket winner to WWDC 2013, and I was even     more fortunate to attend parts of AltWWDC 2013. I came to SF, as a boring business app corporate programmer who more and more desperately wants to learn how to build those beautiful apps with user experiences that stand out – since average iOS app development has become a commodity.

Having previously attended WWDC in 2010, my impression is that the vibe has changed. Corporatized. The app is becoming a feature of big business. It seems that you cannot operate as a big business in 2013 without a legitimate, decent mobile presence. Even for the smaller, mobile-only businesses there, Pareto’s rule seems to apply – around 80% of their revenue comes from iOS. While iOS may not be entrenched in big business like Java in its countless internal systems, big business is doing its darndest best to be entrenched in iOS.

In my informal survey of attendees that I met while in line (oh, lots of lines), even though I met people with their own consultancies/one-man shops/small businesses, there was a strong corporate presence. An giant athletic footwear maker had 10 developers at the conference. A large insurance company had 10 developers. A Fortune 100 company had two developers there – the slots were offered personally to the company a few weeks before the conference. They were just starting out on a new app (nothing great) and they are an iconic brand name. I saw a couple apps from smaller businesses that weren’t that remarkable (off-the-shelf UI) and they were selling for $99/copy in the App Store because there was an established business in a legitimate, profitable niche making it.

Overhearing ambient talk, sometimes tense and charged (were these PMs at a developer conference?) about dealing with escalation X, product requirement Y, deadline Z, features, too many features –  I swear I could have closed my eyes sometimes and felt like I was back in my normal habitat, a corporate office. I know that all the WWDC sessions were quickly produced and made available online for world-wide binging and consumption (thanks to Jake Behrens and his team) – and I felt like there were more than a few companies who brought their office and project dramas to Moscone West for the week.

On the 2nd floor, there was a table-sized, almost real-time, mesmerizing, interactive 120-iPads-hooked-up-to-a-Mac-Pro display of the top 20,000 (2%) apps in the App Store [1]. With the help of an Apple employee with an iPad control pad/cheatsheet app, I was able to locate Domino! Free which is made with love (and hard work and customer appreciation) by my Flyclops friends in Philly.

Later in yet another line, I was still marveling out loud about the app display and the apps it featured – some of which are small and satisfy a market need (unit conversion anyone?), a few of which are truly inspiring like ADA winner Badland. A developer nearby made a comment about how their consumer app probably has 10x the downloads of all those other apps – in the millions. I asked them how big their development team was – 10 developers, 5 designers.

At lunch, I sat down across from a guy wearing a Sourcetree t-shirt. We use Sourcetree at work – not sure how we would manage what is going in our Git repos without it, having left Brotherbard’s GitX fork for good a long time back. He looked busy so I waited about 15 min. (until I would strongly regret not chatting him up) to interrupt him. I asked him if he was part of the Sourcetree team. He paused and then laughed – as it turns out, he is the sole developer of Sourcetree for Mac (there is a designer who helps part-time and a Windows dev).  Never in my mind could I have imagined that such a rich, beautiful version-control Mac desktop client was a single developer based in Guernsey, UK[2]. After telling him that (‘lots of people think that we are a team of 5 developers’), I tried to extract an answer about when support for managing/approving Github pull requests in Sourcetree was forthcoming.

The Equalizer

WWDC is the equalizer. The combination of superb Apple engineering knowledge sharing and informal/formal networking lets large corporate teams compete in the App Arena against the nimble, possibly more talented small independent teams (even teams of one). Even though WWDC is 5,000 people, it is still intimate and you can meet enough interesting people to be inspired.

I’ve been to JavaOne – 15,000 developers, sessions where you are in ever present danger of nodding off while trying to absorb Powerpoints packed with acronyms/diagrams/technical verbage (and very little actual code) – most of which you most likely will never use when you return back to the corporate mothership.

Even with its now more corporate vibe, at WWDC you want to drink the Kool-Aid… liberally. From what I’ve heard about Google I/O from people who had the random luck to secure a spot, more of the people who go to Google I/O aren’t makers – they are about what is in my door prize/goodie bag. The people who are fortunate enough to go to WWDC are actually developing, making things. You really want to go home and hack on NDA with NDA. It may be a fleeting inspiration and enough to actually spark the fire of grinding it out for real and making it through the inevitable irritation.

Every year at WWDC (2013 was their 5th year), the dynamic duo of Eliza Block [3] and Josh Shaffer give an amazing tag-team presentation on the power of UIScrollViews. This year it focused on iOS 7 – and it always highlights the incredibleness and versatility of UIScrollViews. In their presentation, they show the magic of UIScrollViews – and more importantly – reveal how they developed the magic trick to some of us mortals. They explain the key concepts behind their design of the code – from the basic to the much more complicated, mind-twisting, abstract 7th level of ScrollView zen. They show us how they iterate and fix the bugs – without hacks, introducing their elegant code like a debutante. Most importantly, Eliza and Josh exude an almost tangible sense of excitement and giddiness about being able to show a packed room of developers (and the huge video audience) what they love to do. The secrets to the art of Cocoa development. The passion they show extends to all WWDC session presenters – they all care so deeply about crafting the user experience – from the bottom of the iceberg (Objective-C internals, memory optimization) to the (now) flat-toned tip of the iceberg – the UI. Sharing the Kool-Aid. [4]

I challenge all the corporate developers who write business apps (not all boring) – including myself – to fight to put user experience at the fore-front (and include subtle UI tweaks and animations).

The Future of iOS Development

There has been a lot written about iOS 7. Personally, I feel that the bold user interface changes are a direct reaction to Android’s success. Android is hip and urban, constantly changing – even dangerous. iOS has been the soccer mom who goes to the mall – predictable and boring. Apple is being forced to upgrade its look/vibe, lest it be divorced from its coveted 18-45 Female demographic.

Despite some developers of apps (especially those with large consumer user bases) not being able to move to iOS 7 -because they have to support iOS 6 (or worse – back to iOS 5 because of some corporate/marketing mandate), iOS 7 is the new foundation, going forward, upon which apps will be based [5].

This year, at the Apple Design Awards (ADA) ceremonies, as someone whose forte is developing complex but boring business apps, I honestly felt like I was inadequate (as I presume more than a few fellow attendees may have been) when we saw the 2013 ADA winners – with their beautiful and engaging user experiences. There was a special category, “Student Scholarship Showcase”. The three apps featured (all made in less than a week) were amazing examples of using the best of Apple’s core technologies to craft a beautiful user experience.

The last day of WWDC, I went to the Labs with a question for an Apple UI engineer about how the Applauze iOS app does its vertical cell scroll-up trickery. I had the honor of meeting Louis Harboe (@spiralstairs), one of the student winners of an Apple Design Award. – when he asked to tag along with me to meet with the engineer (eager to hear the answer).

Louis showed us his ADA-award winning app (which is not on the App Store) to me and the Apple UI engineer, Alex. It was a scrolling (yes, UIScrollView) through time visual life biography. What he liked. What influenced him. What his goals were. You could pinch on a movie or photo in the timeline to rotate, maybe even move, or expand it. You could tap on things to bring up a more detailed view – with great animation. Believe me, my textual description of what I thought of as an iYearbook/iScrapbook does not suffice.

Louis is working on a tide-tracking app. Apparently, tide-tracking is one of those nice niches in the App Store. He showed us the competitor apps. Some of them were quite respectable. However, his app was visually gorgeous, even in its sometimes not working, prototype intermediate stage. Tide tracking is something quite mundane yet he managed to make it seem quite interesting.  Potential App Store feature-worthy. A capable designer (who can code), as part of his UI, he was working on an animated wave like the one Siri has. [6]

For all of its bold new groundbreaking, iOS 7 is not the future of iOS development – outstanding individuals from the younger generation like Louis Harboe are the future of iOS development. I applaud Apple for its Student Scholarship program, as it is inspiring, at least, to old whippersnappers like me.

Thank you to all the engineers at Apple and employees who helped make WWDC ’13 an inspiration and kick in the pants to go forth and do something… with iOS 7.

alt-wwdc

AltWWDC

Even more inspiring than WWDC – was AltWWDC. (I’m slow – it took me a while to grok the logo – until I was like ha!)

I almost didn’t go to AltWWDC. I was in line for an afternoon session at WWDC and it turned out when we finally got in the room – seats near the back – that there was no speaker at the front – the speaker was next door – simulcast. I thought it was silly that I was watching a video screen and decided to go to AltWWDC.

If WWDC was an expensive Broadway production, AltWWDC was an Indie band playing in an arena to 100 true fans. At AltWWDC, I felt like I was at my beloved PhillyCocoaheads – with its indie, sharing-is-good, join-the-club vibe, just with a bigger venue, a bigger audience, and (to be truthful) much better speakers (Note: I say this – having presented at PhillyCocoa a few times). Even though I knew the sessions were going to be recorded, it was worth it to skip WWDC to be in the room to be part of AltWWDC live (and meet the speakers afterwards in person). As someone who had a WWDC badge, I felt guilty (and hid the badge).

The videos for AltWWDC can be found here (be patient with the ad rolling). I won’t link directly to any of the sessions (except for one), as all of the sessions (not the ones I saw personally) are worth watching.

Charles Perry gave an excellent talk about Accessibility in iOS – it was excellent because he showed us a sample to-do list app project in which he iteratively added more and more accessibility features – until it was fully accessible.

Ben Johnson gave my favorite talk. To someone who is a boring business app programmer, Ben revealed some of the secrets of not so boring apps. Animations. “Animations are all about timing, It’s about anticipation, what is going to happen. Ultimately, it is a gut feeling.” He showed some fascinating slow-mo videos (AirPlay+screenflow acquired) of some of his favorite animations: the iOS 6 tap on the lock screen to reveal the camera, Zappos‘ iOS app that quirkily throws a cat(!) down when you add something to your shopping cart, the rotating propeller wait icon and planes crossing the lockscreen of Just Landed, the elegant suave non-standard view title transition of Jetsetter, the ground-breaking (at the time) z-shifting of National Parks, the runaway cart of B&H Photo (which he worked on), and the cloud clock animation of Free Time (his app).

Brent Simmons told us of his experience making Vesper. I bought the app during the session and the animations, the flow of the whole app is smooth. It was interesting to tap along and see the animations/custom view transitions/text rendering as Brent was talking about how (nearly insanely) difficult it was to implement. Also – a hidden view controller with minimal opacity can help make you custom popover controls.

Jeremy Olson – an ADA winner! – gave a great talk about how he has become a recognized name in the iOS app design world (and beyond it). Along with Ben Johnson’s talk, this was the most inspiring talk because he talked about the process of becoming a recognized name in the iOS app developer. Doing it, talking to people, meeting people, sharing what you have done, getting better at sharing, teaching, writing, doing it. Repeat. During his talk, I started to have real stubborn dreams of what I could do this year – blogging about iOS 7, the mobile landscape, getting better at crafting user experiences in the app, creating a decent app for First Friday.

Finally, Mike Lee gave one inspiring, kick-assing talk. I won’t try to summarize it. Why we do what do. Watch it here.

Thank you to Appsterdam, Mike Lee, Josh Michaels, Judy Chen, Kyle Kinkade, and Rob Elkin for bringing to reality an alternate WWDC that exists in its own right.

I end this epic overly long post with a challenge to AltWWDC – to reach out to the student developers, the younger generation for AltWWDC 2014.

At WWDC, Apple lays out the future of the iOS/Mac OS X universe for the next year/major release. In mobile development, the best practices are constantly changing every other quarter. What you know about iOS circa 2010/iOS 4 is woefully out of date two years later. Which is why, as a professional Android developer, I went to WWDC. And I am happy that I got to go to part of AltWWDC as well.

[1] http://allthingsd.com/20120611/connected-ipads-offer-a-bit-of-icandy-at-wwdc/

[2] “We’re” https://twitter.com/sourcetree/status/29359861519

[3] Before Apple, Eliza pioneered success in the App Store http://www.intuitive.com/blog/iphone_app_developer_spotlight_eliza_block_2_across.html

[4] At Apple Developer Days, they showed an inspiring video that just made you want to be able to learn how to craft the best, beautiful user experiences. This isn’t the video but it is in the same zip code. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UER_yQGXyV8

[5] “Fertile Ground”, Marco Arment. http://www.marco.org/2013/06/11/fertile-ground

[6] https://twitter.com/conradev/status/346023581479743489

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