Written by Iddo Gino, CEO and co-founder RapidAPI
For most developers, May and June are known as “conference season” - when tech giants put on their annual developer conferences - ever growing spectacles in both scale and flair - and reveal their latest technologies to crowds of cheering developers (this year - cheering from home). Millions of developers tune in from around the world to watch the latest tech (and top pop bands making casual appearances on stage).
These events serve as a good testament to the growing importance the tech giants place on their developer communities and the lengths to which they’ll go to “win” these developers. For tech companies, developers have become a critical constituent. We can’t imagine a phone without apps for instance, and there are no apps without developers. These conferences are the tech giants’ opportunity to cultivate developers’ love for their platforms.
A Humble Origins
Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is perhaps the most widely anticipated and covered tech conference of the lot. Every year, millions tune in to watch a host of Apple executives announce the latest operating systems for the Mac, iPhones, iPads and other platforms, and the newest development in the programming languages, software kits and APIs available to developers.
The tradition started in 1983 when Apple held the first “Independent Software Developers Conference” - the precursor to WWDC. Back then, developers were required to sign an NDA to keep conference details confidential (a move that would certainly not fly in 2020). In stark contrast, Apple promotes WWDC today as one of their most important events of the year, live streaming the keynote on their homepage and creating special twitter tags in anticipation of the event. Recent WWDC conferences even feature rock bands such as Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.
For Apple, the motivation for holding the conference is clear. Apple has a platform business - creating computers, tablets and phones that would be glorified paper weights without apps that run on them - developed by the global developer community. Ever since launching the iPhone, the wealth and quality of apps available on the App Store have been a clear differentiator for Apple and have awarded it a clear competitive edge. Apple claims to have facilitated $643 billion dollars in sales on the AppStore in 2020 alone - a figure more impressive when you recount Apple’s 30% cut of these transactions.
More recently, Apple has successfully leveraged WWDC as a means to promote new platforms like the Apple Watch and new technologies like AR and encourage developers to develop for them quickly. This close tie with the developer community proved its value last year when Apple launched the new Apple Silicon Macbooks. To harness their full power, developers had to “rebuild” their apps for the new chipset - and so they did in great haste. This feat was a critical factor in helping Apple succeed with it’s Apple Silicon strategy - an accomplishment that Microsoft still hasn't achieved, even though their Arm based computers have been out for much longer.
The Big Four
Apple is not alone in recognizing the importance of the developer community. Microsoft has Microsoft Build - where new platforms, frameworks and cloud tooling on Azure is revealed to developers.
Facebook has F8 - a developer conference that originated as a hackathon (development competition) and cultivates the development of apps embedding the Facebook Graph, and more recently connecting to it’s newest ventures like AR/VR platform Oculus.
Google is also known for it’s I/O event, where web platforms and mobile updates on it’s Android operating systems are often released.
Developer Conferences as Popular Culture Phenomenon
As we saw this year, modern Developer Conferences reveal software updates, developer tools, and hardware (...well, sometimes). Topics have been added to appeal to developer and non-developer audiences alike.
These conferences have evolved into their own pop culture phenomenon. For most attendees, scoring a ticket to Apple’s WWDC (back when it was a physical event) requires winning a lottery. Developers would gain prominence on social media just by scoring a ticket and tweeting about the event.
Before the establishment of the lottery program WWDC would sell out in a matter of hours or minutes. In 2013, WWDC sold out in just 71 seconds (hardly visible on the graph below).
Swag giveaways have become more prominent in recent years - giving developers another reason to love these events. Google I/O and Microsoft Build are famous for giving new hardware to attendees. In past events, Google I/O attendees received free consumer tech including a Chromebook Pixel, the HTC Evo, and the Google Home. Microsoft Build hardware gifts included the Xbox One and Surface Tablets.
Facebook itself seems to have acknowledged the evolution of developer conferences. Leading up to F8, they explained:
“Over the years we added new industry track and introduced iconic Facebook consumer products. But as the event evolved, we heard from an increasing number of developers who wanted us to share the technical content that would help them build, innovate, and grow on our platforms. This year… we are bringing F8 back to its roots as a true developer conference.”
Developers, Developers, Developers
Big companies are increasingly realizing the power of developers to extend and innovate on their platforms. These conferences are just a physical manifestation of the strategic importance enterprises place on captivating the developer audience. Even outside the large tech companies, organizations in every business vertical have started creating developer programs, releasing APIs and hosting events and conferences to familiarize developers with them. A growing number of companies outside the traditional tech field have been rapidly growing developer relations teams and demonstrating the critical role developers play for them.
As consumers become increasingly digital native and grow more discerning in their expectations from digital platforms and applications, companies realize that the path to creating first class consumer experiences often traverses through 3rd party developers. Many financial organizations have been early to understand this - creating APIs and platforms that enable developers to create the future of banking - on top of their platforms. This helps them preserve their platform advantage while allowing developers to create modern consumer experiences.
As we look to the future - the advent of digital is a certainty - and with it the importance of winning the developers’ love. We will likely keep seeing events like these - and other means - deployed to get developers building with companies platforms, tools and APIs.