While in Los Angeles last month covering Microsoft's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2007 (see my show report and photo gallery), Apple contacted me with an interesting request: Would I be interested in discussing the company's upcoming World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), its annual developer confab? Apple is expected to finally divulge the full feature set for Mac OS X 10.5 "Leopard" (see my preview) at the show, and as a long-time technology devotee, I didn't need much convincing for that reason alone. But Apple has an additional and unexpected surprise for this year's show. For the first time ever, Apple is specifically targeting Windows developers who are interested in moving their applications to the Mac.

This brings up an interesting point, because there's been a lot of talk about Apple and its products over the past several years. In the digital media space, Apple dominates with its iPod line of portable media players and its iTunes software and associated online store. (See my Apple reviews for more information.) On the computer side, Apple gets as much press for what appears to be a resurgence of the Mac: Apple's computers are almost always positively reviewed, and its Mac OS X operating system (see my Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" review) is technically sophisticated and well-designed.

Product quality notwithstanding, there's been little evidence that the Mac has made any real-world gains in recent years. While Apple likes to points out its massive Mac sales growth and the occasional record-setting quarter, the truth is that the overall PC market is much bigger than it used to be and Macs still represent a very tiny fraction of what is clearly a Windows-dominated world. According to my calculations, Apple controlled just 2.49 percent of the PC market at the end of the first quarter of 2007, just a bit higher than the 2.4 percent it controlled at the end of 2006.

Obviously, market share isn't the only measure of success. Indeed, there is a growing feeling that Apple's strategy is paying off. The company has millions of eager customers, and it seems like many Mac users, like iPod customers, have little compunction about upgrading to the latest and greatest hardware every time Apple ships an upgrade. I'm a numbers guy, but I can't help but shake the feeling that Apple is on to something. And while I like to see hard cold facts, my conversation with Apple revealed a subtle change that I think is quite important and does, in fact, point to an increasing presence on Apple's part in the wider PC market.

Here's what I found out.

About WWDC

As an Apple developer event, WWDC hasn't exactly been at the top of the schedule here at the SuperSite for Windows for what I hope are obvious reasons, but Windows guys may be interested to discover that Apple's event is very similar to Microsoft-oriented developer shows like WinHEC and PDC (Professional Developers Conference). Like WinHEC, but unlike PDC, the WWDC is held once a year, in San Francisco, and Apple purposefully keeps it close to home (the company is based in nearby Cupertino, California) so that it can bring as many of its engineers as possible to the show. This provides Apple's developer base with a unique chance to interact with the people at Apple most directly responsible for the software, developer tools, and other products for which they are developing.

"It's the reason so many people want to go to WWDC," Apple vice president of Worldwide Developer Relations Ron Okamoto told me. "It's hard to export all those engineers." And WWDC's reach is indeed worldwide, as the name suggests: The show draws a huge international crowd, and Apple is seeing big gains in developers from places like China, India, and now Eastern Europe. Last year, there were over 4200 developers from 44 countries at WWDC, and Apple expects to exceed that mark this year.

Apple has historically used WWDC to reveal information about its products, though it's worth noting that only the keynote address--usually provided by CEO Steve Jobs--is public. After that, the content of the show is kept under non-disclosure agreement (NDA), though Apple eventually releases the show content to all of its developers. Apple says the NDA is crucial, because it lets the company really go deep with developers.

At last year's show, Jobs showed off several features of its upcoming Leopard revision to Mac OS X and promised that the company would later reveal other "secret" features. (These features, presumably, will be revealed next week at this year's show.) Previously, Apple used the WWDC to announce such things as the Mac Pro workstation, the Intel switch, and various other hardware and software products. In the Mac community, there are two regularly-scheduled events, MacWorld in January and WWDC--that fans and fanatics can look forward to each year, assured that Apple will announce something impressive.

Of course, WWDC is really about developers. And at the show itself, developers can interact with the aforementioned Apple engineers, learn about new technologies they might want to target in the future, and generally get a level of access to the company that is impossible elsewhere. It's a week-long geek-fest that will eventually lead to the software Mac users will have a year or so down the road. WWDC features hands-on sessions, real-time tech demonstrations, coding samples, and hands-on labs. Apple also provides attendees with Coding Head Starts before the show so they can get up to speed and hit the ground running when they arrive in San Francisco. These tools have been very well received, Apple says.

WWDC 2007

For the 2007 edition of WWDC, Apple tells me there are three core areas of focus. First, the company will indeed divulge the final feature set for Leopard, its now-overdue Mac OS X revision. "We introduced Leopard to developers at last year's WWDC," Okamoto said. "This year, we're going to give them a basically feature-complete Leopard version to work on and take back to their shops. The [Leopard beta version] is built around giving our developers a way to test and optimize and take advantage of the new features."

Leopard's influence will extend beyond the show as well. Throughout the year, Apple's developer relations team will be giving Leopard tech talks around North America, Europe, Poland, and Asia, discussing the latest features and technologies. Past versions of these talks have been well-attended, Apple says, and the company plans to keep it up past Leopard's October 2007 launch.

Second, WWDC 2007 will focus on the recent explosion in media content. "We saw an interesting thing where people are starting to build visually interesting and compelling applications," Okamoto told me. "So we're evolving the OS, both the technologies in it and the frameworks developers will use. In Tiger, we added things like Core Image, Core Audio, and Core Animation, and those let you get nice effects into applications, provide iChat Theater-like experiences. Now, in Leopard, we're looking at the explosion in media content."

To address this change, there's a new Content in Media track at the show that will help Apple's developers take advantage of new Leopard technologies, integrate media and content on the Web or in applications, and pull it all together. "Obviously, we have some experience doing this ourselves," Okamoto said. "The iTunes Store, and some things we do on our developer Web site can point the way to these types of media content experiences." Okamoto used podcasting as a specific example, and Apple will provide tools to help developers take advantage of this increasingly important technology.

Third, and most important to readers of this site, Apple has noticed over the past few years that an increasing number of Windows and Linux developers are showing up at their events. "Traditionally, we've seen lots of young people, coming out of college, or perhaps with open source backgrounds, getting introduced to the Mac," Okamoto told me. "But now we're seeing people who have Windows and UNIX coding experience getting on the Mac in ever-bigger numbers.

To address this crowd, WWDC 2007 for the first time will include sessions and labs directed specifically at Windows developers who are moving to the Mac. On the Monday of the show, Apple is holding something called Immersion Monday, where someone who is experienced with Windows development can attend an all-day brain drain and get exposure to the fundamentals of Mac development. Then, throughout the week, they can attend sessions in the Mac OS X Fundamentals track and drill down into specifics: Animation, Web development, whatever. "When they're done Friday, they'll have gotten a nice jump start to getting around the Mac," Okamoto said. (I'm sure they'll also be exhausted.) "It's the first time we've ever done it this way. It's the first year we've created conference sessions specifically for windows developers."

Apple's decision to address Windows programmers explicitly came about in late 2006. The company was going over the demographics of the crowds that were showing up at its Leopard tech talks and discovered that one-third of the attendees from around the world were new to the Mac. These people had different backgrounds, of course, but many were Windows developers. And Apple started getting requests from customers to help train Windows developers on the Mac. Suddenly, it all came together: Windows developers are seriously looking at the Mac. "We are still getting new folks into the fold 7 years into Mac OS X," Okamoto said. "Quite a few developers are just starting to do their first Mac applications."

Moving to the Mac isn't necessarily an easy task. On the Windows side, developers struggle with an amazing and ever-changing array of developer frameworks and technologies, such as .NET, Win32, MFC, and so on. Apple has undergone its own development gyrations as it moved the Mac user and developer bases to Mac OS X. Now, Apple's top-tier development framework is called Cocoa, an Objective C-based environment. Apple provides tools to integrate Objective C with C++ so that it's easier for Windows developers, and those developing for *nix-based platforms, to migrate their code to the Mac. "We assume the people have already abstracted user interfaces and unique application parts from the core engine," Okamoto told me. "Then we work from that and it makes transitioning straightforward."

One other important point here: When I say Windows developers, I'm not talking about some kid in his parent's basement. Apple can talk up some serious Windows shops that are for the first time shipping Mac versions of their products. H & R Block, for example, recently shipped a Mac version of its tax preparation software. CineForm has developed a Mac version of its video editing software. GPS provider Garmin has made all of its software available for the Mac. And in what might be the best example of Mac conversion, noted .NET developer Kevin Hoffmann will actually speak at WWDC 2007 and discuss his experiences moving Windows software to the Mac.

Final thoughts

When you think about what it takes to really move a significant portion of the PC user base to a new platform, you have to start with developers. Apple's Switcher and "I'm a Mac" ads and steady stream of iPod users provide the company will high profile marketing experiences that weigh heavily on the consciousness of tech users and the general public alike. But the proof is in the numbers: Apple wouldn't waste time targeting Windows guys at its annual developer conference if it weren't really seeing interest in the Mac platform. That bodes well for the Mac and for Apple, of course, but what does it mean to the Windows world? As Steve Jobs said recently at the "D" conference while on stage with Bill Gates, it's unreasonable to expect the Mac to ever control 80 percent of the market. But ultimately, a healthy Apple and a healthy Mac will be good for all users of technology, whether they settle on Windows or another platform. Beyond the hyperbole, Apple has indeed driven more technology innovation in recent years than any other company. And a healthy Apple will force Microsoft to compete more effectively, ensuring that its own products are of higher quality. I guess I'm trying to say that this is a win-win for everyone, regardless of what the market share numbers say when the dust settles. I'll be eagerly awaiting the news out of WWDC 2007 next week, and if you care at all about technology, I suggest you do the same.