I, like Martin Tobias (welcome Martin), have been spending my time at a conference that I believe is reflective of the turnaround in the tech economy. I'm at the Wall Street Journal's "All Things Digital" conference hosted by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. I sat with Walt at lunch on Tuesday and he was discussing what he viewed as his good fortune in timing the launch of "D" in 2003. Walt had wanted to launch the conference several years earlier but the downturn in the tech economy made it imprudent (his launch would have coincided with the unceremonious death of Comdex and Walt speculated that D would have been stillborn). So Walt and Kara held off for a few years and had their inaugural conference in 2003. They were hopeful that the timing was good and, in fact, much of last years' conference was spent either observing the economy's return or willing it to so return. As Walt said at lunch, he wasn't sure that the economy had turned around but he did view the fact that he was able to sell out his very first D conference as a positive sign. After all, in Walt's own words, who would have spent $3,000 of their precious IT budget on a conference in 2001. The launch in 2003 was indeed good timing. The tech world was looking for a new venue to celebrate itself and its triumph over adversity. I believe that D has become just that. The inaugural WSJ Executive Conference was a big success and this year's event was even better. As I flew home from San Diego, I was already looking forward to D3 in 2005.
This years conference had yet another spectacular lineup of tech speakers. Bill Gates once again started off the event with a very impressive, relaxed conversation on Sunday night. Monday featured Steve Jobs, as well as Carly Fiorina of HP and Kevin Rollins, Dell's soon-to-be CEO. Tuesday was Larry Ellison's day. I truly thought that every one of these folks was engaging in his or her own way. But I must say that Steve Jobs is absolutely the master. He is a stunningly impressive speaker. Jobs is engaging and entertaining and has the ability to completely co-opt his audience. How could you not root for Apple after seeing Jobs on stage, let alone Pixar?
And while everyone turned on the charm, in a surprising difference from last year's conference, they also pulled out the claws. Sure, charm is fun but the real entertainment is in the fighting. When Mossberg asked Kevin Rollins his reaction to a Carly Fiorina jab at him, Rollins said "I don't think we want to go into CEO mud-wrestling for the crowd." To which Mossberg rightly replied, "yes we do, Kevin." Both Walt and Kara encouraged the speakers to take off the kid gloves -- and they did. So here's a rundown of who hates who:
- Gates hates Google. Gates was on his best behavior and tried hard to speak no evil but he couldn't quite hold his tongue when Mossberg pointed to the media sweetheart Google -- Gates responded sarcastically "Buy the stock, whatever the price." Gates has argued in the past that Google is nothing more than a glorified brand without a technical advantage and he soft-peddled the sale position at the conference. (Alas, we didn't get to hear who Google hates -- Eric Schmidt was at the conference as an observer and he appeared in the rebirth of the Computer Bowl, but he was seen walking around the conference wearing a t-shirt that read "quiet period" on the front and "can't answer questions" on the back; perhaps Marc Benioff should have had a similar t-shirt made up . . . and then stuffed in his mouth).
- Jobs hates HP, Dell, Gateway, etc. When Jobs was asked why it was that Apple had opened its retail stores, his answer included a jab at the Windows PC guys. He said that it was easy for retailers to sell a variety of Windows PCs because "all of our competitors sell the same product." To Jobs' mind, the HP's, Dell's, etc. are all the same machine built in the same factories to the same specs (in his own defense, Rollins pointed out that Dell has its own factories in Asia, so its machines aren't literally being made in the same factories, but I suspect Jobs would not find that a particularly compelling rejoinder). Jobs opened the Apple stores so that folks selling his machines would be well trained and better able to explain the differentiation between Apple and the other lame, generic PCs out there. (As an aside, Jobs also threw a punch at technologists working in the music industry. When asked why it was so hard for the music guys to make good technology decisions, he said that they were getting bad advice. Why? Because, according to Jobs, just as no top tier A&R professional would go work at a technology company, only a "3rd rate" technologist would go work at a label.)
- Fiorina hates Dell (and pities Sun). Carly Fiorina came out swinging from the moment she hit the stage. Her primary target was Dell. Fiorina said that HP was synonymous with innovation and, in sharp contrast, Dell was merely a distributor of other people's products. According to Fiorina, Dell "believes that innovation doesn't matter." While Dell was her primary target, Carly did share the wealth a bit. She said that HP's mantra is "high tech, low cost, best customer experience," whereas Dell is "low tech, low cost" and IBM is "high tech, high cost." And, for the sake of completeness, Fiorina also took a shot at Sun -- "many customers believe Sun's viability is in question. I think they're right to worry about that."
- Rollins hates HP (and R&D). Perhaps Kevin Rollins would have left it alone had he not been goaded by Mossberg (although I doubt it); but he was goaded, so what could he do? He had to make clear what he thought of HP. Rollins pointed out that while Fiorina was sinking lots of money into "innovation," he was out making profit. Rollins argued that HP uses PCs and Printers as loss leaders for its real business, the sale of ink. He, on the other hand, sells PCs and printers profitably and, therefore, when he got into selling ink it was pure gravy. Rollins spoke a lot about the "Dell Effect" which I believe is synonymous with the "Walmart Way." And while Dell is unquestionably one of the leading "innovators" in manufacturing and supply chain management, Rollins went a little far in suggesting that any company with a large R&D budget is squandering its money on valueless research. While those R&D budgets may not bear immediate fruit, Rollins should thank his lucky stars that others are innovating or he would have no new technology to manufacture and distribute. (Since Rollins seemed in a feisty mood, Mossberg decided to get his quick take on a few of his other competitors. Here's what he had to say in a nutshell: IBM: a software and services company, no longer a legitimate hardware company; Sony: losing edge by focusing on proprietary rather than standards based designs; Gateway: no longer a real competitor; Apple: great but nichey.)
- Ellison hates . . . yes, you guessed it . . . Gates. Boy does he ever. Ellison was on his typical "Bill Gates Is The Devil" rant. Of course, Ellison could hardly help himself. After all, just that morning the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft had been in discussions to acquire SAP. The only thing that might make Ellison more nutso than Microsoft talking about buying SAP would be the announcement that Microsoft
wasbuying SAP. Ellison said it was utterly ridiculous to think that the number one software company in the world could buy the number three software company in the world and not have anti-trust concerns. (SAP's Chairman and CEO Henning Kagermann also spoke at the conference and when asked if he had worried about anti-trust issues while talking about a merger with Microsoft, Kagermann said the discussions "never got that far" -- I don't know about you but don't you think that you would have started there). Then again, according to Ellison, the only penalty for Microsoft being found guilty of breaking the law and acting as a predatory monopolist was a few strongly worded editorials in the New York Times. He speculated that the penalty for merging the first and third largest software companies in the world might be a strongly worded editorial in the Wall Street Journal. In any event, from my vantage point, it sure seemed that Ellison truly does hate Gates. He was not playing games. He made Carly Fiorina's hatred of Dell seem like puppy love. The other executives should take hate lessons from Larry -- it was a thing to behold.
Don't get me wrong, D2 was not only about venom and hate. First and foremost, it was about intellect and innovation, which was a real pleasure. But I've got to admit, the fighting had its appeal. We'll see how the who's who of the technology world behave next year. It's a show not to be missed.