Last week was the 10th anniversary of the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital Conference, D10 for short. For the past three years it’s been held at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, South of Los Angeles.
If I leave in the wee hours and take an North and East detour around the Evil 405, it’s a “short” 6-hour drive from Palo Alto. This is a welcome opportunity to avoid airport hassles, to bring all my toys, to listen to Glenn Gould and to catch up on phone calls. For a long I5 Central Valley stretch, I also get to work on my Spanish, the only language spoken on local FM stations. The fare varies widely: plagent Mexican love songs; garrulous commercials spoken at ultra-high speed with the rolling rrrrs that bring up smiles and childhood memories; the obligatory preachers and the occasional public interest program -- the latter with a distinctly more educated Castellano enunciation.
I like the conference formula: Interviews of ‘‘heads of state’’, high-tech and media CEOs, by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, two highly regarded tech journalists. No talking heads, no mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations -- we gave at the office. I once complained to Uncle Walt his questions looked a little soft, without much of an attempt to follow-up on obvious evasions or outright fabrications. ‘Think again’, Walt said, ‘you used the word obvious; don’t think you’re the only BS expert in the audience, I let everyone draw their own conclusion.’ He’s right, I recall moments when a telco executive made such impudent statements audience members looked at each other wondering wether the guest was lying or incompetent.
The D10 site is supplemented by iPhone and Android apps, all giving access to videos, transcripts and commentary. High-quality, mostly, but the abundance can be overwhelming. If you’re short on time, look for the following:
Ed Catmull, the Pixar co-founder. For me, his interview was the highlight of the conference. Quietly brilliant and wise. A short video here.
Larry Ellison, founded Oracle in 1977 and still running it. He never disappoints, mercilessly ridiculing SAP and HP and the former CEO of both. Larry is a dangerous adversary, wittier and more knowledgeable than most CEOs.
Mary Meeker broke the No PowerPoint rule, she took us through a 125-slide deck.
I’m a fan of hers and often refer to her legendary Sate of The Industry presentations, but she could have done an even more effective job by concentrating on one or two slides, by commenting on their origin and significance. See for example this one:
It summarizes Facebook’s biggest problem, what she diplomatically calls a $20B opportunity: mobile ads fail to produce any kind of significant revenue, and we’re not sure why.
Ari Emmanuel, the assoholic Hollywood super-agent was equal to his reputation, he shouted down The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky for having the nerve to question his view of Google’s role in filtering content. For all the entertainment value, the verbal violence and bad faith were uncalled for and do nothing to improve the agent’s clients image. Topolsky’s measured reply is here.
Tim Cook, long-time Steve Jobs’ second-in-command and now Apple CEO. He gave a quiet, competent performance, masterfully deflecting questions about future products and reminding us imitating Steve Jobs definitely isn’t the way forward.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the real formula for this gathering: Great interviews and demos on stage + even greater schmoozing in the hallways.
There, I got really lucky.
In the line for the coffee urns, I overheard two Walmart execs animatedly pitching their upcoming smartphone to the CEO of an app development company -- in Spanish. They must have felt safe in the belief the catering staff might understand the language, but definitely not the topic. Using a simple, striking one-liner...
“Walmart wants to become the Walmart of smartphones.”
… they told the gent he could help their company achieve this goal and, in the process, profit immensely.
Later that evening, I introduced myself to the developer -- in his native language. After a couple of drinks and cross-cultural pleasantries, I asked about his interest in Walmart’s smartphone. He was relaxed and practical: ‘They have a big business (and big problems) in Mexico, I can help them get good apps for their launch there later this year, but you know their reputation, they squeeze their suppliers, I’ll want money upfront...’
I nodded and asked what he liked most about the product: the design, the platform, the business model? Little by little, I learned Walmart’s smartphone program came from Walmart Labs, a Silicon Valley outpost of the Arkansas giant. The project was born out of frustration with Google’s conversion of Google’s free Product Search to Google Shopping’s pay-to-play model where inclusion in search results (as opposed to ads on the side) now requires a payment. There is also a reaction to Amazon’s rumored smartphone, a complement to its Kindle Fire. Actually, my drinking companion said, Walmart’s smartphone takes more than a leaf off Amazon’s playbook: like the Kindle Fire, it relies on an Android fork, that is grabbing the Open Source code and retargeting to its own business purpose -- without the onus of included Google apps that come with the sanctioned Android version. The hardware is from HTC, with a NFC chip for fast and easy contact-less checkouts; the software platform is designed to help product discovery and content sales and, like Amazon, Walmart will launch its own App Store in the US, Canada and Mexico.
To sell its “Walmart Garden” smartphone, the company will use its more than 5,000 North-American stores and set itself up as an MVNO, reselling Sprint in the US, Rogers in Canada and Telmex in Mexico. The Walmart smartphones will come with both conventional (also called post-paid) contracts and pre-paid plans for customers will lower credit scores.
I couldn’t get an idea of projected prices or sales volumes, but the developer said evangelizing Walmart execs were dangling a future installed base numbering in the tens of millions, may be 100 million after a few years.
This is fiction.
Mostly but not all: Walmart Labs do exist, but the rest is invented. I’m sure Walmart watches Google’s every move and worries about the Search giant becoming an unavoidable -- and therefore increasingly expensive -- toll gate. But designing, selling and supporting one’s smartphone is no easy task, even for a competent giant like Walmart.
Put another way, does it make sense for every major corporation to develop its own branded smartphone as a way to keep their customer relationship “pure”, protected from search engine and social network predators?
Smartphones aren’t merely handsets with bigger screens and more functions, they’re app phones, they’re part of an ecosystem. They’re a separate, highly specialized, often risky trade, not just another line of business easily added to a large corporation’s portfolio.
Which bring us to the recurring Facebook phone rumors. Some are so asinine I’ll just quote without a link:
“Facebook has quietly assembled all the important bits of a mobile phone [emphasis mine]. It just released its new camera application that uploads directly to Facebook, its own messenger service, and it's reported that Facebook is courting mobile web browser developer Opera.
Right. Kick any trash can around the Valley and all the unimportant bits, hardware, operating system, retail distribution, service and support crawl out. Unsurprisingly, the general reaction to the latest Facebook phone rumor, summarized here, has been overwhelmingly negative. It’s one thing for Apple to defy conventional wisdom (infelicitously spewed by Palm’s Ed Colligan), they had never made a telephone before, but Jobs & Co. had validated experience in the entire hardware food chain, from design to retail stores. It’s another for Facebook to learn and quickly become competitive in a trade now dominated by giant slayers of Apple and Google stature.
I greatly admire Zuckerberg, I think he’s a cagey strategist playing the long ball, and I don’t believe he’s this naive. He might worry about Google becoming too much of a toll gate for his company’s good, but building a Facebook smartphone in order to contain the Android invasion isn’t the right answer. Google has enough adversaries, some with business models that differ enough from Facebook’s, to offer a choice of viable allies. Stay tuned, as Apple’s CEO said at D10.