What happens when you pack the technology industry's leading luminaries and a handful of the media elite's most celebrated boldface names onto a single stage in a single day? At the Wall Street Journal's inaugural "D" (for "all things digital") conference, it turns out, you get less of an advance look at the digital future and more of an old-home week for the Teflon moguls, digital establishment, and mixed bag of VCs, entrepreneurs, and tech players who flocked to Carlsbad in May.
D was cooked up by two of the Journal's star columnists — Walt Mossberg of "Personal Technology" and Kara Swisher of "Boom Town" — back in the heady days of 1999. The premise remains unchanged: A digital revolution continues to transform +-the way we work and live. Or, as Swisher claims in the event guide, "The tidal wave of technological change continues to advance upon us." But there's an added caveat: Tough times are the best times to gain an edge. D could just as easily stand for dé jà vu — from the setting (the Four Seasons resort, where the last of the Industry Standard's briefly legendary digital summits was held) to the 400-person crowd that included billionaires mingling in khakis, conspiring to push the restart button for a tech community limping out of the desert of unrelentingly bad news.
Not that anyone is partying like it's 1999. This is the Wall Street Journal, after all — and everything about D exudes the class, serious-mindedness, and well-worn quirks of that institution. Whether it was smart strategy or pure caution that kept the Journal out of the elite tech-events business until these sober post-boom days, it was a stroke of genius to wait until the speculators were weeded from the survivors and the new, new thing was ditched for the sustainable thing. The most striking image of the event was a gallery of larger-than-life illuminated pointillist portraits of the megastar speakers that encircled the ballroom. The effect is powerful: One after the other, as if peeled from their two-dimensional planes, the icons of digital business (or, as Mossberg wryly calls them, the "heroes of socialist labor") — Steve Case, Barry Diller, Steve Jobs, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates — all come to life onstage.
D promised "unscripted" and un-fettered" interviews with the reigning heroes of capitalism. But in fact, the interviews aren't so much unfettered as they are untethered: The speeches wander aimlessly until dwindling to a close. The result is mostly black and white: The ever-reliable, plainspoken Whitman updates the perpetually staggering statistics of eBay's growth but adds little in terms of context or insight about the digital future. Case makes a brief appearance late in the day, wearing the newfound wisdom of his public firing on his sleeve. He engages in some conviviality with Swisher and quickly exits stage left.
When the program breaks out into full Technicolor, it is mostly due to the pure charisma of the speaker. Jobs practically leaps out of his chair to demo Apple's new iTunes Music Store, which represents a "middle way" for the worlds of technology and content to work together to serve customers (and generate growth). Says Jobs: "The thing we learned at Pixar is that a lot of people in Silicon Valley still think the creative process is about a bunch of thirtysomethings sitting on a couch, drinking beer and making up jokes. And the converse is true: Hollywood thinks that tech is something you just buy. Our work at Pixar really opened our eyes to the reality of both sides." It also, he says, led to Apple's pathbreaking agreement with the music labels to cooperate with iTunes (and generate sales of 3 million tracks in the first month of operation).
Diller, dubbed the "daddy cool of business" by Tina Brown (who is in at-tendance) on her ratings-disadvantaged CNBC debut, cuts right through the blather about content, vision, and the future of broadband. "All of that's twaddle," says Diller. Success — and a successful strategy — springs from a potent mixture of "serendipity and curiosity." Diller says that for the past decade, he has been led primarily by his "genuine fascination" with the idea of interactivity. "You have an idea, and then you just put one dumb foot in front of the other and course-correct as you go." Simple as that. It may sound disingenuous coming from a relentlessly (some say ruthlessly) ambitious deal maker, but Diller wears his success easily.
The real fascination in the room is with the guys from Google, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They understand the true secret of sustainable success. When asked, "How do you get better than you already are?" by a devoted fan in the audience, Page replies, "You may think using Google's great, but I still think it's terrible." In fact, Page won't rest until Google can produce "the exact right answer instantly about everything in the world."
Page echoes another onetime technology wunderkind and now elder statesman: Bill Gates. When asked why he continues to come to work every day, Gates answers, "The dream as conceived 25 years ago has not been achieved. Until software becomes the ultimate tool for collaboration, productivity, and efficiency, the work is not done. And there's nothing more fun than doing that work."
If there is any unified message from the stage, it is this: There is still growth ahead — but only for those who are truly committed. Of course, conventional conference wisdom holds that it doesn't matter what's said onstage. The real action is in the hallway. And to hear the hallway chatter, what D really stands for is demos: not the half-day of digital-device demos that most attendees skipped, but the demonstration of the Journal's clout and Mossberg and Swisher's personal cred in gathering the right players at the right time. In other words, D stands for "don't miss."