Something strange afoot at D7: All Things Digital Conference in Carlsbad

Since when have conferences become the arena for gladitorial combat? Back in the day, conference moderators were content to let media moguls bore the audience with canned slogans and marketing points. But not today.

Something strange was afoot today at the D: All Things Digital conference in Carlsbad CA. A weird undercurrent of hostility oozed through the proceedings at the Dow Jones confab. Things started normally: an unsurprising collection of the usual suspects lined up to be grilled by journalists Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. But when their subjects failed to provide sufficient witticisms and newsworthy nuggets to please a bored crowd of middling venture capitalists and major media suits, Walt and Kara reached for the heavy ammunition. And then it got weird.

Some highlights from the blatherdrome:

  • Yahoo’s new ballbusting CEO Carol Bartz stage-whispered “F**k you” to Kara during a spicy exchange which revealed that the rudderless Web portal now has a sharper focus on business but still lacks product strategy.
  • Walt Mossberg failed to elicit any sign of life from AT&T’s phlegmatic CEO Randall Stephenson, even when Walt pointed out that AT&T sold 3G phones before they had bothered to activate the 3G cell sites in his home town of DC. Stephenson was a press agent’s dream client: push a button to get the corporate positioning points recited blandly without inflection or any discernable facial expression. Can’t say I blame Walt for trying to provoke him. But did he really expect a mobile network operator to apologize for the habit of lying to customers? Or exhibit a normal human emotion?
  • Walt demonstrated the limitations of the interviewer’s craft by extracting an utter non-response from RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis with this artfully-crafted question: “Why was the Blackberry Storm such a bad phone?” Mike’s answer: “Well, at least the Curve didn’t suck” or words to that effect.
  • But the weird aggro tenor of the conference reached its peak in late afternoon when Walt and Kara invited the newly-appointed CEO of MySpace, Owen Van Natta, and his new boss Jon Miller (who has the longest title of any attendee at D) to a ritual of shame and humilation in front of the crowd. Walt started on a sour note, sharing market research that revealed that 60% of MySpace members are spending less time on the site and are generally bored with the tired product. That’s not news, but it’ a hell of a welcome. Owen, who has been on the job for about three weeks, struggled gamely to cobble together a coherent response. Then he was interrupted by Kara Swisher who pointed out that Owen had also been a candidate for Jon’s job. That would be Jon Miller, who is Owen’s new boss. Who happened to be seated right next to him on stage. Oops. Awkward moment. The guy next to me whispered “He won’t last a year in that job.” The interview went downhill from there, and then WSJ journalists from the floor piled on with more aggressive questions. Now, the weird thing is that all of this played out in front of News Corp honcho Rupert Murdoch who was seated in the front row, watching the whole sad spectacle of verbal fratricide as Dow Jones journalists slagged off Fox Interactive and MySpace. All News Corp properties. Demonstrating their independence.

The day wrapped up with Mark Cuban’s jaunty observation that there is nothing new happening on the Internet. He compared it to a utlity, like electricity. That’s code for boring. He couldn’t name an interesting trend or new technology worth investing in. Except for bio-tech, which he confessed he doesn’t understand. According to Cuban, the great frontier is… wait for it… interactive TV and cable set top boxes. I am not kidding. It was like a flashback to the 1990s. WebTV anyone?

Even the featured speakers list seemed like a who’s who of digital media, circa 1998: in addition to Cuban, it included John Malone, Irving Azoff, Steve Balmer, Jeff Zucker with guest appearances from Martha Stewart, Woz, and Roger McNamee. Hasn’t anyone new entered the digital media field during the past five or ten years?

On the bright side, the conference was brilliantly produced, and there were plenty of moments of levity and insight. And lots of good food. But woefully little inspiration.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]