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On Tuesday, Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher will host the Code Conference.
It’s their tech industry conference featuring big-name speakers like Google cofounder Sergey Brin, Apple executives Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts … you know what? There are just too many big names to list here. It’s stacked.
The Code Conference is the first from Mossberg and Swisher’s new independent site Re/code. For the past 11 years, they have hosted the D Conference, which was a part of Dow Jones. Last year, they split from Dow Jones to found Re/code, a technology site and conference business that has investment from NBCUniversal and Terry Semel’s Windsor Media.
Mossberg is one of the most influential personal-technology columnists in the world. His reviews can make (or break) products for companies. Swisher is one of the most influential reporters in the technology industry. She consistently breaks big stories on the major players in tech.
Last week, we jumped on the phone with Mossberg and Swisher to get their take on the industry, and what’s changed for them at their new site. Below is the transcript of our conversation; it has been edited for clarity.
Business Insider: What’s the difference between Re/code so far and AllThingsD?
Kara Swisher: A different name.
Walt Mossberg: It’s a little more than that. The big goal for us was to be able to invest and grow on what we had achieved at AllThingsD.com, and you’ll see things will be true at the Code conference. We’ve been able to hire a bunch of people and start areas of coverage, which we really weren’t in a position to do when we were part of a big media company.
The other thing that isn’t visible is we’re building out a business side that is fully focused on our product. At Dow Jones — and I think this would be true at many media companies — you’re kind of mixed in with all the other products on their sales business development, all that kind of stuff. So those are the big differences so far.
KS: I think it’s … I wouldn’t say less serious, because I think our journalists are super-serious, but I think we’re having a little more fun in terms of being varied and the kinds of stories we’re doing. We’re doing different things. We’re approaching stories in different ways that we hadn’t before. The site’s a little more creative in lots of ways and it’s going to continue down that path.
BI: How do you think about the site? You have companies like BuzzFeed, which is talking about an IPO, and you have sites like Vox, which is a collection of sites, and I think it’s a pretty clear that the goal is, let’s grow this site, let’s get traffic, let’s sell lots of ads, let’s be big. I don’t get the sense, certainly with AllThingsD, that you guys thought about it the same way as your peers.
KS: We’re not IPO’ing. Walt, if that’s a plan of yours … that’s fine.
We have a different approach. A lot of times when we were talking to investors, one of the things we said was that we’re sort of this fantastic organic cheese maker in Brooklyn that really makes fantastic cheese and we want to expand it. We want to get to more people. I don’t think we have modest ambitions by any stretch. We had some ideas with AllThingsD that you could take it to AllThingsHealth, AllThingsFinance, which never happened. We could definitely expand to other categories and adjacencies and things like that.
WM: I would just add that we did not start this with an exit strategy in mind. This was a move we made because it was time to be able to raise the resources and have the bulk control and focus that would let us expand it. When I say expand it, there’s two kinds of expansion. One is the kind both of us already referred to, which is changes in, and strengthening in, the nature of what we were already doing at AllThingsD. We’re very focused on bolstering what we have been good at, but we definitely have ideas about what Kara called adjacencies. We’re not about to start a cooking-competition site, but there are obviously things we could do, both on the web and in the conference space. We will be prudent as a business should be, but we will also be freer to take risks. There’s always a mismatch between small entrepreneurial outfits and large companies, which often don’t have the same outlook. Now we don’t have that conflict.
BI: Walt, how does it feel not being at a newspaper? Do you feel like your voice is as heard? How has the transition been for you?
WM: I feel great. I feel fantastic about it. I was very proud to be at The Wall Street Journal. I have nothing bad to say about it. I had a great run there. In what turned out to be the final years of my tenure there, AllThingsD occupied me more and more, and was much more fun. I’m still doing my reviews. More than that, I would point out that if you look at what I’ve written in the first few months — and this is probably only going to increase — I’ve taken the opportunity to do a bunch of commentaries that are not product reviews.
It’s not that I never did those — I did a few in the very early days of the Journal — but somewhere in the middle of that run at the Journal, I sort of stopped doing those. Now I’m able to come back to doing them. It wasn’t that they banned it, but it really wasn’t what they wanted.
I have more of a detox or an adjustment than Kara, but I’m making it slowly but surely. I have a fantastic team of reviewers and that frees me up. Really, one of the surprises to me was I did not feel as broken up about making that change as you might have expected.
BI: Speaking of those commentaries, you wrote a big thing about Apple and how it’s time to have a new product. Now there are reports (from Re/code) that Apple’s going to buy Beats. What’s your take on that as a longtime observer of the company?
KS: Walt could write an essay on it. That’s what I’d like.
WM: If it’s true, I think that there could be a number of reasons for it. One was they just felt that it was the quickest way for them to get into streaming. Another is that Beats makes premium products in an area where Apple doesn’t make premium products. They are a premium-product company, but those are obvious.
The less obvious things are injecting creative talent into the company, if it is indeed true, as it’s been rumoured, that Jimmy [Iovine] and Ian [Rogers] are coming over. I know Jimmy and Ian pretty well, and I think the more creative talent they can get in there — given their history and what people look to them for — they will be not only in music but in other areas like television and video. I guess that’s my gut reaction as to why they might be doing this.
BI: Is that a worrisome sign that they may need these creative people? Does it say anything about who’s there now that they feel compelled to bring in outsiders?
WM: I don’t know. I don’t know what Cook’s judgment is about the people they have there now. But the people they have there now are the people who were with Jobs when he did the various creative things, iTunes and all that other stuff, over the years.
But look, Apple is going through a reset. There’s just no way around it. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it was forced on them by somebody dying who was an extraordinary figure, so they’re going through a reset. You can see how they chose to run their store. Somebody who turned out to be the wrong person. Now they went to somebody who knows a lot about fashion and style. It wouldn’t be surprising if they thought that they needed to build up this creative part, too, without necessarily feeling like anyone else was inadequate.
BI: Kara, what do you think of what you’ve seen observing Apple after Steve Jobs?
KS: Walt is much more familiar with Apple than I am. I don’t actually cover it. I mean, I follow it, obviously. Like Walt said, it’s a transition period that is relatively not bumpy considering how dramatic it is.
People expect so much of Apple that if it’s not a complete “wow” people are disappointed. So I don’t think there’s any way to win in this situation. And, by the way, it was a tragedy, too, let’s not forget that. It was a person’s life that ended that was really legendary in the business.
People in this sort of twitchy culture are very much like, “Apple is dead.” We try not to do that on our site — “they’re dead, they’re finished.” We don’t make general declarations of “finished” because that’s a company I would never turn my back on. You get a lot of flashier stuff from Google. They always come up with something adorable. They’re like little Harry Potters over there.
We treat this like it’s a TV show. In lots of ways it kind of is, but it’s just difficult to do what they’re doing. It’s a high-wire act. By the way, the money is as good as ever, so it’s not like there’s a financial problem there.
It’s just a little more complicated than reporters want it to be. But it seems dramatic, so why not just make it that way.
BI: Kara, you’re the axe on Yahoo. What do you think of Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo? I’m also curious how did you become the axe on Yahoo. Do you ever think to yourself, “Why didn’t I become the axe on Apple, they have become the biggest company in the world.”
KS: I could become — I think I may become — the ax on Apple. I could be the ax on a couple of companies. The RadiumOne CEO is not very happy with me. I write a lot about AOL. I write a lot about Microsoft. We were leading on that stuff very much so.
I don’t think I’m a magic reporter but I could turn to any company and ax myself in there as good as anybody else, if you want to use that term.
I have covered Yahoo from the beginning, and I have an interest in it. I don’t know why. It’s one of my interests. And I think it’s an iconic company, and I’ve literally covered it from the beginning. And that’s what people forget. I covered it when it had 10 people. Same thing with Amazon. Same thing with all of them. Not Apple. Apple was around a long time before I got there, and so was Microsoft. I just have an interest in it, and, by the way, it has delivered as a narrative. It’s been one of the most fantastic narratives around. It’s a good story, and I like a good story, so I cover it very closely.
Marissa Mayer has done a pretty effective job on a lot of things, in terms of moving Yahoo to a normal tech company, meaning free phones and free food, which is sort of table stakes at all companies. She’s fixing things that should have been fixed a long time ago, which is good. Really turning around the business is a lot harder, as it turns out. Suddenly everyone is writing that story which I’ve been saying for a long time. Everyone was, like, “Oh, fantastic — free food.” In fact, we broke that story, but I didn’t do it in a way that was “wow.” I was, like, “Hey, they’re finally catching up with everybody else.” But everybody else went into the “wow, she’s giving away free food.”
She’s in a challenging situation, and the Chinese assets have helped her immeasurably. It would have helped any CEO in that position to look fantastic. Now there are questions of who can do it — not just her, by the way, she’s very talented. It’s who could simply turn this thing around without cutting rather drastically. Can they come up with an innovative set of products? A really, truly innovative set of products? They are competing with Facebook and Apple and Microsoft and Google, which is pretty tough.
So their pathways are very difficult. I just saw several companies with innovative products, and I have not seen that from Yahoo yet. It’s a very nice weather app — she’s improved several different things. Some things she’s not doing so well, like mail, which is a core asset of Yahoo. But she’s got to come up with a big winner. Unfortunately in tech that’s the way it tends to go. Some of this stuff has been done before that she’s doing, and maybe it will work now.
We just have to be a little less enamoured with the personality here and more with the core business. People get angry with me because I focus on the core business.
BI:Recently, Fred Wilson kicked up a little bit of a controversy by saying he thought by 2020 Apple wouldn’t be a top company because of its failing with the cloud. What do you think will be the top three companies in 2020? His top three were Facebook, Google, and a company that doesn’t exist, or nobody sees coming.
KS: [The third company will be] something owned by Fred Wilson, probably.
WM: First of all, I don’t predict to 2020 about anything. I really think if people tried to predict six years out at any point in the last 20 years they would have mostly been wrong.
But I do agree that Apple needs to get better in the cloud. Apple very deliberately — and this was very much Steve Jobs’ point of view — Apple has concentrated its cloud efforts on being invisible. So in other words, stuff just would sync and appear. You change your contacts on one of your devices and it would appear on all your devices changed. And, by the way, they were doing that before some of these other competitors.
But they have the point of view that they didn’t want to create a big Dropbox-like repository in the cloud. They may have to change that, because I think people having a visible sense of where their stuff is in the cloud, of what to look for, matters.
There’s another area where they probably have to do something. They were early, and it was kind of cool with the Photostream, where every picture you took on your iPhone, which as far as I know is the most-used phone camera, or maybe any camera, at least in the developed world. And so any picture it took, as you know if you use their products, is sent to all your Apple devices. Well, there are two issues there. One is the limits on it. Other people have now taken the approach that they will match up everything in an unlimited way. So I think they have to change that.
Secondly, they need to go cross platform on certain things. In my opinion, they have an interesting decision — not unlike some Microsoft decisions that have had to be made — about whether something like FaceTime or something like iMessage wouldn’t be even a bigger deal if they worked on everybody’s platform. Those are all cloud things that they have to kind of figure out, get into order, and we’ll just have to see what they wind up doing.
BI: Kara, you did an interview recently in which you called Google “dangerous and thuggish.” You also called your wife, who works at Google, an “idiot techie.” What did you mean by that?
KS: It was San Francisco Magazine — let’s be honest. They didn’t get the context of what I was talking about. I was talking about an instance when they tried to take over Yahoo Search. Remember when they were going to do a deal with Yahoo to take over Search? I wrote this story where I said, “At least Microsoft knows they’re thugs.”
So I was referring to Microsoft, and I said in that instance they were being dangerous and thuggish like Microsoft. That’s what I was referring to, as I had in the story. I even sent the reporter the story I was I referring to. I said they have a tendency to get that way without realising it, and I used that as an example, and I didn’t say they were overall dangerous or thuggish or anything like that. I was referring to a specific time where they do that, where they overreach and then can’t believe that people are surprised of being scared of their power. It was very specific.
It’s fine. It made for a good headline. Whatever. I don’t know what to say. I’m not one of these people who want to complain about reporters, and I don’t.
Mostly, I do think they have issues around power and how they’re perceived, and their own perceptions still. A company like Google wants to have it both ways, like a lot of big companies. They have to understand what’s happening in Europe, they have to understand what’s happening all over the world with regard to the power they wield, which is enormous. So I was trying to compare it to what Microsoft had done in the ’90s, which I covered also, where these companies become dangerous for all consumers. That’s any large company, whether it’s railroad or whatever, going way back in American history. I’m always nervous about companies that wield such enormous power, and that’s that part of the quote.
The second part about calling my wife, Megan, an idiot — the second part of that quote was she looks at things as daffodils and sunshine and I see something a little darker. You know, they left out that second part, and maybe I’m an idiot. I don’t think they’re dangerous all the time. I think they have got to be careful to understand their power. And sometimes when you talk to them it feels like they have no idea of how much power they have. I don’t know if Walt agrees with me. I think powerful companies are dangerous by their very nature of being so powerful.
WM: Yes. That’s part of the job of people who cover these companies, whether it’s Business Insider or Re/code or whatever it is, is to hold them to account.
KS: They just don’t remember a time when they didn’t have so much power. They think they’re still back in the garage sometimes. A lot of companies do that. It happens to be Google right now.
BI: Kara, do you miss having Mike Arrington around? I feel like you guys were good foils for each other.
KS: Yes, yes, everyone needs a nemesis, right? No, I don’t. You know, Godspeed. I hope he’s doing great.
I’ll actually be nice. Something that he brought was, one, he was actually a very good reporter when he wanted to be. He was very sharp at picking things up. He’s also a good writer — there’s no way you can deny his writing is excellent. I don’t agree with it all the time, but he says things pretty plainly and well. I also think he gives a bit of excitement to the scene. I’m not going to go into things I don’t like, but there is an aspect of what he’s doing that is happening now and he’s contributed to it. In those regards, it’s a little more fun when you have something going on like that.
But I, honestly, am a little too old now for that stuff, but maybe I’ll pick a fight with someone else. I don’t know. I probably will. Right, Walt?
WM: I would bet on it, yes.
KS: Poor Walt has to put up with me.
WM: I love you. I love putting up with you.
KS: Well, you have to pick a fight with someone.
WM: Oh, Kara, come on, I’ve picked fights.
BI: Who’s Walt’s sparring partner?
WM: Who have I picked fights with over the years? Bill Gates. Google. Mark Zuckerberg. Even — despite everything that’s written about my relationship with Steve Jobs — we had yelling matches.
BI: It seems as if Steve Jobs had yelling matches with everyone in his life.
WM: I know. I’m just saying that “Apple is a movie studio” essay I wrote wasn’t the most popular story that day at Apple. I don’t think you can do your job right, whether you’re reviewing products or reporting on companies’ performance, without making them unhappy and that’s fine, that’s part of the job.
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