D: Tech giants take the stage

May 28, 2008, 11:16 PM UTC

CARLSBAD, Calif. – The cool kids at the D: All Things Digital conference  like to say that the real action is in the hallways, not on stage. That’s mostly true. Still, there are bits of intelligence and insight when the giants of the tech industry subject themselves to interviews in front of a live audience. Some snippets …

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, recently demonstrated his Very Loud Laugh that Josh Quittner amusingly described recently in Fortune. He’s got a lot to laugh about, as Amazon’s business is humming. He spoke at length about the Kindle, Amazon’s electronic book. He says the product will keep getting better and that he hopes Kindle eventually includes a really good Web browser. Bezos was at his best when venture capitalist Stewart Alsop asked why Amazon.com keeps trying to sell him a Kindle even though the Web site knows Alsop already owns a Kindle. “You’ve only bought one,” Bezos shot back.  Bezos broke a small amount of news – that Amazon’s online entertainment store will begin showing ad-supported streams, in addition to its for-fee downloads.

Bobby Kotick, CEO of Activision (and a Yahoo board member) gave a lucid explanation of his company’s acquisition of Blizzard. (He steadfastly said nothing about Yahoo’s non-merger with Microsoft.) The combined video game maker will have revenues of more than $4 billion and operating profits of $1 billion. Blizzard, he said, has the kind of business in massive multiplayer online gaming and a major presence in China and Korea that would have been too expensive for Activision to develop on its own.

Kotick, an amusing fellow with a seemingly thinly repressed naughty sense of humor, turned serious when asked about competition. He thinks Electronic Arts , Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft compensates its games developers. He says the company has more than 250 measurements of performance, for example. Twenty percent-plus operating margins are the result, says Kotick. Not bad.

The last speaker of the morning session was the ever-entertaining Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony, who is making gradual progress getting the Japanese giant to think about making money. A classic Stringerism: “As you know, culturally the word profit is not high on anyone’s agenda in Japan.” He says Sony is “halfway up the mountain” of being a proper business. That’s particularly tough in Sony’s unprofitable TV business, given, says Stringer, that it’s still difficult to lay off white-collar engineers in Japan, that televisions are a commoditized business and that the global race for TV marketshare is brutal.

Stringer showed an amazing new product, a 27-inch OLED TV that is 0.3 millimeters wide. Stringer said only that the TV will be “quite expensive” and that it’s not ready for the market. The demo version was encased in glass. It’s fair to say the rich guys in the room salivated over owning one. Oh, he also crowed about Sony’s recent victory in the battle of HD-DVD standards. He says he wish people had focused more on the amazing quality of Blu-ray, Sony’s format, than the format war with Toshiba. He says 4 million Blu-ray players will enter the market in June, which, if he’s right, will spread the Blu-ray love.