The 7 Biggest CEO Secrets Accidentally Revealed at AllThingsD Confab

What Google, Microsoft, Netflix and Nokia Said, and What They Really Meant

secretOne of my favorite movie scenes is in "Airplane," where a Black Power passenger attempts to communicate with a young stewardess, with very little luck. A little old lady steps up, asserts, "Excuse me Miss, I speak jive," and proceeds to translate between the two.

After four years of running internet TV network Revision3, like that lady I can confidently say that "I speak CEO." And that was a good thing this week, as I spent two days at the super-exclusive D9 conference, put on by All Things D editors Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. A parade of media and technology CEOs shared their thoughts on their company and the industry. Walt and Kara are superb interviewers, but for the most part the CEOs were well coached, delivered canned answers and evaded the tough questions.

But I can translate now. Here is a summary of what they said, and the secret words I heard:

Host Kara Swisher has a conversation with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at the D9 Conference.

Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

Host Kara Swisher has a conversation with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings at the D9 Conference.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: We’re not a producer of content, we’re just a distributor. We’re paying for first-run rights for "House of Cards," but only in countries where we stream today. And when it comes to carriers and MSOs? Our relationship with them is great — we may use up 30% of their bandwidth, but we haven’t yet asked for any kind of carriage fees. Plus we have no plans to offer bundles of channels, we’re really just a catch up service for older shows and movies.

Translation: We’re coming right after you, you old media suckers! We offer a better product for less, and in a few years you’ll be begging at our door. Die, die, die!

Hewlett Packard CEO Leo Apotheker: The somewhat accidental CEO laid out the company’s vision of using WebOS to create an end-to-end product ecosystem for both consumers and corporate America, just like Apple. Even though he plans to put the operating system he bought from Palm onto every HP PC and printer over $100, "we’re still great partners with Microsoft."

Translation: This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife. Well, how did I get here?

Microsoft Windows President Steven Sinofsky: He showed off a captivating demo of the next big release of Windows, codenamed Windows 8. The tiled interface borrowed heavily from the company’s Windows 7 phone OS, and the now defunct Zune media players. The new version seems bring the biggest changes to Windows since "95," and will run across tablets, phones and PCs.

Translation: We really screwed-up this whole transition to touch, tablets and smartphones, and this is our last chance. If we’re not successful here we’re going down in flames. Oh, and I really wish I could do a clean break with the past by moving 100% 64-bits, but the installed base won’t let me. Damn them! I hope we get this one out on time.

Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger: Iger came off as a savvy media mogul, trying to drag his huge enterprise into the digital age. He was complimentary of both Netflix and Hulu, calling the former "a platform that’s a rich place to distribute our content," and praising the latter’s user interface and overall experience. He also admitted that Disney made some mistakes, particularly around the portal. He also laid out plans for a relaunch of that will focus mostly on video and gaming, but won’t start to emerge until later this year or early next year.

Translation: We’re really behind the eight-ball here. Our audience wants to stream our video directly and play social games like Farmville, and we can’t help them. If we don’t get our new service up soon, Netflix, Hulu, Zynga and Facebook are going to co-opt our relationship with our users, and ultimately devalue our brand. We better get this right, and soon. I hope our new Silicon Valley team is up to the task.

Stephen Elop, CEO Nokia: The new head of the Finnish phone company talked about the transition from their Symbian phone operating system to Windows 7 Mobile, and called the rumors that Microsoft is about to acquire the company "baseless." He teased Walt with a new phone, but refused to show it off. Elop couldn’t say when Nokia’s phones would be back in the U.S. in force. Over 45 minutes he said very little, offered few solutions, and spoke in platitudes and generalities.

Translation: Oh my God it’s worse than I thought. Our products are tired, our engineers overmatched and our customers are abandoning us. Thank God they still buy feature phones in many parts of the world today, but that’s not going to last long. This product transition is very important.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega: Most of this tech-savvy crowd were either current or previous AT&T mobile customers, and they were mad as hornets. De la Vega offered a panoply of excuses, blaming everything from the 8,000% increase in data use caused by the iPhone to a lack of cellphone towers. He even blamed AT&T’s abysmal San Francisco service on the local government’s unwillingness to let them swap in new antennas on their cell towers. He tried to justify his company’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile as good for users, good for competition and good for the U.S. And he ended up claiming his company was at least partly responsible for the iPhone’s design.

Translation: Shut UP! Your complaints matter less to me than a kitten fart in a blizzard. But secretly I admit it, we really do have a problem. Forget the customers, what we really need are T-Mobile’s cell towers and antenna sites in major markets, along with their wireless spectrum. We’ll never catch Verizon without them. Oh, and Steve Jobs, never forget that we designed much of the iPhone — and you took all the credit and threw us under the bus. I’ll get you — and your little dog too!

CEO Alibaba Group Jack Ma: Ma tried to paint himself as an upstanding member of the world internet economy, while talking about how China is really all about how to avoid the laws. He claimed that Taobao was substantially different from eBay, Alipay was nothing like PalPal, and Alicloud much, much different from Amazon’s S3. He laid out his three principles, which are to make your customers happy first, your employees next and finally your investors and shareholders. His advice to his largest shareholder, Yahoo: cut yourself into little pieces and focus on what you really believe.

Eric Schmidt at the D9 Conference.

Asa Mathat/All Things Digital

Eric Schmidt at the D9 Conference.

Translation: You Americans are so clueless! I’ve been ripping you guys off blind for years, and you never even noticed. Well now the gloves are off, and I’m gunning for you, Facebook, Amazon and eBay. Oh, and Carol Bartz, you’re not only annoying, you’re irrelevant too.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt: Schmidt touched on his relationship with Apple, new Google CEO Larry Page, the new wallet product that lives inside your phone, and called the YouTube "the best acquisition ever." He ended by saying he wanted to keep working at Google until after he was dead.

Translation: I’m scared, but for better or worse the inmates are now in charge of the asylum. Plus Apple’s iPhone is an overpriced piece of eye candy, the iPad is limited and Android is clearly better. So buy some of those Honeycomb tablets, gosh darn it.


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