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Six Things I Learned at the Code Conference

Walt Mossberg calls out six interesting observations from the first Code Conference.

Asa Mathat

Our inaugural Code Conference is a wrap, and, for those who attended or read about it, there’s a lot to process about the current and future state of tech and media. We heard from the leaders of giants like Microsoft, Google, Apple and Intel; smaller but important companies like Twitter, Netflix and Dropbox; and startups showing off their first products.

As the producers of the conference, Kara Swisher and I deliberately avoid imposing an overall theme on such a sprawling event. We believe the themes emerge from the sessions themselves.

Here’s my take on some of the key lessons from the interviews and demos:

Music still matters

Much of the attention paid to digital media has shifted from music to video, but it was clear at Code that digital music is still a big deal — specifically the shift from pay-per-song downloading, which Apple has dominated for years with iTunes, to subscription streaming. In fact, only hours after Apple announced a $3 billion deal to acquire Beats, the headphone and streaming music company, the company’s media and cloud boss Eddy Cue appeared at Code with Beats boss Jimmy Iovine and said, “It’s about music. Everyone loves music … and this is just about us continuing to invest in music.” He was much more vague and even a bit downhearted about Apple’s long-rumored project to reinvent TV.

But it wasn’t just Apple and Beats. Startup company Aether Things showed off an intelligent, voice-controlled music player called Cone. And one of the conference sponsors, Sonos, while not onstage, passed out its latest whole-room speaker system to attendees.

Wintel is regrouping

For decades, the so-called “Wintel” juggernaut — Microsoft Windows and PCs running Intel processors — dominated computing. But both companies blew the multitouch smartphone and tablet revolutions of recent years. Now each has new leadership, and both CEOs, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Intel’s Brian Krzanich, are determined to look past the misses. While both said they still had hopes to be players in phones and especially tablets, each promised to search for, and catch, the next new wave. “We have to build something big,” said Nadella.

To prove it, each showed off prototypes of new products — Nadella, a version of Skype that can translate languages on the fly; and Krzanich, an Intel-powered robot and sensor-laden shirt.

Artificial Intelligence could be the next battleground

Microsoft’s aforementioned Skype Translator, which the company plans to ship as a beta later this year, looked like a real-life version of the universal translator from TV’s “Star Trek.” In a scripted demo, the software was able to provide real-time translation, in both audio and text, of a video call between a German speaker and an English speaker. It wasn’t perfect, but the company says the system learns as more people use it in more languages, due to its “neural network” underpinnings. It could have a huge impact on everything from international business and culture to education, diplomacy and tourism.

Meanwhile, Google co-founder Sergey Brin unveiled a new version of the company’s experimental driverless car, which omits a steering wheel and brake pedals and operates entirely on sensors and digital intelligence. While the new car is years from making it to market, Brin said Google is serious about doing so, potentially remaking cities by cutting the need for individual car ownership in favor of fleets of these robo-cars, which can be summoned to take people places.

The broadband wars are in full swing

Comcast* CEO Brian Roberts, currently seeking to acquire Time Warner Cable, says he’s fine with net neutrality, the concept that all Internet traffic gets treated equally. But he defended the notion that streaming-video service Netflix, which accounts for about a third of Internet traffic, should have to pay broadband providers like Comcast to assure the best quality. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said he’s also a fan of net neutrality, but that his company shouldn’t have to pay. (Though they spoke in separate interviews, we have a helpful video mashup here.)

Meanwhile, Sprint’s new owner, Masayoshi Son, head of Japan’s SoftBank, blasted the entire U.S. Internet system for low speeds and high costs, and promised that he could improve it if he’s allowed to buy rival T-Mobile U.S.

And longtime innovator Steve Perlman, now head of startup Artemis, showed off an entirely new technology called the pCell that he said will deliver vastly better cellular data speeds to every device, without adding spectrum or building new towers.

The stakes are high, but it’s all very confusing, and federal regulators will have a lot to say about how it all plays out.

The home is an apps platform

Nest Labs boss Tony Fadell helped create the iPod and iPhone while at Apple, and now builds modern, digital, connected-home devices like thermostats and smoke detectors. He said that Nest — now owned by Google but run autonomously by Fadell — sees the entire home as a digital platform for which apps can be built without necessarily building a million separate pieces of hardware. He compared it to the smartphone as an apps platform, though he declined to give specifics.

The pressure to deliver rose a bit for Apple

Arguably the most influential company of the past 15 years, Apple hasn’t introduced a game-changing new product since the iPad in 2010. It lost its founder and product genius, Steve Jobs, to an early death in 2011. But during his appearance at Code, Eddy Cue, the company’s senior vice president, declared that, “Later this year, we’ve got the best product pipeline that I’ve seen in my 25 years at Apple.”

CEO Tim Cook has made similar enthusiastic, vague claims in the past, but Cue’s language was especially dramatic, and he stuck to it, even when reminded of the litany of huge products the company has launched over that period.

You may have taken away different lessons from the three-day event. There was certainly no dearth of verbiage. But even when you weed out the tech industry’s characteristic hype, the conversations and demos left plenty to ponder.

* Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit is an investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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