updated 11:47 am EDT, Wed May 30, 2012
Dismisses talk of 'convergence' devices
During his hour-long interview at the AllThingsD conference yesterday, questioners Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher tried hard to get Apple CEO Tim Cook to reveal his plans -- or at least his thinking -- on future Apple products or areas of interest. While Cook avoided direct answers for the most part, some of the answers given dropped hints about future products as well as views and directions for the company going forward.
Cook tried gamely to dodge a series of questions about an alleged forthcoming Apple HDTV set, saying he did not want to talk about TV technology and touting the company's "current contribution," the Apple TV set-top box (which he has said elsewhere is a product he loves). Just in calling it a "current contribution" and identifying it as something the company normally would not be doing ("we're not a hobby company"), Cook implied that more was coming.
He cemented that notion with a comment that "many people would say this is an area in their life that they aren't pleased with. The whole TV experience ... it's an interesting area. We'll have to see what we do." He referred to TV as an area "of intense interest" to the company.
In talking about the subject of television generally, Cook outlined Apple's approach to the more general question of what industries or markets it decides to enter. He said the executives ask themselves if they can control the key technologies, can Apple make a significant contribution far ahead of what others are doing, and can they make a product that they would want themselves.
Also noteworthy was a dismissive laugh when asked about a seven-inch iPad version rumored (for years) to be in the making. While neither a denial nor admission, the laugh seemed to suggest that Apple views the reports as not credible. Steve Jobs had previously derided smaller tablets as a lacklustre experience.
Cook continued to paint the iPad as being in early innings in its development cycle, characterizing it and the iPhone as devices that helped introduce both consumers and developers to Macs as well as being the ambassadors of the "post-PC" era. Asked to clarify the term, Cook echoed his predecessor, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, in saying that the tablet would eventually outsell the traditional PC but that desktops would continue to be a popular product.
Jobs, in introducing the iPad, had called the desktop personal computer "a truck" intended for tasks that required "heavy lifting" and computational power. He saw the iPad as more of a "sports car," able to do all the things most people required most of the time, which also explained the strong move towards notebook computers in the past few years -- an expression of the same desire to be unchained from the desk when not necessary.
When Cook repeated his prediction that tablets would outsell PCs soon, Mossberg noted that there were a lot fewer naysayers to that idea now than there were two years ago, despite the continuing lack of serious competitors to the iPad. He said that tablets should be separate from PCs and that the OS they run on should be free of the "legacy of the PC."
He envisioned a future where consumers would be more likely to refresh tablets over desktops, since the tablets would eventually get the bulk of "everyday"-type computer tasks. He said people want tablets to be "incredibly thin" but that desktop OSes "should do" things that tablets can't do or do as well, making them more like workstations and heavy-duty machines.
On the topic of Macs, Cook would only say that Apple is likely to "never make the most computers," but plans to continue making "the best computers." He used similar language when talking about the iPhone: "I wouldn't say we dominate [the competitive landscape in phones], I'd say we have the best phone."
A comment on "hybrid" products and "convergence" devices was generally rebuffed, with Cook responding to a question about Windows 8's one-OS-for-all-devices approach by saying that "convergence is good in some cases but there are tradeoffs," adding that a converged design "isn't going to make a kick-ass product." He went on to say that he thought that if you force tablets and desktops together, "the PC isn't going to be as good as it can be, and the tablet isn't going to be as good as it can be."
Apple itself has taken the approach of creating two similar but separate OSes to distinguish its mobile OS from its desktop OS, though recent versions of each have seen ideas from the other incorporated.
Cook also talked about Siri, which he referred to as one of the main selling points of the iPhone 4S. While not specifically addressing a timetable, he said the company is "doubling down" on it and "we have some cool ideas about what Siri can do." He pointed out that Siri had shown a great demand for natural language, AI-augmented voice interaction that went beyond dictation or "command and control" as previous voice systems had done. Cook mentioned Siri's "personality" and ability to understand context, and said "I think you'll be pleased with where Siri is going."
On directions for Apple generally, Cook was dismissive of notions put forth by questioners that Apple should (among other ideas) buy or create its own wireless network, cable channels (for Apple TV) or buy content providers to ensure supply. He said bluntly "I don't think we need to do that" and pointed out that such a move (say for example creating a US cellular network) would be meaningless outside the US, and Apple is as much an international company as US company.
Cook also mentioned that Apple could "do more" with its relationship with Facebook, but gave no specifics beyond calling them a "great company" for which he has a "great appreciation." The question of Apple's relationship with the social giant came up later when discussing how Apple wants to be more social. Recalling Steve Jobs' contention that Facebook's terms for integration with Ping were "onerous," Cook sidestepped the issue and said simply to "stay tuned on this one," opening up the possibility of future collaborations on the level that (for example) Twitter is now incorporated into iOS.
He commented on emerging trends like wearable computers, saying he had on a Nike Fuel band and that "some cool things can be done," but also asking if some of the fads were just "cool things" or whether they could last by "changing people's behavior." He didn't comment specifically on projects like Google's Project Glass, and in general avoided talking about Google, even when asked a question by a representative of the company who challenged Apple's focus on iAd.
He did make one or two references to Google's Android OS when discussing the advantages of the two-OS approach, having one devoted to mobile. He touted Apple's iPhone as having "one App Store, one phone, one screen size, one resolution" in terms of making development "pretty simple" and adding that this is not the case with Android. He did not discuss specific conflicts with Google including the various court cases with any specificity, nor would he be drawn on a comment about Samsung, with whom he recently met in court-ordered settlement talks that collapsed.
Cook said the company will be "doubling down" on product secrecy and security going forward, but by contrast would continue to be more transparent on supplier accountability and social change. Cook noted that Apple was now providing monthly rather than annual progress reports on issues like environmental efforts, workers' rights and overtime issues in China. He joked that when it came to these issues and the concept of transparency, "I hope [other companies] rip us off blindly" and follow Apple's lead on social accountability.
He also demonstrated a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Ping, the company's music-oriented and iTunes-integrated social service. Speaking generally about social services (which in his view include things like iMessage and Game Center), Cook said that while Apple needs to be social, it "doesn't need to own a social network." It has tried Ping, which was originally planned to launch with (and very briefly had) Facebook integration, but said "the customers voted and said we won't put a lot of effort into it." He was noncommital on the idea of killing it entirely, however.
Despite Apple's long history of not commenting on future product, the hosts of the chat could not resist the temptation. When asked directly by Mossberg about what was coming next, Cook joked that it was a "great question" and said simply "great stuff. You'll love it."