At D11, Tim Cook Stays on Message and Keeps His Secrets

If you were surprised by the lack of news during the Apple CEO's interview at the tech industry's executive conference, you haven't been paying attention.

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Harry McCracken /

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher interview Apple CEO Tim Cook at D11 on May 28, 2013

If you were wondering what Apple CEO Tim Cook was going to say during his Tuesday-night conversation with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D11 conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, you could have made some pretty good guesses — assuming you’ve been paying attention to Apple in general and Cook’s public statements in specific.

You might have reasonably predicted that:

  • Cook wouldn’t have any headline-grabbing news, let alone actual product announcements;
  • He’d say that Apple’s overarching goal is to make great products, but wouldn’t otherwise be very specific about where it’s going;
  • He’d be crisp, calm and collected, even if the questioning from Mossberg, Swisher and attendees got tough.

That’s what I was expecting, anyhow — and Cook neither surprised nor disappointed. He was less combustible and quotable than Steve Jobs, his predecessor and former boss, was during his D appearances. But like Jobs, he was very good at making the points he wanted to make and deflecting those he wished to avoid, either by refusing to answer them or by declaring that he was going to answer a different question instead.

Mossberg and Swisher didn’t tapdance around the questions that are on the minds of Apple-watchers. Even they knew that Cook wouldn’t give any answers that provided meaningful new insight into Apple’s future product plans. They asked about a theoretical Apple HDTV, about the company’s plans to do anything to compete with Google Glass, about the possibility of additional iPhone models with Samsung-esque features such as larger screens or styluses.

Cook, as you’d expect from past interviews, said that Apple finds TV to be “of great interest” and reminded us that the company has sold a boatload of Apple TV boxes — 13 million to date, half in the last year — but hasn’t done everything it might conceivably do in the category. He didn’t make fun of Google Glass — in fact, he said it might be a worthwhile option for specialized markets — but said that he didn’t think it had mainstream appeal, and spoke at length about the difficulty of convincing people who don’t need glasses to wear them. He said that wearable computing in general could be a big deal and that wrist-worn devices like his Nike+ FuelBand show promise — but then again, young people use their phones as watches, so it might be tough to convince them to strap anything to their wrist after all.

He was cheerful when discussing his testimony concerning Apple’s taxes before a Senate subcommittee last week, which he said was a good opportunity to tell Apple’s story. He was mildly prickly when answering a question by The Verge’s Nilay Patel about patent suits, saying that other companies’ suits against Apple were shown to be without merit but that Apple’s own legal salvos against Samsung were prompted by that company copying Apple’s creations.

The session wasn’t entirely news-free. Cook said that former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was joining Apple to head up environmental affairs. He noted that the company is spending more of its billions on acquisitions than ever: it’s bought nine companies since last October, although it only announces its purchases when it must do so to fulfill legal requirements. And while it wasn’t specific, his response to a Mossberg question about third-party keyboards — that Apple will open up iOS more to third-party modification as long as it doesn’t degrade the user experience — left me hopeful that the iPhone and iPad will grow meaningfully more customizable over time.

If you’re irate over Apple’s stock price, or champing at the bit for an Apple HDTV and/or wristwatch, or adamant that Apple needs to release a big-screen iPhone, Cook’s comments offered little or nothing to pacify you. That almost seemed to be his overarching, unspoken message: even during a period when Apple skepticism, negativity and general second-guessing are running higher than they have in recent years, the company isn’t going to be spooked into pre-announcing products or paying too much attention to anyone else’s opinions about what it should or shouldn’t do.

That inevitably led to Cook mostly covering well-trodden ground rather than saying anything provocative and unexpected. Odds are that we’ll learn a lot about the company’s plans for its iOS and OS X software platforms at WWDC, but that any truly game-changing hardware announcements won’t happen until the fall.

Tim Cook will presumably be onstage for these events. Instead of reiterating that the company has amazing stuff in the pipeline, as he did at D, he’ll show what it’s been working on. But it’s what the new products say about where Apple is going that will matter most.

For now, any specific opinions we outsiders form about the company’s future are based on incomplete data. Every Apple pundit should acknowledge that basic fact; remarkably few do.