Cook: Apple will 'double down' on Siri and secrecy

Apple CEO Tim Cook kicked off the Wall Street Journal's tenth annual D: All Things Digital conference, appearing at the same event that his predecessor, Steve Jobs, had headlined several times before.

Apple CEO Tim Cook kicked off the Wall Street Journal’s tenth annual D: All Things Digital conference, appearing at the same event that his predecessor, Steve Jobs, had headlined several times before. Answering questions from conference hosts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, Cook said his company is doubling down on Siri, played coy about Apple’s approach to the gaming and television markets, and spoke emotionally about Jobs’s death.

Double doubling down

As with any public appearance of an Apple executive, there was a good-natured give and take about future product releases. Mossberg and Kara tried to cajole Cook into revealing future product details, knowing full well that he would do no such thing. (In fact, the Apple CEO declared that the company was “doubling down on secrecy” when it comes to product releases.) However, he did offer a few tantalising tidbits, most notably about the Siri feature of the iPhone 4S.

“Customers love [Siri], but there’s more that it can do,” he said. “And we have a lot of people working on this. And I think you’ll be really pleased with some of the things that you’ll see in the coming months… we’ve got some cool ideas about what Siri can do. And so we have a lot going on on this. I think you’ll be pleased where we’re taking Siri. We’re doubling down on it.”

TV or not TV?

Similarly, with rumors swirling about Apple possibly working on a physical TV set, Cook explained the company’s attitude toward the current Apple TV product and the TV world in general

“We’ve stayed in the Apple TV product business, and we’re not a hobby kind of company…. Our tendency is to do very few things, put all of our wood behind a few arrows, and if something creeps in and isn’t a big success we get it out of the way and move on,” he said. But he said Apple has stuck with the TV market, and Apple TV sales are growing. Cook said Apple sold 2.8 million Apple TVs in all of 2011 and sold 2.7 million in the first six months of its 2012 fiscal year, and says that customer satisfaction with the device is “of the charts.”

“So we’re going to keep pulling this string and see where it takes us,” he said. “I think many people would say this is an area in their life that they’re not really pleased with. The whole TV experience. So it’s an interesting area. We’ll have to see what we do. Right now, our contribution is Apple TV.”

When pressed by the hosts about the rumors that Apple is building a TV set, Cook tried to give an explanation about how Apple decides whether or not to enter any product category.

“We’d look and ask, can we control the key technology? Can we make a significant contribution far beyond what others have done in this area? Can we make a product that we all want? This is sort of how we think.”

Later, when asked by Joshua Topolsky of The Verge about Apple’s interest in competing with gaming consoles, Cook indicated that Apple was focused on mobile gaming on iOS devices, while leaving a hint that the company might invade the TV screen as well.

“You have more people playing games on portable devices than on the big screen TV now,” Cook said. “Where we might go in the future, you know, we’ll see… I’m not interested in being in the console business. But if you view gaming more broadly than that, then I feel we are a pretty big player today and the things we do in the future will only make that bigger.” When Topolsky asked if Apple was interested specifically in games that could be played on a TV set, Cook replied: “I think it could be interesting.”

Social networking

Apple’s relationship with Facebook has been curious lately. When Apple launched its (largely stillborn) Ping social-networking layer in 2010, Facebook was integrated—but rapidly de-integrated. iOS 5 added deep integration for Twitter, but not Facebook, and Mac OS X Mountain Lion seems to do likewise. But Cook denied that Apple’s relationship with Facebook was rocky.

“I think the [Apple-Facebook] relationship is very solid,” he said. “We have great respect for them. I think we can do more with them. And so, just stay tuned on this one… We want to provide customers simple, elegant ways to do the things they want to do. And Facebook has hundreds of millions of customers. Anyone with an iPhone or iPad wants to have the best experience with Facebook on any device. So stay tuned.”

In general, though, Cook said that while Apple needs to embrace social networking (he cited that Twitter integration as well as social features in Game Center and even iMessage), it doesn’t need its own social network.

“Apple doesn’t have to own a social network,” he said. “We tried Ping and the customer voted and said, this isn’t something I want to put a lot of energy into. Some customers love it, but there’s not a huge number that do, so will we kill it? I don’t know. I’ll look at it.”

Made in the USA

Mossberg asked Cook about the limitations of the high-tech supply chain in the United States, and if there was any way Apple could once again have factories in the United States. Cook, in response, made the point that several key components of Apple products are made in the US.

“This isn’t well known, but the engine for the iPhone and the iPad is built in the US — not just for the US but the world.” He was referring to the Apple A5 processor, which is made by Samsung in Austin, Texas. And “the glass for your iPhone is made in a plant in Kentucky”, he said, referring to Corning’s Gorilla Glas plant in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

But, Cook said, the fact is that many key parts of the manufacturing sector simply aren’t supported in the United States. “The tool-and-die maker skill in the US began to go down in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “So there has to be a fundamental change in the education system, to bring back some of this.” He also cited “hundreds of thousands” of mobile-app development jobs in the United States that have been created by the App Store and success of the iPhone.

Remembering Steve Jobs

With Steve Jobs having made several memorable D appearances, it was only fitting that Cook spent some time on stage to remember Jobs and recount how Jobs’s death had affected him.

“It was absolutely the saddest day of my life when he passed away,” Cook said. “Maybe as much as you should see or predict that, I really didn’t. But at some point, late last year, somebody kind of shook me and said, it’s time to get on. So that sadness was replaced with intense determination to continue the journey. So that’s where it is today.”

Cook said that he’s not troubled about making decisions that Jobs might not have made, recounting a visit to Jobs’s home after Cook was made CEO. Jobs told Cook the story about how, after Walt Disney died, people at Disney would constantly ask themselves “what Walt would have done”.

“And he looked at me with those intense eyes that only he had, and he told me to never do that, to never ask what he would do,” Cook said “Just do what’s right. And so I’m doing that.”

Cook insisted that nobody could replace Jobs, so he wasn’t going to try.

“Steve was a genius and a visionary,” he said. “I’ve never viewed my role as to replace him. I think he’s an irreplaceable person. Steve was an original. I don’t think there’s another one of those being made. I’ve never really felt the weight of trying to be Steve. It’s just not who I am. It’s not my goal in life. I am who I am, and I’m focused on that and being a great CEO of Apple…. I love every minute of it. It’s an incredible place to be. It’s my oxygen.”

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Jason Snell

Jason Snell

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