Steve Job’s successor takes center stage

May 30, 2012

This week, Apple chief executive Tim Cook made his first significant public appearance since taking the position. Cook sat down with the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the duo’s annual All Things D conference, held near Los Angeles at a seaside resort.

Since Steve Jobs’s death in October, there has been fairly healthy debate about whether Cook is really the right man for the job. Jobs was known as a meticulous control freak, someone with an obsession for art, music and design. He was a fierce creator who had his hand in every product Apple released.

On the other hand, Cook was responsible for Apple’s tightly controlled supply chain and production lines. He was the architect of the company’s massive success in manufacturing — but he’s not exactly known for expounding on his love of the Beatles or calligraphy.

It’s no surprise, then, that the room at the event was packed to hear firsthand from the man who would now guide the legacy that Jobs and Apple had built. And although the conversation was lively, I’m not sure I walked away with a better picture of exactly who Tim Cook is or what kind of products he wants to build.

Cook arrived on stage in a dark-blue blazer and a pair of jeans — certainly taking no cues from Jobs in the fashion department. He seemed immediately at ease, although this is a man who’s been leading Apple presentations to the media for years, so it’s unsurprising that he would be at home on the stage.

He opened up the conversation with a familiar company line that I’ve heard from the chief executive — something he’s mentioned even on earnings calls. He talked about his love for Apple, for the company Steve had built and how excited he was for the products Apple is about to announce. “For years, we’ve been focused on innovation, and . . . the juices are flowing. We have some incredible things coming,” he said, and then he jokingly added that Apple had had “a few good quarters.” The joke was not lost on the audience of investors, competitors and programmers.

Early in the conversation Cook stressed the importance of the iPad in Apple’s business, but he seemed to stumble when Mossberg and Swisher pressed him on why his company’s strategy of selling both MacBooks and iPads made more sense than Microsoft’s upcoming strategy with Windows 8, which will attempt to combine those types of products.

“The tablet is different,” he told the interviewers. “It can do things that aren’t encumbered by what the PC was.” Cook then said: “Products are about trade-offs — you have to choose. The more you look at a tablet as a PC, the more the baggage from the past affects the product.”

The statement sounded good, but it didn’t exactly answer the question. Asked for specifics, Cook said: “The ID [industrial design] suffers. If you look at a notebook, it’s not going to look like [a] kick-ass product.”

But in other departments, Cook came off as confident, and even a little playfully cocky. He told the audience that Apple would “double down” on secrecy around products — a subject of extreme touchiness for Steve Jobs. After a prototype iPhone 4 had been lost and found its way into the hands of gadget blog Gizmodo, police raided the home of one of the site’s editors, and the subsequent blowback was extremely public.

Apple has traditionally been one of the most protective companies when it comes to unannounced products, but in recent years, leaked information and even photos of “secret” projects have become increasingly commonplace. Cook seemed to suggest that he would tighten down even further to prevent slip-ups.

In true executive fashion, he remained tight-lipped about rumors that Apple would build its own TV, although he did say that the company’s current Apple TV was “an area of intense interest.” When I asked him about gaming in the living room — specifically on the TV — Cook responded that “it could be interesting.”

Interesting indeed. When the chief of a company such as Apple keeps talking about how “interesting” things are, get ready for some movement in that area.

At another point in the conversation, Cook alluded to new features coming for voice assistant Siri, saying that “there’s more that it can do” and that customers would be “really pleased with some of the things that you’ll see over the coming months.” Cook added that Apple has “some cool ideas about what Siri can do.”

Cook also skillfully fielded questions on bringing jobs back to the United States (Will they come back? He “hopes so.”) and said he wanted to work more with Facebook (“stay tuned”). He told the audience that Apple’s recent philanthropic work would go even further; quoting John F. Kennedy, Cook said, “ ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ ”

Apple’s new boss came off as confident, funny and overwhelmingly impressive. When I left the interview, the chatter among attendees, which included tech bigwigs as well as reporters, was positive. People seemed satisfied. But as for Cook’s plans for Apple? That’s still anyone’s guess.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge (www.
theverge.com
), a technology news Web site. For previous columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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