The unbearable lightness of what Tim Cook saysMay 29, 2013: 6:02 AM ET
Apple's CEO exercised his ability to out-wait his interviewers at AllThingsD.
FORTUNE -- In trying to cover Tim Cook's roundly criticized performance at a major technology conference Tuesday evening near Los Angeles, reporters grasped at straws for kernels of news from the Apple CEO. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, whose parent company owns the conference, suggested Cook indicated a "wearable" computing product was imminent. (He merely called the segment "incredibly interesting," the latter a word Cook repeatedly leaned on like a crutch.) Mashable quoted Cook saying that Apple has more "game changers" in its future, a statement notable mostly because he didn't deny Apple's ambitions to create new product categories. Cook himself made news by disclosing that Apple had hired former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to oversee the company's environmental policies, though Cook didn't seem quite certain what her specific title was.
It is a strange sight to see the CEO of Apple, a company known for its brilliance and vision, decline over and over to discuss just about anything in any detail. It was the second year in a row Cook opened the prestigious AllthingsD conference and the second year in a row he divulged precious little about what is going on at Apple (AAPL).
Some of what Cook says smells of misdirection or perhaps delusion. Asked to address the growing competitive threat from the likes of Google (GOOG) and Samsung, Cook said "We've always had competent rivals," singling out for praise Microsoft (MSFT) and Dell (DELL). The problem with his examples is that they are ancient history. When Apple introduced the iPod, iPhone, and iPad it had the stage to itself for an astoundingly long time. Now the stage is getting crowded. Asked about Apple's maps debacle last year, Cook allowed, again, that Apple "screwed up." But he still hasn't said how and why Apple screwed up, which is far more relevant to evaluating the state of affairs at Apple. (He did say that Apple's maps are "greatly improved, but not there yet" and that "we're putting a lot of great people on it.")
The interview conducted by journalist-luminaries Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher was alternately painful and tedious. Over and over they asked Cook to spill the beans on future products, and over and over he demurred -- a predictable response, by the way. Dan Benton, the famous tech-oriented hedge-fund investor, put his finger on the problem with Cook's public persona during a subsequent Q&A session. "Why won't you give us a view of the future," Benton asked, suggesting that Google, with its innovations around Google Chrome and Google Now has become far better than Apple at painting a picture of things to come. Cook's response: "We believe in the element of surprise."
Cook dropped at least a few hints of changes at Apple. He said the company typically averages six acquisitions per fiscal year, but that it already has purchased nine companies during its current fiscal year, which began in October. (Not all of the acquisitions have been announced, so the number was noteworthy.) This suggests Apple is looking for ideas from outside Cupertino and is picking up the pace of discovery.
And though he keeps his cards close to his vest, Cook was at least a little bold in suggesting Apple has cards to play. Asked point-blank if Apple would continue to be the company that changes industries with brand-new approaches to product categories, he said: "Yes, we're still the company that's going to do that. The culture is still there. Many of the people are still there." He could have dodged this question too, and he'll have to answer for it down the road.
What frustrates about Tim Cook is that while Steve Jobs was every bit as persnickety about revealing Apple's product plans -- hell, Jobs was downright untruthful about Apple's plans -- Jobs would say darn interesting things in the process. Cook, on the other hand, is completely confident in his ability to out-wait his inquisitors because he, after all, presumably knows what's coming. He also seems perfectly content with the knowledge that this isn't about him, despite the world's great desire to make it so.
Asked about his leadership style, Cook said, "I always ask myself: What's in Apple's best interest?" This is a line he has used before. But then he added, "I never like to talk about myself." Apple's fans and investors hope at the very least that Tim Cook will start talking more -- or at least saying more -- about Apple. And soon.