Tim Cook talks TV, smartphones, and wearable computing

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Tim Cook is certainly interested in wearable computing, modernizing the TV experience, and bigger smartphone screens, but if you want him to commit to specific product plans or roadmaps, you're asking the wrong guy. That was the message from Apple's CEO as he took the stage at the D11 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, on Tuesday night for a Q&A with journalists and hosts Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. It was Apple executive's second year in the famous red chair, where company co-founder Steve Jobs was also interviewed several times.

Here are a few of the highlights from the interview; a full transcript is available at the D11 website.

On the state of Apple

Asked if he is concerned about the perception that Apple may be in trouble, with a dwindling supply of world-changing ideas, retreating stock prices, and increasing pressure from competitors, Cook responded with a curt “absolutely not.”

He then explained that Apple is “a product company, so we think about products. Apple has always had competition to focus on, but our North Star is always on making the best products. We always come back to that. We want to do the best phone, the best tablet, the best PC. I think we’re doing that.”

Cook noted that the company sold 85 million iPhones, 42 million iPads, and 13 million Apple TVs—about half of the latter in the last year or so alone. Asked how this compares with Android, he stated that “what the numbers suggest over and over again is that people are using our products more. That’s what we are all about. We want to enrich people’s lives.”

Wearables and viewables

As expected, Cook didn’t elaborate on any of Apple’s specific plans for new products, but he did share a few interesting tidbits, starting with the fact that new versions of iOS and OS X are likely to make their appearance at the upcoming WWDC conference, which will take place in San Francisco in mid-June. He added that the recent management shuffle has allowed the company to sharpen its focus on the synergy between hardware, software, and services, with design chief Jony Ive taking a key role in the next evolution of the company’s products.

On the topic of emerging markets, it’s clear that television is on the company’s collective mind. Although Apple has so far limited its participation in that market to the Apple TV—which, as Mossberg noted, is not all that different from its competitors—Cook said the folks from Cupertino share a “grand vision” for changing what they consider to be an outdated medium.

Along the same lines, when asked for his opinion of wearable computing, the executive mentioned that it is an area “ripe for exploration,” with “lots of things to solve,” again refusing to say whether Apple is researching any specific products.

Citing Google’s Glass specifically, however, Cook pointed out that wearable technology must find its space by catering to consumers in a way that is meaningful to their lives. “I wear glasses because I have to. I don’t know a lot of people [who] wear them that don’t have to.”

In what could be perhaps seen as an oblique reference to the rumored “smart watch” that Apple is reportedly working on, Cook called the wrist “interesting,” noting that he owns one of Nike’s Fuelband wrist straps, calling it “a nice job.” Still, he noted that most young people don’t wear a watch, and that any wearable computing product would have to be carefully positioned in order to convince its intended buyers to wear it.

On Apple’s smartphone strategy

“It takes a lot of...detail work to do a phone right,” Cook said when Mossberg asked why Apple doesn’t differentiate the iPhone the way it does with its other product lines, where multiple variants cater to different segments of the population. (Think the multiple iPod models.)

Prompted by Mossberg, Cook agreed that consumers are interested in larger screens, but he also pointed out that such screens come at a cost: “People do look at the size. They also look at things like do the photos show the proper color? The white balance, the reflectivity, battery life.”

According to Cook, Apple’s strategy is to weigh all the possible alternatives and come up with what it thinks represents the best possible compromise. “What our customers want is for us to weigh those and come out with a decision. At this point we’ve felt the retina display that we are shipping is overwhelmingly the best."

On governance and policy

Cook reiterated that his company pays all the taxes it owes—$6 billion of it, in fact—and that he saw his recent appearance in front of a panel of U.S. senators to discuss Apple’s tax strategies as an opportunity to present his vision for a simpler, more manageable corporate tax code, stating that this quest for simplicity “is how we approach everything.”

Noting that Apple’s tax return is “two feet high,” he said that the Cupertino company doesn’t use any tax gimmicks and has no special deal with foreign countries, including Ireland, where its main offshore corporate entity is located. He then added that his ultimate goal is not for the company to pay less tax, but, rather, to receive fair treatment that recognizes the difference between where products are sold and where the subsequent earnings are taxed.

The environment is also becoming an increasingly important area of interest for Apple. Cook announced the hiring former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, who will be tasked with the job of “coordinating a lot of this activity across the company,” stating, however, that this move was not motivated by concerns about possible governmental action against Apple’s environmental practices, but, instead, by a desire to hold itself to a higher standard of environmental friendliness.

Touching briefly on the ongoing legal brouhaha in which the U.S. Department of Justice has accused the company of colluding with publishers to fix the price of e-books on the iBookstore, Cook signalled that Cupertino is heading for a showdown against the prosecution: “We’re not going to sign something that says we did something that we didn’t do, so we’re going to fight.”

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