Did Tim Cook Really Say Anything New in His Goldman Sachs Appearance?

February 12th, 2015

As with statements from any notable, anything Tim Cook says in a public setting will be widely reported, with key soundbites quoted around the world. This is the understandable consequence of being CEO of an iconic company that just happens to have the largest market cap of any publicly traded corporation on the planet.

If Cook says something that’s really different or significant, there will be plenty to chew over. So in that spirit, I looked over his quoted comments at Tuesday’s annual Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference to see if he really made news. I mean, beyond just repeating pretty much what he’s said before in other public settings.

So we know, for example, that Apple professes not to believe in the “laws of large numbers,” and doesn’t build gear because it can sell lots of copies even if that’s usually the end result. There are considerations such as the greater good, which is evidently the reason Apple is spending $850 million to build a solar farm in rural Monterey County, CA, located south of San Francisco. The plant will be used to power the new Apple campus in Cupertino, 52 Apple Stores in California and a datacenter.

Well, I suppose a renewable energy project, on the long haul, will possibly compensate for its costs by reducing power costs. It would appear, though, the benefits to society will outweigh the time it takes to recoup the benefits of that investment. On the whole, this is the most significant new announcement during Cook’s speech.

The rest of his presentation was fairly predictable, and that there’s nothing out there to halt or slow its stellar growth.

True, Apple earns the lion’s share of smartphone profits, and is more profitable than other PC makers. But Apple still has a minority share of the mobile handset market compared to Android. It’s also true that, although, Mac sales have been on the rise for years, there’s a lot of room to grow even in what appears to be the twilight of the PC area.

Still, Cook claimed the company never puts market share first, commenting, “We’re actually not focused on the numbers, we’re focused on the things that produce the numbers.”

As I said, it’s about marketing.

On Apple Watch, Cook cited the iPod as an example of succeeding in an undeveloped market, that MP3 player sales were relatively insignificant until Apple’s contender arrived with a better solution. By the same token, sales of smartwatches haven’t been so good. Other companies manage, at best, sales in the hundreds of thousands. Pebble’s one million total includes 2013 and 2014, and it’s barely a blip compared to Apple’s typical numbers.

Cook’s comments about Apple Watch were also heavily infused with marketing fluff, about the huge number of features, how it would become an indispensable appliance, how it would “change the way you live your life.”

Well, if that’s the case, maybe analyst estimates of tens of millions of sales the first year are indeed accurate, or maybe they are listening too closely to the sales spiels for Apple Watch. Expectations are certainly high and Apple may have a hard time meeting those expectations. But even if only a few million are sold during 2015, that may itself be more than all other smartwatch makers combined, so how could such an achievement be criticized? Well, because it’s about Apple and Apple can never do well enough to satisfy such people.

So a lot of what Cook said was little more than corporate spin. Apple is doing great, the competitors cannot possibly compete. He spoke of the iPad, where sales are not quite what they used to be, as a still-amazing achievement. Wouldn’t you expect Cook to present anything but a carefully crafted message designed make everything from Apple seem wonderful?

He would not, obviously, talk about the ongoing problems with Apple software. He spoke of the joys of Continuity, being able to receive a call from your iPhone on a number of devices, including iPads and Macs. He did not discuss the annoyance of having multiple ring tones and, on a Mac at least, being unable to add a custom ring tone that matched the one you might be using on your iPhone. He would not mention when the system just doesn’t work, or that older Macs cannot work with Handoff because they lack Bluetooth LE, or about the ongoing software glitches that make using some of the tentpole features of OS X Yosemite and iOS 8 an unpleasant experience.

Now I realize he wouldn’t present news that wasn’t 100% positive, but submitting to tough questions ought to be an important part of such events. Just letting a powerful corporate executive deliver a sales pitch doesn’t really help inform investors or customers.

So far, the coverage of Cook’s speech has been little better than reading content generated by copy machines. Apple has a powerful story to tell, but how many times must we hear him repeat the same story with a few different flourishes before it becomes old news?

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