Why Apple, Tim Cook, and the tech industry need something new to talk about

Apple Tim Cook D11

Last year when Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage at D10, it occurred to me that he had probably the hardest job in American business: certainly the hardest job in technology, following in Steve Jobs’ shadow. This year at D11, it’s clear Cook is up to the job; but he needs something new to talk about to move Apple firmly into the post-Jobs era.

It’s been ages since the last Apple public event in September 2012 to introduce the iPhone 5. Since then, one of the premier sources of showmanship in the tech industry has kept a very low profile, surfacing only to deflect pesky questions about taxes and wax poetic about the magic of Apple for a network television audience. Those aren’t exactly the kinds of topics that have made Apple events and appearances must-see theater for going on six or seven years.

Apple Tim Cook D11 Credit: Asa Mathat/D: All Things Digital

Apple Tim Cook D11 Credit: Asa Mathat/D: All Things Digital

And despite Cook’s best efforts to explain his thinking about how Apple works, he covered well-trodden ground Tuesday evening at the exclusive Terranea Resort just outside Los Angeles:

  • Cook isn’t worried about Android’s market share. He’s more fixated on stats that show iOS users actually seem to use their devices way more than Android users.
  • Cook isn’t worried about the scrutiny over Apple’s taxes. The U.S. tax system is ridiculous, and Apple navigates it the same way any multinational corporation does.
  • Cook isn’t worried about TV. “Many of us agree there are things about the TV experience that could be better,” he said, but believe it or not, he didn’t have a TV to talk about.
  • Cook isn’t worried about Google Glass. “I would say that the (wearable computers) that are doing more than one thing, that there’s nothing … great out there that I’ve seen. There’s nothing that’s going to convince a kid that’s never worn glasses or a band or a watch to wear one.” Is Apple making a wearable computer? Maybe … “It’s ripe for exploration.”
  • Cook isn’t worried about making a lower-cost iPhone. Apple once made a bunch of different kinds of iPods, but “those products all serve a different person. And so on the phone, that is the question: are we now at a point to serve enough people that we need to do that?”

You get the picture. For two straight years at the highest profile executive conference in the tech industry, Cook has been unable to talk about anything relatively new or exciting for Apple. Obviously no CEO worth a damn is going to preannounce a consumer electronics product at a show like D11. But Apple’s crown jewels are old news in a tech industry that moves at light speed: the iPhone will be six years old this summer, and the iPad just turned three. Six years before the iPhone was introduced, the personal digital assistant represented the vanguard of mobile computing.

We know the story of those products. They’re still growing strongly despite shipping in immense volumes, they’re still the favorite of mobile software developers, and they still (for the most part) set the standard by which all other mobile devices are measured.

Cook is talking about mature products and mature businesses when he takes the stage on behalf of Apple. That’s a weird place for a company that has always prided itself on being outside the mainstream to be, and it shows. Ours is an industry that is always searching for that next big thing, and for many years, Apple has been a reliable source for that item.

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In mid-2013, we’re in a collective lull. Mobile is old news, dominated by Apple and Android. The Mac/PC market is in freefall, even if Apple is still doing better than the competition. And with apologies to Samsung, the next big thing — disruptive TV, wearable computing, the internet of things, or robot butlers that make drinks and crack jokes — is not here yet.

The Apple that will attempt to shape that next era has yet to show its hand, leaving Cook in a holding pattern talking about the strategies of the past and present while buying time until Apple’s wizards figure out how they’re going to put their stamp on the products of the future.

Let’s be very clear: should these next-generation products Cook has teased for years actually exist somewhere in a secretive lab in Cupertino, this is a blip in time for Apple. We’re simply between breakthroughs as an industry, searching for something that will galvanize a generation of technologists the way the iPhone did. Apple produced the last breakthrough, and people naturally expect that it will produce the next one given that so much of the company remains intact despite the loss of Jobs.

That may or may not happen. But until either Apple or someone else produces that breakthrough, Cook’s public appearances grow less and less important: if all he’s going to do is cover ground he’s covered before without a new story to tell, the need to pay attention to Apple’s every word becomes less and less important.

Let’s hope that next breakthrough comes soon. Technology is a more interesting subject when we’re all watching something new and exciting bloom.

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