updated 07:30 pm EST, Thu January 10, 2013
Talks generally about China market, innovation, Steve Jobs
While in Beijing, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a wide-ranging interview to Sina Technology, a leading tech news site, and discussed his hopes for China to become one of Apple's top markets among other topics. While Cook apparently said little that is new, he acknowledged his meeting with China Mobile to try and iron out a final agreement that would let the world's largest cell carrier finally bring the iPhone to its 700m-strong customer base.
Due to poor-quality machine-based translations provided by Google, few of the interview's actual quotes make much sense re-translated back to English, but for the most part Cook reiterates a number of his standard talking points when asked questions about Apple's plans, often saying he can't comment specifically on a roadmap but pointing out that Apple has continued a fast pace of upgrades and polishing of existing products, such as the iPad mini, the iPhone 5, the Retina MacBooks, the new iMac and the revamp of the iPod line. Earlier in the day, he had confirmed that the 8-inch iPad mini would hit retail in China later this month.
Cook paints Apple as the only technology company where engineers can work on the "whole widget," a reference to Steve Jobs' perennial description of the company. "Apple is the one integrated software, hardware and services company, and [I am] proud of our outstanding products [which] continue to push consumer expectations. [However] we have still-higher expectations [of ourselves and for our] future products."
Though the current trip is Cook's second since he officially became CEO in 2011, he told Sina Technology he had been to China many times over the course of the last 20 years, starting in 1996 before he joined Apple. He told reporters that he "loves China" because it is "full of vitality, full of energy, and is a rapidly changing market." He also mentioned that he has witnessed the enormous changes in the country over the decades, saying that it has a "huge dynamic," and that he enjoys Chinese culture. Cook, who has two brothers, mentioned to the interviewer that in fact one of his sisters-in-law was of Chinese descent.
"From a business perspective," Cook said, "I came to China to meet with a number of partners [and] government officials, as well as [some of chief Apple supplier Foxconn's] local employees. China is now the world's second-largest market for Apple, and I believe that in the future it will become Apple's largest market." He added that he is starting to be recognized when he visits, telling a story of an Apple customer who approached him and his team on a bus [or train] and told him of his satisfaction with Apple's products, taking pictures of Cook that may surface online.
When questioned about the fact that Apple's latest products are often slow to arrive in China, where they are ironically usually made, Cook said he would like for China to be among the first countries to get Apple products, but pointed to the bureaucratic approval process as the culprit. "We have been trying to [speed up] the approval process as much as possible to shorten the time to market," he said, adding that the subject was a high priority for him. He also added that Apple is eager to bring more cloud services to the country, pending government approval of the infrastructure necessary -- a hint that Apple may build another data center within China at some point.
Cook also revealed that Apple plans to greatly expand its official retail presence in China. The company already has 11 retail outlets but has plans to build another 25 in the near term, though Cook added that the company will "certainly" add more stores to address the burgeoning Chinese market. However, he said that it is important to Apple that the retail experience be world-class in every respect, and thus the openings would not happen as quickly as some might like. He said the stores must be able "to provide customers with the best quality service ... and develop a gold standard for the products and [experience]."
The CEO expressed confidence that Apple would continue to offer periodic innovative new products, but avoided saying anything new about the long-rumored Apple HDTV set said to be underway. As is typical of Cook, he expressed his enthusiasm for the company's existing Apple TV set-top box, mentioning that sales performance of the revamped product has been "very good," but noted that its performance is relative to its market, which has not matured in the same sense as smartphones or tablets. He again referred to television generally as an area of "interest" to the company, but wouldn't be drawn out any further on the matter.
One area which the Apple CEO had rarely addressed before was the subject of Near-Field Communication, or NFC -- a feature on a number of smartphones in search of a practical use, or perhaps a budding technology adopted a bit prematurely as some view it. While there are some limited uses for NFC in retail, the technology has seen very slow uptake thus far and is still considered something of a novelty.
Asked about whether Apple would incorporate NFC in future devices, Cook said that the company continues to "assess the maturity" of it and a number of other technologies with a view to developing the ones that offer the most promise to "the interests of consumers," echoing earlier, similar comments from Apple SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller. He cited Apple's decision to go largely in-house with its own processor development for its mobile devices as an example of this, having said previously that enabling Apple to customize the chips to its own device needs has given it performance gains that rivals using off-the-shelf chipsets have had great difficulty matching.
Though unable to give a firm timeline for the arrival of the of the iPhone to China's largest telecom carrier, China Mobile, he continued to praise the company even while mentioning that Apple has good relationships with the other two largest carriers, China Unicom and China Telecom as well as other tech companies such as Sina, Baidu (the largest social network in the country) and Youku. Cook met earlier in the day with China Mobile chairman Xi Guohua to discuss "matters of cooperation" aimed at solidifying a deal with the carrier, but no concrete results of the meeting have been reported.
Cook was also asked about the situation regarding Foxconn workers at factories throughout China, and said that the company has put a lot of pressure on Foxconn to clean up issues with workers' wages and overtime, worker eligibility and labor standards. He said Apple hasn't done this just for "public image" or PR reasons, but to raise wages and improve the working environment across all of its suppliers. He mentioned the company's outreach to workers to educate them on their rights, and provide additional educational opportunities.
Finally, Cook was asked about his legendary predecessor, the company co-founder Steve Jobs, along with current SVP of Hardware and Software Design, Sir Jonathan Ive. Cook expressed his admiration for Ive's taste and ability to conceptualize and work to a very high standard. Cook said he had "enormous respect" for Ive and said that working with him was "an honor." On Jobs, Cook said that while he and Jobs had very different management styles, they shared a common goal of trying to bring together the best people in the industry and inspire them to do their best work.
Cook recounted briefly how he was persuaded to join Apple at what many would call the company's darkest hours in 1998 by the recently-returned Jobs' singular focus on saving the business by giving laser attention to a single idea: building the best possible products. At the time, tech companies were heavily focused on the very profitable enterprise and server markets, but Jobs saw a path to increasing consumer loyalty to Apple products through innovative and top-quality products aimed at the home market. Cook was impressed with Jobs' dedication to the idea, and he was convinced enough to leave a great job at Compaq and join Apple, rising quickly to become the director of operations, followed by appointments as interim CEO during Jobs' health-related leaves and eventually being hand-picked by Jobs as the successor CEO. Jobs died shortly after he officially resigned as CEO, with Cook taking over the role in late August of 2011.