Apple CEO Tim Cook: defensive, prescient, or business as usual?

As investors gain the upper hand against his company, the chief executive spent the morning at a Goldman Sachs conference explaining its inner workings. From his perch, it's smooth sailing.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Let's not discuss Wall Street's latest pounding of Apple stock. No, let's not talk about that. Let's instead talk about how brilliant, how sophisticated, how exceedingly profitable the world's leading technology company is. Yes, let's talk about it.

And chief executive Tim Cook will oblige. If there's anyone who knows how this company runs -- the frequency at which it hums as it rakes in billions of dollars each quarter -- it's the man who spent a decade managing the company's jealousy-inducing operations.

Today, Cook spent the morning calmly discussing this at this year's Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet conference in San Francisco. Cook addressed the company's culture of innovation -- "unrivaled," he said -- and its ongoing, perhaps existential struggle to live up to the record growth it has enjoyed over the last decade.

Growth for its cash cow, the iPhone? "All phones will be smartphones," Cook said.

The company's ongoing efforts to attract customers at lower price points? "We wouldn't do anything we considered a cheap product," Cook said.

The cannibalization of the iPad and iPad mini? "I think this is going to be the mother of all markets," he said of the latter.

Apple's ongoing fixation with hardware? "If you look at [Apple's $3.7 billion in software & services revenues last quarter] versus software and services companies, it's an incredible amount of revenue."

And what about that pricey network of stores? "I don't think we would have been nearly as successful with iPad if it weren't for our stores," Cook said.

And acquisitions? "We've averaged an acquisition almost every other month (for the last three years)," Cook said, adding that it's generally for skills or intellectual property.

So the answer to the admittedly aggressive question in the headline is simple: it depends on how you look at it. Are you an investor, or not?

To the naysayers, Cook spent the morning justifying his management of the company -- "We're managing Apple for the long term," he said, as the stock market beats him over the head -- and opening the drapes a bit so investors can see how the magical money-making machine really works. In one sense, this is defensive, and part of being CEO. It is difficult to imagine Cook speaking in a session like this when the company's stock is enjoying record highs. (Other companies in attendance at Goldman's conference: Lexmark, Yahoo, VMware, Polycom.) At times, it seemed as if Cook was baffled that investors would penalize his company for executing on most of its industry-leading strategy. Or simply weary of the irrationality of quarterly thinking.

So he took the time to methodically outline how strong Apple is as a company. He didn't resort to too many platitudes, despite the quotes above, and his responses did not have a reactionary tone. He addressed the company's various ventures, how they all help drive the company forward in the same direction, and how they all make significant money along the way.

For example, Cook's response about the Apple Store network helped explain why the company's latest products -- new, then-market-untested form factors such as its iPad tablet computer -- did so well: people could go and touch them. In this way, the Apple Stores are -- like the products themselves, the customer service, the website, the marketing -- yet another way for Apple to manage the customer experience. They are not simply a distribution channel, or a point of sales. That's the driving mission behind them.

The same goes for Cook's discussion of Apple's software and services dominance. "We're not a hardware company," Cook said flatly at one point, suggesting that onlookers don't fully understand the potential of its virtual product pipeline. To an investor, this looks like an unfulfilled promise for things to come. To a regular observer, it just looks like Cook is doing what he's always done: executing better than everyone else, no voodoo tricks necessary.

Photo: CBS Interactive

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