Chief Executive Tim Cook speaking onstage at Apple headquarters last year. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated…)
CUPERTINO, Calif. -- At an annual shareholders meeting Friday that was almost completely devoid of drama, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook still managed to stun the audience for a moment and bring the room to complete silence.
Sitting on a chair onstage, holding an iPad and some notes, about halfway through a Q&A session, Cook suddenly said something unthinkable for a company that never says a peep about its future plans:
"And now I'm going to unveil some new products here onstage to show you what we've been working on."
The audience was stunned. Mouths hung open. People looked at one another, wondering the same thing: "Did he just say what I thought he said?" Then came the applause and cheers.
Cook quickly brought it to a halt.
"Of course, anyone who knows me knows I'm just joking about that last part," he said, grinning. "Come on. I've got to have some fun!"
Tim Cook. Yankin' his shareholders' chain. Who'd have thought?
"You're sitting pretty close to a lot of the things that are going on," Cook said. "If you could see through the walls...."
It's perhaps a small but telling sign of how comfortable and confident Cook has grown in the two-plus years of having to do the impossible: step into Steve Jobs' shoes.
After the formal part of the shareholders meeting, Cook spent about 45 minutes talking with shareholders who had gathered at Apple's town hall and revealed just a bit more about who he is -- and who he is not.
For instance, one shareholder asked Cook to talk more about the future of the company and his vision for where technology is headed. Jobs used to paint stirring visions of how technology was going to improve the world. Other CEOs like to go onstage and demonstrate their ability to see what's going to happen next.
"Our mission is not to talk about and sell futures," he said.
Cook also made it clear that although Apple has increased its pace of acquiring other companies and isn't afraid to make a big acquisition, he isn't about to get into an arms race with other companies. It seemed to be an oblique reference to Facebook's $19-billion purchase of messaging app WhatsApp.
After rattling off some stats about the growth of iMessage, Apple's own messaging service, Cook said:
"We're not in a race to see how many companies we can acquire. And we're not in a race to pay the most. And we're not in a race to get the headlines."
Unlike Jobs, Cook touted Apple's philanthropy, noting the $100 million it recently donated to a federal effort to bring more technology to low-income schools. He also mentioned the company's efforts to raise money to fight the global spread of AIDS.
And although Apple has received its share of criticism for working conditions of the people who build its products in China, Cook expressed pride that Apple was trying to be more transparent and self-critical while trying to improve the situation.
"My lifelong heroes are Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy," he said. "I get a lot of spears when I talk about this stuff. I don't give a crap. This is something we care deeply about. I don't think there's a company on Earth that cares more deeply about human rights than Apple does."
Cook saved his choicest remarks for shareholder Justin Danhof, director of the National Center for Public Policy Research's Free Enterprise Project.
Danhof had spoken earlier in the meeting, criticizing Apple's connection to trade industry groups that believe people are causing global warming. Later, Danhof asked Cook if he would promise to commit to projects that help the environment or fulfill other social justice aims only if they also help Apple's bottom line.
Cook seemed to be trying not to jump out of his seat.
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don't consider the bloody ROI" (return on investment), Cook said.
"When I think about doing the right thing," he said, "I don't think about an ROI."
"If that's a hard line for you," Cook continued, "then you should get out of the stock."
As Danhof sat back down, the audience applauded.
A few other topics Cook addressed:
Brazil, Russia, India and China: Cook said the company was increasingly shifting its focus toward the so-called BRIC countries. He noted that revenue from them had grown from less than $4 billion in 2010 to more than $30 billion in 2013. "The U.S. is still very important to us," he said. "But there's a lot more growth coming out of those markets."
On the launch of the iPhone 5s and 5c last fall: "It's great to note that if you look at the mid-tier and the top-tier phone this year, each did better than the mid-tier and the top-tier phone last year."
On putting 64-bit technology in the iPhone 5s: "Who would have thought, for those of you who have been in technology for a long time, that this could ever be done."
On the growth of Apple's software and services to $16 billion last year: "That's about the size of Starbucks," he said. "That's bigger than CBS, for those of you who are still watching TV."
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