Cook's 'big plans' remark reveals nothing about Apple product timing, everything about what fans crave

'What else can he say?' asks analyst

A leaked email from Apple CEO Tim Cook that teased "big plans" for 2014 renewed speculation that the company would finally make good on expectations by launching new product lines, including wearables and a smart television, next year.

The problem is, Cook has touted similar big plans in the past and pundits' hopes have failed to materialize.

"The information content of these [messages] is zero," said Ezra Gottheil, analyst with Technology Business Research. "Apple doesn't really have to do what people expect. But the commentariat has column inches to fill. They have to talk about something."

Earlier this week, Apple-centric website 9to5Mac published Cook's annual message to company employees, noting that it included the line, "We have a lot to look forward to in 2014, including some big plans that we think customers are going to love."

9to5Mac and a host of others used the sentence, in particular the words "big plans," to again tout long-circulating rumors of forthcoming Apple products, among them a purported "iWatch" smartphone accessory and an Apple-branded smart TV. Both have been on the rumor radar for months or even years.

But Cook has regularly used similar language in past exhortations, memos and even during calls with Wall Street.

"We've got some really great stuff coming in the fall and across all of 2014," Cook told financial analysts in April after announcing 2013's first-quarter numbers (emphasis added). In the same call, Cook also said, "Our teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software, and services that we can't wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014."

Cook's "great stuff" and "amazing new" products for 2013 amounted to the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5C, iPad Air, Retina iPad Mini and Mac Pro -- solid evolutions of past products that in some cases are selling in large numbers. But they're hardly revolutionary, as were 2007's iPhone and 2010's iPad, or as would entries into new markets presumably prove.

As Gottheil said, it's useless to tap a CEO's public comments -- which by 9to5Mac's record, virtually every internal email issued by Cook is -- for speculation on upcoming wares or launch timetables.

In fact, Cook used an October conference call with Wall Street to quash thoughts that Apple would soon enter new market categories. "I didn't say in April that you would see [new product categories] in this year and the first half of next year," Cook said when pressed by one analyst to clarify previous remarks.

Cook and other CEOs are caught between a rock and a hard place, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Kantar, when it comes to trumpeting the future without giving anything away. "What else can he say?" asked Milanesi of Cook's "big plans" comment. "That they won't have great new products?"

But the constant speculation -- abetted by Apple's secrecy that cloaks new product information -- does mean something, Milanesi argued.

"Apple needs to do something different and something new," she said, referring to the underlying problem illustrated by the rumor mongering. "Whatever it is, say the iWatch or wearables, Apple needs more than an upgrade, needs to come up with something else that gets people excited about the brand. Upgrades [to existing products] are just not good enough."

That belief, widely expressed by others, has been the background for the criticism of Apple and more specifically, Cook, in the last 15 months. After the Cupertino, Calif. company's stock price fell from its September 2012 high, some began to wonder whether an Apple without co-founder Steve Jobs had run out of ideas andexhausted its ability to innovate.

At times, Apple has gotten defensive about the charges. In June, Philip Schiller, the company's marketing chief, said, "Can't innovate anymore, my ass," while introducing the new Mac Pro. Apple tightly scripts its presentations, so it's unlikely that Schiller ad libbed.

It's easy to scoff at Schiller's defense of Apple's innovation chops. For although the Mac Pro may be the newest status symbol of the nouveau riche, or a step up for professionals who rely on OS X, it's no iPhone or even iPad: It won't change the technology landscape.

To Milanesi, the harping on new devices, whether iWatch, an Apple-branded smart TV or a larger-screen iPad hybrid that doubles as a notebook, is the smoke from the fire Apple should be kindling. While the interpretations of Cook's "big plans" remark may be off on timing, they show that Apple aficionados hunger for something new, something different, something as game-changing as the iPhone or iPad.

And if Apple knows what's good for it, it will satisfy that hunger. Maybe not in the coming year, as some believe, but at some point. "Apple needs to continue to keep their brand aspirational, and reach beyond the markets they have now," said Milanesi.

Gottheil agreed that by staying in place, Apple risks, if not revenue, then leadership relevance. "It certainly expresses a desire," he said of the fixation on Apple and new products. "Apple needs to fulfill the fantasy that people seem to have."

That's not easy, as experts and observers have noted. While some of the latter have gone so far as to tally the three-year span between the iPhone and iPad, and then pontificate that Apple needed to hew to the same schedule for the "next big thing," lightning doesn't strike on a timetable.

"Apple more closely resembles Ford rather than Edison," Gottheil said, referring to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, one the automobile maker who sold the Model T at prices within reach of the American middle class, the other the inventor who developed the electric light, the motion picture camera and the phonograph, all revolutions in their own rights.

"We're in a business where the most typical headline should be 'Things are much the same as yesterday,'" said Gottheil, even though that's not what people want to see. "But Jobs identified with Ford, not Edison. Remember, he loved the quote [attributed to] Ford: 'If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me 'a faster horse.'"

Today's Apple customers aren't asking for a faster horse, they're asking for a flying horse. And Apple better try to deliver.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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