Five years after he took over from Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive Tim Cook is looking both forward and backward.
In a lengthy interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Cook pointed to the company’s increasing involvement in social issues such as user privacy and environmental concerns while reiterating Apple’s focus on making “insanely great products that really change the world in some way – enrich people’s lives.”
Apple’s dominance in the smartphone market, he told the Post, is a “privilege, not a problem,” rejecting some analysts’ questions about whether Apple would have to do more to compete with other tech firms amid declining iPhone sales in recent months.
"I'm not saying we're not going to do anything else," he said, when asked what creations might follow the smartphone. "I'm saying this is still an unbelievable product category to be in, and not just for this quarter, year or for years. So I would not want anybody to think this, oh, this 'better days are behind us' thing," he said.
But in stepping into the shoes of Mr. Jobs, long regarded as the company's public face, Cook has found himself steering the company at a time when tech firms are increasingly acting as lightning rods, making stands in debates that extend well beyond their own products.
While the Apple head has taken a strong position in favor of users’ privacy, standing up to objections from law enforcement officials, for example, he has also rejected questions about the company’s overseas taxes that have provoked debates in the US and Europe.
“I don’t think five years ago we would even imagine these issues, a lot more has come to the forefront and a lot of these companies have to address them,” says Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at the research firm Gartner who covers Apple, particularly noting the tech firm's stance on privacy.
From a technology standpoint, Mr. Nguyen tells The Christian Science Monitor, “it’s a different world today than it was five years ago. Five years ago we were much closer to the beginning of the smartphone era, whereas now everyone who wants a smartphone has one, for the most part, and any type of driver of innovation has to be on top of that.”
The increasing amount of users' information contained in many smartphones has both enhanced the capabilities of artificial intelligence-driven features, such as Apple's Siri personal assistant, and given rise to privacy concerns.
Asked about the growing focus on artificial intelligence among many tech firms, Cook told the Post that the growing capabilities of Siri demonstrated the company was far from being “behind.”
“Increasingly, Siri understands things obviously without having to memorize certain ways to say things. The prediction of Siri is going way up. What we’ve done with AI is focus on things that will help the customer,” he said, noting that the personal assistant would enable a user to use their voice to order a ride from services such as Uber and Lyft, for example.
Some researchers said the tech firm's adoption of so-called "differential privacy" with Siri and other products that make use of customers' data could be a step in answering questions about how that information is protected.
"An algorithm is differentially private if any individual's data makes only a minuscule difference to its result," explains Anna Lysyanskaya, a professor of computer science at Brown University, in an email to the Monitor.
"So what Cook is saying is that, even though they are using data from their users in order to learn how to improve their products, your data's contribution is going to be minuscule: their algorithms will reach essentially the same conclusions whether or not they use your private data."
"This is great news for consumer privacy," Professor Lysyanskaya adds. "Apple is an industry leader, and if Apple is doing this, hopefully other companies will follow."
Beyond its existing technologies, Cook also dropped vague hints about possible new directions for Apple in the interview.
“The future of TV is apps,” he told the Post, noting that Apple had continued its focus on services by producing content to go along with its Apple Music service, including streaming radio. Augmented reality, Cook added, is “sort of a core technology,” though he declined to provide further details of how the company would use the technology.
Dodging US taxes?
But on other issues, he seemed to return to familiar stances for the tech firm. Income inequality and corporations' role in creating it continues to remain a prominent issue in the presidential campaign, but Cook brushed aside criticism of Apple’s tax practices.
Apple has said almost two-thirds of its $31 billion in global profits for 2011 were generated in Ireland. The claim sparked an investigation in Europe into whether the company received a “sweetheart deal” with the Irish government that allowed it to avoid paying US taxes.
“It’s not a matter of being patriotic or not patriotic. It doesn’t go that the more you pay, the more patriotic you are,” Cook told the Post, noting that Apple’s actions were not illegal and that the company would likely bring the money back to the US if Congress revamped corporate tax rates.
The company's stance has sparked a variety of criticism. The economist Joseph Stiglitz, who has advised Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, recently called Apple’s claim of significant earnings from its small Irish business a “fraud,” a comment that the Post asked Cook about.
While the Apple head didn't stray far from the tech giant's frequent talking points, Mr. Nguyen, the Gartner analyst, says the company's growing focus on the services embedded in its products could mark a new chapter in its ongoing philosophy. Siri, for example, may increasingly represent a balance between aiding its users and maintaining their privacy.
"If you hired a personal assistant, if they knew all these things about you, would that be creepy? I think [Apple's] messaging is, they’re being fairly careful with it, but I don’t know if there is a really good or elegant way around it because more personalization means knowing more about you," he says.
Siri’s voice-driven features, for example, could function as a way to integrate the many different apps that people make use of in different locations, from their homes to their cars.
“I think that’s the direction they’re trying to head in, to really have more meaning for your life,” he says.