Tim Cook Telegraphs Apple Television Plans at D10

Telegraphing Apple's PlansApple CEO Tim Cook has been working on his Morse Code, judging from the talk he gave Tuesday night at AllThingsD’s D10 conference. Among the many things he talked about, Mr. Cook gave us more information about his company’s plans for a television set, if you don’t mind decoding the dots and dashes.

D is the name of AllThingsD’s annual technology conference hosted by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. The conference features tech industry leaders talking about their companies and the industry as a whole, including sit-down sessions with Mr. Mossberg and Mrs. Swisher. The late Steve Jobs spoke at several events, and this marks Tim Cook’s first appearance at D as CEO of Apple.

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One of the best lines of the talk came near the beginning, when Walt Mossberg asked Tim Cook what was coming at the company’s World Wide Developers Conference in June.

Mr. Cook quipped, “That’s a great question. I’m not going to answer it.”

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The conversation eventually wended its way to television sets, and Walt Mossberg took a very clever tack on asking about Apple’s much-rumored plans for this industry. According to Ina Fried’s live coverage of the event, Mr. Mossberg asked, “Hypothetically, can TV be improved with just a box and leaving the panel to others?”

We characterize it as clever because it’s not the kind of question that would necessitate a “no comment” from an Apple executive, and Tim Cook took the opportunity to offer what we took as all-but confirmation that his company will be entering the market with a full TV set.

“We would look not just at this area,” Mr. Cook said in response to the question about settop boxes and panels, “but other areas and ask can we control the key technology?”

He added, “Can we make a significant contribution far beyond what others have done in this area. Can we make a product that we all want…Those are all the things we would ask about any new product category.”

Kara Swisher asked a follow up question of whether or not Apple’s current Apple TV is “good enough.” Mr. Cook said, “It’s more something where you keep pulling the string to see where it goes.”

To us, this clearly says that Apple doesn’t see settop boxes as the end-all, be-all for that industry. The company currently makes a settop box called Apple TV, and Mr. Cook is saying that if Apple is going to make a bigger foray in TVs, it will need to be able to take more ownership over the customer experience and the product, and that most likely means making a full television set.

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This follows from other hints Mr. Cook has given us in the past. For instance, in January of 2010, he very clearly stated that Apple would compete with netbooks not by making a netbook, but rather by taking a product that already met some of the needs of the netbook (iPhone) and expanding it. We know the end result today as the iPad.

Looking at the comments above about a TV in the same light leads us to conclude that Apple uses its current device as a way of understanding how consumers consume their TV, and what else they might want from it.

Furthermore, the “pull the string and see where it goes” line strongly indicates that there is a place to go. In that Apple has long found it key to own some portions(s) of whatever products it makes, at the other end of the string must lie an actual set.

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As we were preparing this analysis, Mr. Cook offered up another clue by saying that he thinks Apple will be a bigger player in the world of games.

Mr. Cook said, “I view that we are in gaming now in a fairly big way. One of the reasons people buy an iPod touch is gaming. Some buy it for music. I realize that is not the big screen you are talking about. Gaming has kind of evolved a bit. More people play on portable devices. Where we might go in the future, we’ll see. Customers love games. “

More importantly, he added, “I’m not interested in being in the console business in what is thought of as traditional gaming. But Apple is a big player today and things in the future will only make that bigger.”

When someone in the audience asked about the TV in terms of gaming, Mr. Cook said, “I think it could be interesting.”

There’s much more in AllThingsD’s live coverage, and the video of the interview will hopefully be posted Soon™.