Deciphering Tim Cook’s Promise on APIs: The Part of “Open” We Don’t Understand

Greg Bates, June 4th, 2013

At Tim Cook’s D11 interview with Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, he didn’t offer much new information about his famously secretive company. But at 1:01:20 he started talking about opening up APIs. He did say, somewhat cryptically,

“On the general topic of opening up APIs, I think you’ll see us open up more in the future, but not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience. So there’s always a fine line to walk there, or maybe not so fine in some cases. We think that the customer pays us to make certain choices on their behalf. … I’ve seen some settings on these phones where you are deep into the bowels of the thing, choosing this and that and the other. I don’t this is what most customers want. Do some want it? Yes, of course. But is that a mainstream customer want? I don’t think so. But, will we open up more? Yes…”

He then agrees when Mossberg asks if third parties can offer solutions. But there were no specifics, certainly no sense of what might translate into offerings by third parties. What will it mean? We don’t know.

This mirrored problems with the entire  appearance lasting over an hour and twenty minutes. Mossberg and Swisher spent a great deal of time asking questions everyone knew in advance Cook would not answer, trying to dig out information on future announcements. This bordered on tedious. In fairness to the journalists, they tried the exact same tactic on Elon Musk in his interview the next night and netted big results, getting the entire announcement of the Tesla’s super charging station out of him a day in advance. But in Apple’s case, we know the company won’t open up unless it’s by design. And they would never do anything that would encourage journalists to think they could pry something loose.

Steve Jobs did announce things in past interviews, giving a demonstration of iTunes, for example. But that was clearly preplanned by Jobs. Unlike others who let journalists push them around, Apple just can’t be moved to impulsively disclose. It may be time to spare audiences these fruitless efforts.

Meanwhile, it isn’t clear what Cook meant to accomplish during the interview or why he gave it. He might respect his audience more by giving interviews only when he has something new to say. That doesn’t have to be a product announcement. We can all recall memorable moments of Jobs proclaiming something incredible.  Take as an example, his claim that tablets would be to computers what cars are to trucks; he predicted tablets would slice into the computer market and make it smaller. The very next day Steve Ballmer called him out on that outlandish statement, making it all the more memorable when Jobs later proved to be correct. Jobs usually fed his interviewers something new, once revealing at an All Things Digital conference that the iPad development started prior to the iPhone and was shelved in favor of getting a phone out first. That was not earth shattering, and in fact had been guessed by many. But it was news when Jobs said it, nonetheless.

Returning to the nonstatement about opening up APIs, it was so vague that the tech press could divine zero insight. Appleinsider reported what Cook had said, nothing more.

Jonathan Riggall at Softonic posits that Siri may be able to control more third party apps.

Michael Gorman at Engadget railed against the Apple’s restrictive curation and its penchant for believing that customers pay them to make choices, saying, “So there you have it, the folks at Apple only let you use the stock software keyboard on your iPhone because you paid them to do so.” [Emphasis Gorman's.] We can take Gorman’s side on the level of restriction, or Apple’s, or come down in between. As Cook pointed out, there’s a fine line to walk and it’s little surprise that people come down on different sides of it.

Darrell Etherington of Techcrunch hopes this API opening is in fact news, saying, “I think we’ll see a loosening of API restrictions that’s quite different from what we’ve seen in the past.” Let’s hope so; this could herald a very big shift in what iOS devices can do.

Maybe. But no one could analyze the implications of Cook’s statement, because it was so vague that there weren’t any.

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