Tim Cook is twisted sideways in the deep passenger-side backseat of a black Cadillac Escalade, rolling through Manhattan from the Flatiron district up to the company's flagship Fifth Avenue Apple Store — where a great glass cube sits atop Apple's subterranean retail center. Nobody at the store knows he's coming. Not the manager. Not security. There's no timetable for him to appear. And so for the 20 minutes or so it takes the car to wind through the late afternoon Manhattan traffic, I have him largely to myself.
Cook likes the secrecy. He does these store drop-ins periodically and has found that surprise visits are far better for everyone involved, himself included. The CEO of Apple visiting one of Apple's many retail stores is de facto a big deal, particularly for store employees who'd likely agonize over preparations if they knew he was coming. So Cook keeps it quiet. "I almost always go in unannounced," he says. "It's rare that I tell anyone that I'm going. But I do try to go to stores every time I'm traveling to a new city. It's important."
In another car, also winding through Manhattan on the way to the same store, is Apple SVP Eddy Cue, the company's top deal-maker and the guy quarterbacking its new Apple Music service and forthcoming next generation Apple TV. Also aboard: longtime Apple VP Greg "Joz" Joswiak, the guy who's headed up iPhone and iOS product marketing since the very beginning. They've done some of these store drop-ins before as well. But Cue says they typically end up spectators like everyone else. "This is all about Tim." (Later, after having watched Cook pose for innumerable selfies with Apple Store customers and employees, Cue will take one of himself alongside his boss. "Might as well get mine," he jokes.)
Less than a week ago, Cook and Cue — and a handful of other Apple executives — presided over a media event introducing a pair of new iPhones, a long-anticipated overhaul of the Apple TV, a new 12.9-inch iPad Pro and a pressure sensitive Pencil stylus to that turns it into a sketchbook, medical imaging tool or a drafting pad. It was a big launch, held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, an honest-to-god, 7,000-seat concert hall that has hosted the likes of The Who, Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia, and the 1920 Democratic National Convention.
But today they're leaving the carefully orchestrated stagecraft behind for a real-world appearance. Things can go wrong, but Cook is relaxed, and as on point as ever. Like when BuzzFeed News asks about the privacy implications of Hey Siri — the always-on feature of the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus that lets people wake it with just those two words: "Hey Siri."
"First you can decide you don't want Hey Siri," Cook responds. "But the real answer to that is that the information is held on the device and so it is not going back to Apple. Apple doesn't have access to it. So there's not privacy concerns I think, for most people, when the information is held on their device and they can encrypt it with their passcode."
"Hopefully people will look at our stance on privacy in general and know that we're not trying to operate outside of a fairly distinct line that we're drawing," Cook elaborates. "I hope that people trust us to do the right thing there."
Hey Siri is just one of the major new features Cook announced last week in the new iPhones. Apple releases the iPhone on a tick-tock cycle; with the "tock" device typically being a modest refinement of the "tick" device that debuted the year prior with a new form factor and other big upgrades. This is traditionally a "tock" year, but Cook bristles at this notion. "This is clearly not an off-year issue,: he argues. "This is a substantial change."
It is a big cycle. Beyond souped-up innards that improve the iPhone's speed and graphics and connectivity performance is a new type of animated photo — "Live Photos" — the "Hey, Siri" feature, and, most notably, "3D Touch," a next-generation implementation of multitouch that enables different levels of interactions based on how firmly you press down on the iPhone 6s's screen. Apple calls these interactions "peek" and "pop," with the former calling up a porthole to an app and the latter launching the app itself, each interaction accompanied by tactile feedback that helps you distinguish between them.
Cook is hot on all of this stuff; he describes Live Photos with near-Jobsian hyperbole — "I think Live Photos is a medium that hasn't existed before. It's like discovering a new form." But he's most excited by 3D Touch. "I personally think 3D Touch is a game changer," he says. "I find that my efficiency is way up with 3D touch, because I can go through so many emails so quickly. It really does cut out a number of navigational steps to get where you're going."
Even with just a quick demo, it's easy to see his point. It's a major new interface feature, one that threatens to upend the way we navigate through our phones, especially once third-party developers begin implementing it in their applications. Apple has engineered the hell out of this 3D Touch to ensure they'll do just that.
For Cook, 3D Touch is a tentpole feature of not just the iPhone 6s series, but of the iPhone itself and one that shows the company isn't saving marquee innovations for those "tick" years. "As soon as products are ready we're going to release them," Cook explains. "There's no holding back. We're not going to look at something and say 'let's let's keep that one for next time.' We'd rather ship everything we've got, and put pressure on ourselves to do something even greater next time."
This time around, "everything we've got" includes a new twist: an iPhone Upgrade Program that will allow customers to finance the iPhone 6s and the iPhone 6s Plus in monthly installments and upgrade to the newest iPhone for no extra charge each year. The move, which does away with the traditional two-year carrier subsidized contract, seems intended to transform wireless carrier customers into Apple customers, and it immediately raised eyebrows throughout the industry. But Cook insists the company's intention is simply to improve the customer experience.
"The upgrade plan is really just about recognizing that the process of buying an iPhone could be simpler and that there's a group of people that would like to upgrade every year," he says. "This makes that easier, and I think people will appreciate that." It's an honest answer, but also a business case. The program makes it easier to upgrade to an iPhone and an iPhone only; it keeps customers away from other smartphone options putting them on a track to automatically upgrade to a new iPhone each year and in so doing probably stabilizes core iPhone sales a bit. It's good for customers, but it's good if not better for Apple.
Two last questions as we turn the corner onto Fifth Avenue: The first — how close are we to a time when people are going to stop buying home computers and laptops and use only tablets? Will they give up their Macs for the iPad Pro? "I think that some people will never buy a computer," Cook says. "Because I think now we're at the point where the iPad does what some people want to do with their PCs." Cook is quick to point out, however, that this doesn't foreshadow the end of the Mac. "I think there are other people — like myself — that will continue to buy a Mac and that it will continue to be a part of the digital solution for us," he adds. "I see the Mac being a key part of Apple for the long term and I see growth in the Mac for the long term."
The second concerns a pet peeve, and we caution him we're about to ask something annoying. "Is it about Alabama football?" (Cook is an Auburn graduate and fan, and this is a jab at another BuzzFeed News reporter, and Alabama fan, in the vehicle.)
No, it's about the iPhone's junk drawer problem. Why are there apps on the iOS that I can't delete even though I never use them? Why does Apple insist that I keep Tips and Stocks on my iPhone when I'd like nothing more than to delete them? For Cook the question seems a familiar one. "This is a more complex issue than it first appears," he says. "There are some apps that are linked to something else on the iPhone. If they were to be removed they might cause issues elsewhere on the phone. There are other apps that aren't like that. So over time, I think with the ones that aren't like that, we'll figure out a way [for you to remove them]. … It's not that we want to suck up your real estate; we're not motivated to do that. We want you to be happy. So I recognize that some people want to do this, and it's something we're looking at."
And with that, the doors open, and he pops out. It's a casual stroll across the 20 yards or so from the curb to the great glass box that sits atop the Fifth Avenue Apple Store. Cook's face breaks into a smile as he covers the steps. There's a greeter standing outside when we arrive. "Welcome to the A—" he begins before realizing mid-sentence that he's addressing the CEO of the company. His face lights up. "Hi, Tim!" When I chat with him afterward, he describes the moment as "literally the last thing" he thought would happen today. "Very cool meeting the big boss, though."
Cook heads down the store's glass stairs, reaches a very crowded ground floor and stands for a moment, seemingly anonymous, before a pair of employees spot him with almost comical double takes. He greets them, chats for a bit, and poses for a selfie. A small crowd forms. Word spreads, and suddenly it's chaos.
He's swarmed by employees and by customers from the States and abroad. Most ask to shake his hand or snap a picture. A few hug him. At some point a grandfatherly man pushes me aside to get in better position to shoot some video with his iPad. His screen is cracked, and it occurs to me that he was probably in line at the Genius Bar for a repair when all this began to go down. I ask him, but he doesn't speak English. The scene is at once bizarre (people are hugging Apple's CEO in an Apple Store) and bizarrely charming (Apple's CEO is hugging them back). If I were more cynical, I'd dismiss this as a tactical post–product launch charm offensive, but it's not that really. Cook is obviously having a good time, even feeding off the energy of the crowd. And when a clearly overwhelmed store manager grabs him and implores him to visit the guys working in the back before he leaves (he obliges), it's apparent that no one knew of Cook's visit until he showed up on the floor. At its root, this is just a really nice moment.
Twenty minutes later he heads for the back door. As it opens, an employee runs up. "Tim! Can I have a picture real quick?" Cook smiles. He turns. The door swings shut as he steps back inside. "Yeah sure."
John Paczkowski is the managing editor for BuzzFeed San Francisco. Formerly deputy managing editor for Re/code and AllThingsD, he's been covering the intersection of technology and culture since 1997.
Contact John Paczkowski at John.Paczkowski@buzzfeed.com.
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