Apple chief executive Tim Cook hinted that the company could build a cheaper mobile phone that would "not necessarily [be] a cheaper version of the current iPhone", and called a shareholder lawsuit over the company's giant cash pile a "silly sideshow" at the Goldman Sachs conference on Tuesday.
With pressure from pundits mounting on Apple to produce a phone with a 5in screen, like Samsung's Galaxy Note, he also suggested that larger displays weren't necessarily better, and that OLED displays (as used by South Korean rival Samsung) have "awful" colour saturation: "I'm not going to comment on what we're going to do in the future, but it's always broader than that which can be defined by a simple number," he said.
He also said that Apple has paid out $8bn to developers from the App Store - a new figure that implies that Apple has taken in $11.4bn since opening the store in 2008. That is double the $4bn figure paid out by January 2012, and up $1bn in a month, suggesting rapid growth in payments by users.
With the physical stores, Apple will close 20 "and moving them and making them larger", and adding another 30, with plans to add "lots more" in Greater China.
He said that 40% of all iOS device sales happened in 2012 - but that there was still huge potential to sell more: "the iPhone is really only available to about half of the subscribers in the world, so there is tons of opportunity to expand that."
Speaking to a packed room in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco at a 7am start, Cook hit back at accusations made by Greenlight Investment over its hoarding of cash, saying that the company "doesn't have a Depression-era mentality. Apple makes bold and ambitious bets on product and we're conservative financially".
David Eindhorn at Greenlight has been trying to persuade Cook to give back some of its accumulated $100bn in cash, and is opposing a plan by Apple's board to create a new class of shares - which Eindhorn complains would make it more difficult to redistribute that cash mountain to shareholders.
Cook said Apple won't spend money contacting shareholders to lobby for votes in favour of the proposal. "My preference is that everyone on both sides of this issue would take the money they're spending on this and donating it to a worthy cause," he said.
On Apple's plans for the iPhone, and for future products, Cook was - as Steve Jobs used to be before him - evasive. The smartphone market still had huge room for growth, he said: "When I zoom out and look at the smartphone market in particular, what I see is a market that is projected to double in the next few years. This is a huge market. On a longer-term basis, all phones will be smartphones and there's a lot more people in the world than 1.4 billion [the estimated current total number of smartphone users], and people love to upgrade their phones very regularly."
But he did acknowledge that the existing iPhone range is out of reach for almost all pay-as-you-go (prepay) customers. "We wouldn't do anything we wouldn't consider a great product," he said. "There are other companies that do that, and that's just not who we are. That said, if you look at what we've done to appeal to people who are more price-sensitive, we lowered the price for the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S - and in the December quarter [of 2012] we didn't have enough supply of [the] iPhone 4." He said Apple had been "surprised" by the level of demand for the latter in that period.
He then hinted that Apple might create a quite different product, saying: "We are making moves to make things more affordable. When we came out with the iPod, it was $399. Today you can buy an iPod shuffle [which has no screen and half the storage of the original iPod] for $49. Instead of saying 'how can we cheapen this iPod to get it lower', we said 'how can we do a great product', and we were able to do that. The same thing, but in a different concept in some ways."
Similarly in looking at building a sub-$1,000 iMac - as in 2008 when Apple was being urged to offer a notebook - "we concluded we couldn't do a great product, but we did do - we invented [the] iPad. Now all of a sudden we have an incredible experience and it starts at $329."
He suggested that people were getting too distracted by specifications rather than the user experience, pointing to how the PC industry had become obsesses with "the largest drive and fastest processor", and camera companies by megapixels, when "customers want that 'a-ha' moment, and that's rarely a function of any of those things."
He challenged people on the difference between specification and experience: "do you know the speed of an AX processor? You probably don't. You want a fantastic experience."
500 million in use
He said Apple now had 500 million iOS devices in use, of which 40% were sold last year. He also pointed to China as a source of huge growth - with Apple having gone from "a few hundred million in revenue in one year to $3bn in the next to $13bn the next - we're adding over $10bn every year."
The tablet market, he said, "will be huge, it will be a huge opportunity for Apple", and pointed to the company's sales of 23m tablets in the previous quarter - compared to the 15m PCs sold by HP, the world's biggest PC maker. "There has been a sea change. We're in the early innings of this game. The projection is that this is going to triple in four years - that's 375 million, more than the number of PCs being sold around the world. The tablet is attracting people who have never owned a PC, and people who have owned [PCs] but it wasn't great in the experience."
To the figures reported by analysts showing Apple's market share dipping below 50% in the fourth quarter, he retorted: "I have no idea what the market share is. We're the only company that really reports the units we sell." By comparison none of Samsung, Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other companies making tablets reports official quarterly shipment or sales figures.
Apple was still expanding its user base, with 50% of iPad buyers in China and Brazil buying their first Apple product - which was linked to future purchases of Apple products, he said.
He insisted that Apple's innovation was at its "strongest ever" and "in the DNA of the company" and that "the decisions we make are for Apple's long-term health. Not the short-term 90-day clock [of the financial quarter]."
He also pointed to Apple having skills in three key areas: software, hardware and services. "The model of the PC industry [where separate companies specialise in each of those three areas], that model's not working for what consumers want today. Consumers want an elegant experience where the technology flows to the background. The real magic happens at the intersection of these." He praised the skills of his "executive team table" of design chief Sir Jonathan Ive, hardware chief Bob Mansfield, supply chain chief Jeff Williams and others.
Asked whether Apple's culture militates against large acquisitions - which could be another use for the cash pile - Cook said that "we have looked at large companies. In each case, it didn't pass our test… we want to make great products. If a large company could help us, then that would be of interest." Instead, Apple buys companies for its "really smart" staff, or its intellectual property: "we've averaged about an acquisition every other month" for the past three years."
Transcript of the talk courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.
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