Apple‘s Tim Cook faced the billion-dollar question right off the bat at the annual AllThingsD tech conference Tuesday night: “Is Apple in trouble?” The CEO threw out a few calculated bones: the unveiling of a new iOS and OS X refresh in June at its WWDC conference, the hire of ex-EPA head Lisa Jackson as the company’s new environmental czar. But, as he did last year, Cook again skirted the toughest topics in his second visit to the AllThingsD tech conference leaving Applewatchers frustrated. “We believe very much in the element of surprise,” he said. “We think customers love surprises.” (UPDATE: Check out the full conversation below.)

If shareholders are concerned over Apple’s dipping stock prices — down 36% since September — Cook appeared unfazed. “The beauty of being around for a while is you see a lot of cycles,” he said. “Our North Star is always on making the best products. So we always come back to that.” But for all the emphasis on quality of usage, e-commerce and customer satisfaction over the number of units sold in the smartphone arena, Cook didn’t offer new-product reveals or the kind of game-changers Apple needs to maintain the pace set by the late Steve Jobs. (He did reveal that Apple bought 9 companies in the past year but didn’t announce them all.) Pressed on why Apple doesn’t expand its iPhone line with larger screens, stylus tablets, or cheaper alternative models like its competitors do, Cook blamed the trade-offs involved in crafting variants in a line versus improving the same model. “Are we now at a point that we need to do that?” he asked.

Cook was vague on future product and Apple’s plans for television, but he applauded the 13 million Apple TVs sold to date, half of that in the past year. TV “continues to be an area of great interest”, he said. “It’s not an experience that has been brought up to this decade.” He’s also intrigued about the future of wearable product. He declined to go into detail but slammed the limited appeal of Google Glass and called wearables “profoundly interesting”, if not necessarily in youth-unfriendly watch or glasses form. “The whole sensor field is going to explode,” he said. “It’s a little all over the place right now. With the arc of time, it will become clearer.”

For all he wouldn’t say about product, Cook spilled on the sticky taxation controversy that landed him in front of the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last week. Apple paid $6B in taxes, he said — “more taxes than anybody”. And whether or not it costs the company more, Cook wants to spearhead tax reform and repatriate profits to the US: “For multinationals, the right approach would be simplicity. Just gut the code. It’s 75 pages long, nobody can read it and make sense of it. Apple’s tax return is two feet high.”

(Photo: AllThingsD)

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