Image: Tim Cook

“Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

That’s what that the late Steve Jobs said to President Obama during a dinner with other CEOs and influential businessmen. Obama had asked what it would take for Apple to build the iPhone in the United States and, with typical bluntness, Jobs quickly put the notion out to pasture.

Now, a year after assuming the CEO role at Apple, Tim Cook is singing a different tune. In interviews with Bloomberg Businessweek and NBC’s Brian Williams, Cook has said that some Apple products will be manufactured and assembled in the US.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time, and we were getting closer to it. It will happen in 2013,” Cook said. “We’re really proud of it. We could have quickly maybe done just assembly, but it’s broader because we wanted to do something more substantial.” So the company is investing “over $100 million” to build and assemble a line of Mac products in the US.

Cook didn’t specify which line of Macs he was referring to – the company sells MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, iMac, and the oft-neglected Mac Pro lines. But the “Assembled in the USA” stamp on some iMacs may offer a clue.

Lest we start chanting “USA! USA!” and doing the “we’re going to manufacture something!” shuffle in the streets, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The first is that the iMac is one of Apple’s slowest-selling products. During Q4 2012, Apple sold 4.9 million Macs; by contrast, it sold 14 million iPads and 27 million iPhones. It even sold 5.3 million iPods. Apple also sells about three laptops for every one desktop computer. So, the iMac a small part of Apple’s business.

Cook readily admits this. “Eighty percent of our revenues are from products that didn’t exist 60 days ago,” he told the magazine.

Cook also included an important caveat in his announcement. “This doesn’t mean that Apple will do it ourselves, but we’ll be working with people, and we’ll be investing our money,” he said.

He went on to emphasize what Apple has done with and for developers (though some of them may not be happy either) and educators via the App Store and iBooks Author. Then he said: “I’ve never thought a company’s measurement of job creation should be limited to the number of employees working directly for them. That’s a very old-time way of measuring.”

Cook cites a third-party “estimate” of 600,000 US-based jobs created by Apple, but that number includes Apple’s on-campus R&D workers, executives, retail employees, and, perhaps disingenuously, developers who build on top of Apple’s platforms for a living.

So, yes, Apple is creating jobs, and building a device in the US will – rightly – be seen as a step in the right direction. But this isn’t a reversal of Jobs’ proclamation so much as a testing of the waters.

“Made in the USA” will be stamped on an Apple product, and that’s great. But it will only be stamped on some of the company’s lowest-selling products, and by a third-party manufacturer.

So, for now, hold the fireworks.