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A Challenge To Apple To "Think Different" About Spending Its $100 Billion Cash Stash

Apple should do more than just pay off stockholders with a dividend. It should take the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a corporation.

It's hard to imagine how big a billion is. Now try with $97.6 billion (call it an even $100 billion), the wad of cash Apple has squirreled away. One hundred billion one-dollar bills weigh about 200 million pounds (or 100,000 tons, give or take) and if you laid them end-to-end they'd circle the earth 40 times at its widest point, the equator. Layer one bill on top of the other and you could build a tower 6.8 miles (36,000 feet) into the air, high enough to obstruct air traffic. Convert Apple's cash stash into a giant stack of pennies and you could reach the moon. Twice. The company that sprouted modestly from Steve Jobs' garage on April Fool's Day 36 years ago has enough cash on hand to pay off the total public debt of eight European Union countries. It could buy Facebook outright, or spring for 33 billion Starbucks tall cappuccinos or 100 billion packs of Skittles.

That's just cash. Apple's market capitalization is, as I write this, $566 billion, bigger than the entire U.S. retail sector, and some predict Apple could become the first trillion-dollar company. It's already worth more than Ford, GM, Boeing, and General Electric combined, twice the size of Microsoft, and equal to two Walmarts, five Amazons, or 10 eBays. Its half-a-trillion-dollar market cap would place it 25th in the world in gross domestic product between Thailand + South Africa (not an exact comparison, but you get my drift). Meanwhile, Apple gets richer, reporting revenue of $46.33 billion and net profit of $13.06 billion in its last quarter. 

Do you want to sell entertainment devices for the rest of your collective lives? Or would you like to do something that takes real courage and make the world a better place?

So I was disappointed that Apple's big announcement earlier this week turned out to involve dividends to stockholders. The company had issued a press release on a Sunday, which gave the impression that CEO Tim Cook planned an earth-shattering announcement. Instead we hear news only a stockholder could love. What happened to the company that once lionized "the crazy ones," "the misfits," "the rebels," "the troublemakers," "the round pegs in the square holes," "the ones who see things differently," and "push the human race forward"? 

Now that Apple is the richest company in the world, it has an historic opportunity to redefine the role a corporation can play, and if Apple leads others will follow. When Steve Jobs recruited Pepsi president John Scully to jump to Apple, he asked, "Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Now that Jobs is gone, I'm throwing down a similar challenge to Tim Cook and Apple's board: "Do you want to sell entertainment devices for the rest of your collective lives? Or would like to do something that takes real courage and make the world a better place?" 

Here's how I propose Apple spend some of its billions and invest in the collective good: 

Education

About the iPad Apple boasts "the device that changed everything is now changing the classroom." If Apple is serious about changing education it should invest in the classroom of the future. The company could work with top educators to create a learning environment that would not only improve the efficiency of education, but would tap the imaginations of our nation's school children. In other words, do to education what the Apple Store has done to retail. 

Training

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, Jobs says he told President Obama that Apple could relocate more manufacturing plants from China to the U.S. if the company could hire an additional 30,000 American engineers. They would not have to be PhDs from MIT or Carnegie Mellon. They just needed basic engineering skills for manufacturing, which could be learned at community colleges or trade schools. Apple could—and should—fund programs across the country to train these engineers. It could provide grants to these trade schools and community colleges and offer free tuition as an incentive.  

Foreign Factories

Steve Jobs believed that Apple's success ultimate depended on controlling the entire ecosystem so that hardware and software worked seamlessly together. Yet this tightfisted control hasn't extended to its supply chain management. "We've known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they're still going on," a former Apple executive told The New York Times. "Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn't have another choice." Apple should apply the same ironfisted control it exerts over its design process to its working conditions overseas. This, admittedly, is a much taller order, as the factories are not owned and operated by Apple. There has been speculation lately that bringing production to the U.S. would not crush the company's bottom line, but the issue is complicated, as the Times has illuminated in a recent series.

Far-Out Fantasies

Nicholas Thompson, the editor of New Yorker.com, served up a suggestion over Twitter: "Personally, I wish Apple decided to use its cash on futuristic R&D—-like the old Xerox model." Apple could create the modern equivalent to Bell Labs and let great minds working in tandem conceive of even greater inventions, the kind that dazzle the mind and nourish the human spirit. Realize that "the minute that you understand that you can poke life ... that you can change it, you can mold it ... that's maybe the most important thing." 

Yep, that's Steve Jobs. Here's hoping Apple grows up to change the world beyond selling mere electronics, that it embraces a new kind of corporate heroism at a time when we could use some heroes. 

[Image: Flickr user Pierre Marcel, and Richard Thomas]

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.

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