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