The common advice would be to acquire some hot property like Twitter, Pandora, or Hulu. Doing so would satisfy Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for greedy growth, but wouldn’t be all that strategic.
Another idea would be for Apple to invest in itself. A post over on Business Insider highlights this using a thread on Quora.
It started with this question, “What would make sense for Apple to use its $51+ billion in cash for a strategic acquisition?”
The two most interesting answers present inspired analysis of the company.
One has a list of Apple acquisitions since 1997 and points out that all have been small, with most in the $10-20 million range. The biggest on record was over a decade ago with the “purchase of NeXT that brought Steve Jobs back to Apple”.
1997 Next (programming services). Value: $404 million
1997 Power Computing (cloned computers). $100 million
1999 Xemplar Education (software). $5 million
1999 Raycer Graphics (graphic chips). $15 million
2000 NetSelector (Internet software). Value: NA
2001 Astarte (DVD authoring software). Value: NA
2001 bluebuzz (Internet service provider). Value: NA
2001 Source Technologies (graphics software). Value: NA
2001 PowerSchool (online info systems services). $62 million
2002 Nothing Real (special effects software). $15 million
2002 Zayante (software). $13 million
2002 Silicon Grail Corp-Chalice (digital effects software). Value: NA
2002 Emagic (music production software). $30 million
2002 Propel Software (software). Value: NA
2005 Fingerworks (gesture recognition). Value: NA
2006 Silicon Color (software). Value: NA
2006 Proximity (software). Value: NA
2008 P.A. Semi (semiconductors). $268 million
2009 Placebase (maps). Value: NA
2009 Lala (music streaming). $17 million
2010 Quattro (mobile advertising). $275 million
2010 Intrinsity (semiconductors). $121 million
2010 Siri (software). Value: NA
2010 Poly9 (Web-based mapping). Value: NA
The second, even more insightful, points out that the majority of Apple’s cash is used for strategic capital investment. They find a new technology they want in on and buy the factory, patent, or supply chain and then secure exclusive contracts for them.
Even writing in first-purchase clauses, where they get exclusive production discounts by fronting some start-up costs for the new factories.
Read the full answer for more details on how this world-class supply chain operates:
Apple actually uses its cash hoard in a very interesting way to maintain a decisive advantage over its rivals:
When new component technologies (touchscreens, chips, LED displays) first come out, they are very expensive to produce, and building a factory that can produce them in mass quantities is even more expensive. Oftentimes, the upfront capital expenditure can be so huge and the margins are small enough (and shrink over time as the component is rapidly commoditized) that the companies who would build these factories cannot raise sufficient investment capital to cover the costs.
What Apple does is use its cash hoard to pay for the construction cost (or a significant fraction of it) of the factory in exchange for exclusive rights to the output production of the factory for a set period of time (maybe 6 – 36 months), and then for a discounted rate afterwards. This yields two advantages:
- Apple has access to new component technology months or years before its rivals. This allows it to release groundbreaking products that are actuallyimpossible to duplicate. Remember how for up to a year or so after the introduction of the iPhone, none of the would-be iPhone clones could even get a capacitive touchscreen to work as well as the iPhone’s? It wasn’t just the software – Apple simply has access to new components earlier, before anyone else in the world can gain access to it in mass quantities to make a consumer device. One extraordinary example of this is the aluminum machining technology used to make Apple’s laptops – this remains a trade secret that Apple continues to have exclusive access to and allows them to make laptops with (for now) unsurpassed strength and lightness.
- Eventually its competitors catch up in component production technology, but by then Apple has their arrangement in place whereby it can source those parts at a lower cost due to the discounted rate they have negotiated with the (now) most-experienced and skilled provider of those parts – who has probably also brought his production costs down too. This discount is also potentiallysubsidized by its competitors buying those same parts from that provider – the part is now commoditized so the factory is allowed to produce them for all buyers, but Apple gets special pricing.
Apple is not just crushing its rivals through superiority in design, Steve Jobs’s deep experience in hardware mass production (early Apple, NeXT) has been brought to bear in creating an unrivaled exclusive supply chain of advanced technology literally years ahead of anyone else on the planet. If it feels like new Apple products appear futuristic, it is because Apple really is sending back technology from the future.
Once those technologies (or more accurately, their mass production techniques) become sufficiently commoditized, Apple is then able to compete effectively on cost and undercut rivals. It’s a myth that Apple only makes premium products – it makes them all right, but that is because they are literally more advanced than anything else (i.e. the price premium is not just for design), and once the product line is no longer premium, they are produced more cheaply than competitor equivalents, yielding higher margins, more cash, which results in more ability to continue the cycle.
Here is one of those famous Apple production videos which highlights the aluminium machining technology.