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What could Apple do with its cash in hand? Invest in the end of the digital hub

Michael Gartenberg – ’tis the season:

“At the moment, Apple has more cash on hand than IBM, HP, Intel and Google raising some interesting questions for what they might use it for.”

With some $15 billion in cash and short-term investments, Apple has never been in a better position financially. However, it’s hard to see why it would want to keep so much money around – while the interest it’s getting is no doubt pretty good, compared to the value of its own stock growth it’s pretty low.

So what are the options? The first would simply be a stock buy-back, allowing some of its investors to cash in while increasing the value of the remaining stock. But this would be perceived by the market as a pretty conservative move: it’s the kind of thing that a company does when it simply has no idea what to do with its money.

The second option, and one that Apple has followed in the past, is to make a series of relatively small buys of emerging technology companies in the range of up to $500 million. In the past, it’s bought companies outright or paid for key technologies, as it did with DVD authoring software from Astarte and Spruce. In fact, much of Apple’s software line has its origins in third-party programs bought outright – from iTunes, which has at its heart SoundJam MP, to Final Cut which originated with Macromedia.

But $15 billion would be a lot of money to bank just in case Apple needed to make a few multi-million dollar purchases. Apple could buy thirty $500 million companies – not small investments – and still have change for a few lattes.

Then there is the third option: A larger, multi-billion dollar investment, such as buying a bigger and more established company. However, it’s difficult to see who Apple might buy in this range. Most internet-related stocks are wildly overvalued – for example, Facebook’s putative $15 billion valuation, which seems more like fantasy money than tough, fiscal reality.

What about hardware companies? Could, for example, Apple snaffle up one of its competitors, like Dell? There is no conceivable reason that I can see to do this. Most modern PC makers have virtually nothing in the way of manufacturing capability, relying instead on the same third-party plants in the far east which make Apple’s own products. Where they differ is in design, fulfilment, and distribution – all areas where Apple has excelled in recent years.

That leaves one final option: infrastructure. Could Apple be about to make its biggest investment of all, and put the money into a US-wide wireless network which would allow it to bypass existing carriers, and create a new generation of iPhone-like communication devices? While the $5-10 billion price (plus massive capital costs to set up the network) is significant money, now might be the best time to make such an investment, for two reasons.

The first reason an Apple bid for the spectrum makes sense is a practical one: this may be the last time that a major piece of US spectrum is available, at least until one of the incumbent telcos goes bust. If Apple was at all interested, now would be its best opportunity.

However the second, deeper, reason is more strategic. Personal data communications is finally having its version of what George Gilder dubbed “The Negroponte Switch” (after Nicholas Negroponte), something which Negroponte later referred to in his book “Being Digital“. Thanks to higher data rates with 3G (and beyond) services, small devices no longer need to be tethered to a PC in order to access and update information. Amazon’s Kindle is a great example of this: with Kindle, you need never hook it up to a PC in order to get maximum use from it.

Compare this to Apple’s strategy with the iPhone, which, while perfectly usable on its own, functions best as an adjunct to a personal computer (and preferably, of course, a Mac). Apple has remained steadfast in its adherence to the “Digital Hub” plan which Steve Jobs outlined in 2001, despite the challenges of network-based computing services such as the ones launched by Google, in the shape of Google Docs, or Yahoo!’s Flickr.

However, the increasing power of mobile devices, coupled with high-speed mobile data connections, mean that the days of the computer as digital hub with small satellite devices frequently connected to it are going to be over soon. For example, it’s easy to conceive of an iPhone-like device which pulls its contacts direct from Plaxo, its calendar from Google Calendar, its music from iTunes Music Store and its photos from Flickr. You might want to link it to a PC to keep a localised backup in case of disaster, but using the PC as the main conduit to network-located information is wasteful when the phone itself has the same data rates to the net.

Owning its own data network would allow Apple to deliver a new generation of mobile data devices which bypassed the digital hub without being beholden to any other company. It could either bid on its own, or in tandem with an non-competing company which stands as much to gain as it does – Google is obvious example, although Yahoo! could be a dark-horse option.

Will Apple make this leap? The company isn’t stupid, and it must know that the digital hub strategy, which has served it well for six years, cannot serve as the centrepiece of its technology forever. The only question is whether it feels the need to become an owner of infrastructure, which depends on whether it consider current or future infrastructure owners as untrustworthy partners. Without being privy to the negotiations which the company has gone through its telco partners so far, that’s impossible to judge. But whatever happens, the next few months promise to be some of the most interesting in Apple history.

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