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Apples, issues and big bags of cash


Do you have a problem with Apple? Some people love to love Apple no matter what Apple does, and some people love to hate Apple no matter what it does. Despite a common supposition, I either fall between these extremes or vacillate between them.

Those who love it unreservedly just love what Apple makes. They don't care how it makes them. But I can't do this.

On the other hand, among the committed haters, there are those who fear their IT jobs are threatened by something so much more usable; there are those who want more device choice; those who like to tinker under the hood (Apple's locked systems don't allow it); and there are those who simply can't afford Apple devices and wish they could, turning this wishful state into scorn.

There are definitely things to dislike about Apple. Secrecy and protectiveness that verges on paranoia, combine to make them look really arrogant.

Not only that, but petty.

When Apple announced its forthcoming OS 10.8 Mountain Lion operating system, a number of media outlets had been provided with advance briefings and early copies of the software for the purposes of having reviews prepared and ready to go.

I don't get these advanced deals (more's the pity) but presumably for being on Apple's case about Foxconn and for sundry other such misdemeanours, I didn't even get the official press release this time. This may have just been an oversight - it's happened before.

Or so Apple says.

But hey, Apple, thousands of people read what I say about you down here. How do you want it to go down? And can't you appreciate I need to be true to myself?

When I edited a Mac magazine a few years ago, a NZ reseller who had been a journalist warned me 'They'll be all over you while their share of the market is low, but watch out when their sales go up: it'll be a different story.'

I didn't believe him.

This type of treatment has been noted by others.

But among the previous ranks of outsiders to what Apple represents can change - even long-term PC aficionados like Peter Griffin, who started his Listener column recently "Having just bought my first Mac computer ..."

This surprised me, as Peter has been distinctly on the other side of the fence for a very long time, at least in my eyes.

But what about those long term Apple fans who stuck with them through the lean times? Some of us are getting really disenchanted.

Note, there is another category I didn't mention above: Open Source. Its followers believe in digital freedom, and this goes with informational freedom and, indeed, human freedom. I met a guy in Holland last year (Hapée de Groot) who deploys Open Source solutions in the Third World that not only enable networking and communications but involves teaching skills to the recipients so they can extend, manage and develop their own systems. This changes their immediate lives but also gives them an entry point into the larger digital world community.

This is fantastic, and just one small example, which I heartily applaud.

But looking at Apple in this context while examining my own beliefs just made me feel ashamed.

Open Source is counter to almost everything Apple represents.

Steve Jobs didn't do charities. When he came back to Apple in the mid '90s, he closed the Apple foundation. Jobs reputedly put money into Democratic campaigns - but little else we know about.

And US Democrats are hardly a charity.
Oh, plus the RED campaign: Jobs promoted Apple's participation in the consumer-facing Product(RED) program aimed at AIDS education and research, which is great. Cook is said to have told employees that Apple had given over $50 million to that effort since the beginning of the partnership in 2006.

I have always been in two minds about this. I don't like that multi-millionaire business people have to bail out things any good society should have sorted out for its populace. Doesn't the model posit that you pay your taxes to the government to administer for the good of you and your compatriots?

But without charitable donations, let's face it - many good things simply would not be with us. And many CEOs are certainly not consistently spending money on much else worthwhile, with which I would list self-aggrandising political lobbying. So what they do direct to charities is welcome.

But Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook, may change things - at Apple, anyway. The CEO appears to be somewhere within the radius of the logic of spending money in worthwhile ways. He acknowledged that Apple has loads of cash at the company's annual shareholders' meeting. "Frankly speaking, it's more than we need to run the company."

Even I could work that out.

Marketwatch analyst Mark Hulbert even thinks Apple's huge cash hoard actually represents a danger. He reckons too much cash can burn holes in managers' pockets; they can end up doing a poor job of investing it.

Hulbert adds that a good strategy for ensuring that Apple remains a hungry, growth-oriented entrepreneurial company might be for it to distribute much of its cash to shareholders. (You can't help wondering if he is one of them.)

Read more here.
Cook's challenge is to figure out whether Apple should break from the cash-hoarding ways of his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs, and really start spending.

Apple has a staggering US$98 billion in the bank. Apple co-founder Jobs had steadfastly refused suggestions the company should restore its quarterly dividend which he suspended in 1995 when it was in such deep trouble that it needed to hold on to every cent. But it was never reinstated.

And Cook himself does believe in donations. Under his mandate, Apple donated $50 million to Stanford University hospitals. In an email to employees last September, Cook said the company would begin matching employee donations to nonprofits up to $10,000 annually.

Good one. Yay. And please put me back on the damned PR list. I still love your stuff.

- Mark Webster

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