Last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs hinted that a big acquisition is in the works—that is, Apple might tap into its $50 billion war chest. I've been trying to wrap my mind around $50 billion ever since.
Sure, I can make obscure comparisons, such as Apple's money beats out the gross domestic product of North Korea, which is around $40 billion. Or I can write about what $50 billion would do for my self-esteem. But none of that sounds like much fun.
So I'm taking a fantasy-meets-reality spin on what $50 billion will get Apple.
Let's start with former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. She has spent $140 million of her own money in her quest to become California governor, yet continues to free fall in recent polls. Silicon Valley companies have donated to the Whitman cause.
Apple could pay California's 23.5 million registered voters $2,000 each to cast their ballet for Whitman. (This is more of a "wrapping my mind around $50 billion" argument.) Without getting all sidetracked with regulations that forbid such donations, I'm sure it would do the trick considering California has one of the highest unemployment rates in the union.
Which brings me to my second idea for Apple. Maybe Apple could give all $50 billion to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Seems like everyone is doing it, and Jobs will probably put his personal fortune into some good cause later in life. Alas, Apple's money won't be used to benefit humanity or bring peace to the world. Where's the shareholder value in that?
Chances are Apple will just blow it on some silly acquisition like Adobe, Facebook, Sony, or even Disney.
Whenever talk about an Apple acquisition arises, Adobe is first on the hit list. That's because both companies court the same creative types. Adobe also jilted Apple when Apple was down and out a few years ago, and so Apple buying Adobe and then taking it apart piece by piece (read: throwing Flash into the dumpster) would be payback on a Shakespearean scale.
But tech companies don't just buy software in an acquisition—they really want the people that built those products. And I doubt many of Adobe's top talent care much about working for Apple after Jobs called them lazy software coders.
The more intriguing acquisition target is Facebook. Jobs is probably kicking himself for not thinking up social networking. He fancies himself a cultural revolutionist wielding technology, and that's exactly what Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have become for this next generation.
Jobs and Zuckerberg had been spotted enjoying a stroll in an obscure park near Palo Alto shortly before Jobs suggested a major acquisition may be in the works. This bit of news, reported by the Los Angeles Times, set off a whirlwind of speculation that Facebook was the target.
And then there's Sony. Most recently, a Barron's column was making "wild guesses" about Apple acquisition targets (pretty much what I'm doing now) that included Sony. This sent Sony shares shooting upward. The entire episode reminds me of Jim Cramer of Mad Money explaining how to game stocks with Apple rumors.
Sony, though, is a bad bet. The choice between Facebook and Sony is, well, like picking between an iPod and a Walkman. Going backward is never a good idea in the tech game, except for maybe backward compatibility.
Perhaps the most interesting acquisition target that borders on fantasy and reality is Disney. People have formed all sorts of reasons why Disney would be a great pick up for Apple. Jobs already sits on Disney's board, and a media play would really complement Apple's offerings. There's no doubt Jobs loves Disney's creative energy.