Apple's $18.4 Billion Question

Some companies have all the cash. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , my entry for this year's Stock Madness competition and home to $18.4 billion in cash and investments as of Dec. 29, is no exception.

What will you do with all of that capital, Steve? Start another movie studio? Hollywood shouldn't have all the fun. Create an Apple-branded clothing line? I hear the Germans are in the market for black turtlenecks.

There is the $100 million iFund, which you and legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers created to help spur innovation for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. But is that really enough to juice growth, as investors expect? Apple is worth $123 billion in market value as I write this. Billion-dollar ideas are lightweight. You need someone working on the next $10 billion idea.

No doubt that's a daunting task. What if, in the interim, you bought some growth? Would that really be so bad? That's what the iFund is all about -- if indirectly and on a pretty small scale. It's also what your billionaire friend Larry Ellison does. Buying growth, he might say, is like funding research and development ... with benefits.

How to buy growth
And risks. Three come immediately to mind:

  1. Culture. You don't want to buy a company whose employees don't share the values of your own. To do so would be to invite productivity-killing chaos.
  2. Strategic fit. Not all growth is good growth, as the recent dismantling of many once-proud conglomerates proves. (Cendant, anyone?)
  3. Customer need. The customers you're acquiring have to know that you have the tools to serve them as well.

Are there companies that align with Apple on culture, strategic fit, and customer need? I think so. Here are my best three ideas.

Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  )
This fit looks natural at first. Both companies specialize in video. Both also have developed infrastructures for delivering video across the Web. But here's the problem: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is on the board of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) , and Mr. Softy will soon be streaming Watch Now video through the Xbox 360.

All of that is to say that Netflix and Microsoft want badly to beat Apple TV and iTunes, and they've got as good a shot as anyone else -- certainly as good as what TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO  ) and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) have created with their Unbox partnership.

But can you imagine the look on Steve Ballmer's face, were a deal to be made? It'd be better than this. Or at least just as good.

And for Apple? Buying Netflix would ruin Mr. Softy's chances of becoming a serious competitor in digital delivery and would greatly expand the list of titles available via iTunes -- titles that, right now, aren't being monetized. (Netflix's Watch Now is a free service.)

Akamai Technologies (Nasdaq: AKAM  )
This one, too, is obvious: Akamai is Apple's partner in that it provides the pipes through which iTunes downloads travel. The Mac's daddy was also an early investor in Akamai.

Trouble is, as with Netflix, Microsoft is also an Akamai partner -- a very big Akamai partner. MSNBC streams much of its content through the global Akamai network. And when Mr. Softy was distributing millions of beta versions of Vista, Akamai played the part of postman.

Even so, I suspect that there would be less of a fight over Akamai when it comes to Microsoft. For as much business as these two do, it's Limelight Networks that supports Xbox Live.

Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: JAVA  )
Finally, the oddball choice. Or is it? Years ago, the popular rumor was that Sun would bail out a then-ailing Apple, in figuring the two had a common enemy in Microsoft.

That's not as true as it once was. Yet these two companies still have common interests in hardware and software. Consider Solaris, which remains the most popular flavor of the Unix operating system for business deployments. Since Mac OS X is built on a Unix kernel, it's possible -- in theory, at least -- to run software designed for a Sun SPARC machine on a Mac, and vice versa.

And how about servers? Apple has a line called Xserve, but it's Sun that specializes in these network-powering devices. Having them is practically essential for selling to very large businesses. Sun has done so successfully for decades, all while maintaining a rebellious edge that's today personified in current CEO Jonathan Schwartz, whose blog is a model for corporate disclosure.

But those are only three ideas. Surely, many more exist. Have one or two in mind? Tell me. I'll write about the best reader entries next week.

Microsoft is an Inside Value pick. Amazon, Apple, and Netflix are Stock Advisor selections. Akamai is a Rule Breakers recommendation. Try any of these market-beating services free for 30 days. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool.com and Rule Breakers contributor Tim Beyers owned shares of Akamai at the time of publication. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy prefers answers to questions.


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