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There are a lot of different words that are used to describe Steve Jobs' approach to running Apple (some more pleasant than others). I think we can all agree that "conventional" isn't one of them. Based on Jobs' comments last week, it's safe to say that this disregard for convention extends to financial matters. But in this case, Jobs' originality might be less a sign of his distinct brand of genius than a strong paranoid streak.
As Matt Koppenheffer noted on Friday, Jobs recently shot down the idea that Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) would return to shareholders any part of the massive cash hoard it's amassed from the booming sales of its shiny gadgets. The high priest of the Church of Apple justified his stance by arguing that the company's cash and investments, which now total more than $40 billion (larger than Guatemala's GDP, for those wondering), gives his company "security and flexibility" when it comes to making future moves.
A reluctance to make big moves
However, even a quick look at Apple's acquisition history makes it clear that this isn't a company with a habit of doing high-profile deals that take a huge bite out of its balance sheet. In fact, the company's largest moves in recent years have been its $268 million acquisition of chip company PA Semi in 2008, and its $275 million buyout of mobile advertising firm Quattro Wireless this January.
This reluctance to make splashy, expensive acquisitions seems to be a direct result of Apple's unique business philosophy. As its supporters will vouch, the company is fanatically obsessed with quality control, and on adhering to its own particular vision of what a piece of hardware or software bearing the Apple logo should look like. Unlike, say, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , which is often content to let an acquired company function as a relatively independent unit, Apple's obsessions would drive the company to completely rework the product line of any big-name tech company that it acquires, so that its products fully conform to its vision.
So while Apple's cash pile might theoretically give the company the "flexibility" to snap up a Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) or TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO ) , the likelihood of such a move seems pretty remote. Based on Apple's historical way of looking at things, the product-integration headaches would be too big, and the risk for damage to its stellar brand too great. Smaller moves aimed at picking up useful technology and/or rounding out the feature sets of its platforms have been far more to the company's liking.
Is Hollywood a target?
The one area where I could see Apple truly opening up its purse strings a bit is in deals with media companies. Given its squabbles with Hollywood studios regarding the availability and pricing of iTunes content, the company might decide to use some of its billions to make "strategic investments" in the likes of Disney (NYSE: DIS ) and Viacom, or maybe gaming giant Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS ) , with the goal of guaranteeing the long-term success of iTunes (and indirectly, Apple's consumer electronics hardware). But if the history of such moves is any guide (Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) investments in Comcast and AT&T are good examples), the total cost of the deals are unlikely to come anywhere near $40 billion -- never mind the $60 billion or $70 billion that Apple might soon have on its hands, given its tremendous cash-generating ability.
Steve Jobs likes to be in control, whether over the minute details of his company's products, or the enormous sums of money these products have created for his company. In the former area, this need for control has mostly worked to his shareholders' benefit. But I'm not so sure that's true in the latter.