Remember When Apple Was Going to Change the World?

Apple recently announced quarterly earnings that have not only eclipsed those of the company in prior quarters, but have exceeded the highest quarterly earnings of any company, ever, anywhere.

This is great for Apple, and is very good for Apple users. Some of us have been using Apple computers for decades, and remember when the company was on the ropes. “Beleaguered Apple” used to be a common expression; now we’re seeing “beleaguered Microsoft” instead. Apple has made a brilliant turnaround.

In Apple’s press release, CEO Tim Cook is quoted as saying:

“We’d like to thank our customers for an incredible quarter, which saw demand for Apple products soar to an all-time high,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “Our revenue grew 30 percent over last year to $74.6 billion, and the execution by our teams to achieve these results was simply phenomenal.”

At the same time, Apple is sitting on $178 billion, much of it sequestered in offshore tax-shielded trusts.

With all this money, Apple could do something better than develop a new iPhone. I’m reminded of the famous question that Steve Jobs asked Pepsi CEO John Sculley in the 1980s, in order to convince Sculley to join the company:

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

What happened to Apple’s desire to change the world? What has turned Apple into a company that seems to share Walter White’s goals:

“Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.”

There was a time when people cringed and complained about the obscene profits of oil companies; after all, they sell a product that we need, unlike Apple, which sells products that we want. So large profits for oil companies are seen as money that they don’t deserve, that is extorted from drivers and home-owners.

Apple is still seen as this bright, shiny brand, with useful products; which it is. Yet, who can look at these numbers and not think that the company could do fine, perhaps even better, with lower prices, allowing users to have more money to spend; that they’ve become the Microsoft of hardware with nearly abusive profit margins.

Apple could change the world with the money they have. Instead of pushing out yet another buggy operating system with features that don’t work reliably, they could commit some of their heaps of money to something useful.

They could start by ensuring that the people who build their products earn more and work in better conditions. Yes, Apple is not the only company who uses Chinese sub-contractors to build their stuff, but they’re the only company making such huge profits off the backs of these employees.

Or how about paying taxes? Apple has hoards of money stashed overseas, where it is out of reach to the IRS. If the company repatriated that money, they would pay corporate income tax on it, which would be a big help to the US Government, the same government whose policies, laws and infrastructures have enabled Apple to make all this money.

Maybe they could devote their resources and talent to trying to find a solution to global warming, eradicating communicable diseases, fostering equality in the world, bringing people out of poverty. This is all wishful thinking; there’s no reason for publicly owned corporation to do any of these things; even Bill Gates waited until he left Microsoft to give away most of his fortune through a foundation.

Whatever Apple does, I think it’s time they do something. If they don’t need this money, and have no plans for it, they should give it back to their shareholders, and not with the tiny $.47 per share dividend that the company is distributing next month.

Apple once wanted to change the world. The company now has enough money to effectuate real change; will they remember what Steve Jobs said some thirty years ago? Or will they just keep selling phones?