While lots of attention is directed toward identifying the next great start-up, the defining tech-industry story of the last decade has been the rise of Apple and Google. In terms of wealth creation, there is no comparison. Eight years ago, neither one of them was even in the top 10 most valuable companies in the world, and their combined market value was less than $300 billion. Now, Apple and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have become the two most valuable companies, with a combined market capitalization of over $1.3 trillion. And increasingly, these two behemoths are starting to collide in various markets, from smartphones to home-audio devices to, according to speculation, automobiles.
But the greatest collision between Apple and Google is little noticed. The companies have taken completely different approaches to their shareholders and to the future, one willing to accede to the demands of investors and the other keeping power in the hands of founders and executives. These rival approaches are about something much bigger than just two of the most important companies in the world; they embody two alternative models of capitalism, and the one that wins out will shape the future of the economy.
In the spring of 2012, Toni Sacconaghi, a respected equity-research analyst, released a report that contemplated a radical move for Apple. He, along with other analysts, had repeatedly been pushing Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, to consider returning some of Apple’s stockpile of cash, which approached $100 billion by the end of 2011, to shareholders. Cook, and Steve Jobs before him, had resisted similar calls so that the company could, in the words of Jobs, “keep their powder dry” and take advantage of “more strategic opportunities in the future.”
But there was another reason Apple wouldn’t so readily part with this cash: The majority of it was in Ireland because of the company’s fortuitous creation of Apple Operations International in Ireland in 1980. Since then, the vast majority of Apple’s non-U.S. profits had found their way to the country, and tapping into that cash would mean incurring significant U.S. taxes due upon repatriation to American soil. So Sacconaghi floated a bold idea: Apple should borrow the $100 billion in the U.S., and then pay it out to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks. The unusual nature of the proposal attracted attention among financiers and served Sacconaghi’s presumed purpose, ratcheting up the pressure on Cook. A week later, Apple relented and announced plans to begin releasing cash via dividends.
The results of Sacconaghi’s report were not lost on Silicon Valley, and Google responded three weeks later. At the time, the share structure that the company put in place when it went public in 2004 was becoming fragile. This original arrangement allowed Google’s founders to maintain voting control over the company, even as their share of ownership shrunk as more shares were issued. The explicit premise was that this structure would “protect Google from outside pressures and the temptation to sacrifice future opportunities to meet short-term demands.”