Apple's cash hoard: Begging for a 'windfall tax'?

Company is making so much money right now that it will almost certainly lead to fear and loathing down the road.

It's almost a truism that while Microsoft struggles to do anything right (in the media's eyes), Apple can pretty much do no wrong.

This is as true of Apple's cash position, which BusinessWeek recently noted may soon surpass that of Microsoft's, as it is of Apple's product portfolio and business strategy.

It's the cash that I find particularly surprising. Apple is swimming in cash, more than $20 billion of it. The company adds more than $1 billion in cash to its stockpile each quarter. Today we give Apple a free pass on its iTunes/iPod lock-in, which delivers much of the Apple profits, because we can still happily apply such adjectives as "cool" and "innovative" to Apple.

The U.S. Congress is fixated on taxing the oil and gas companies for their "windfall profits" today, while Apple's profit margins as a percentage of sales are actually higher than Exxon's and those of the other bogeymen of Congress.

There was a time that we said similar things about Microsoft and happily bought into the lock-in that we'd eventually come to mistrust and seek to escape. Few are saying this now of Microsoft. And its cash hoard of roughly $23.7 billion has simultaneously become a cause for envy and concern: what will the convicted monopolist do with that pile of money? Can it possibly be in our interest?

I suspect that even ardent Apple fans like myself will someday be asking similar questions of Apple. As we buy our way deeper into the Apple ecosystem by adding various pieces of Apple hardware to our homes and offices, Apple will eventually accelerate our dependence on its technology by adding more software offerings (e.g., MobileMe) that make it easier for us to keep this sea of hardware connected and productive.

At that point, we'll start looking for a new savior and wonder when we allowed ourselves to become so dependent on Apple, just as we once asked of Microsoft. For the moment, I think the giddiness of having a real choice sends us from Microsoft to Apple, Google, and others.

It won't last. We're a fickle lot. I can't buy Apple's hardware fast enough today. I'm guessing I'll regret it tomorrow.

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