UPDATED: Apple Deposes Microsoft to Become World’s Biggest Tech Company

Apple has at least brief briefly become the world’s largest tech company in terms of market cap.  That spot has been held for over a decade by Microsoft, makers of the Windows operating system.

In trading Monday, Apple Inc.’s shares slipped $1.11 to close at $244.11, making its market cap about $222 billion.  Microsoft’s shares dipped even more, falling to $1.06, or 4.1 percent, to close at $25.01, for market cap of about $219 billion.  Market cap is the dollar value of a company’s outstanding shares, and is commonly used to compare companies in terms of size.

While yesterday’s figures may not indicate that Apple has truly passed Microsoft to become the world’s largest tech firm, they do indicate that it is on the verge of doing so.  And that revelation alone is somewhat amazing, considering the veteran brand was on the verge of bankruptcy when Steven P. Jobs returned to the company in 1997 to serve as CEO.

Apple has long thrived on a rebel-outsider image, but when it comes to business it has long shown itself to be as cold and calculating as Microsoft, if not a bit more ruthless.  Under Jobs guidance, Apple released several tremendously successful flagship products — the iPod, the iTunes Music Store, the iTunes App Store, the iPhone, and the iPad.  All of these products, with the exception of the iPhone, have gained a dominant position in the market.

Many companies could never dream of having a monopoly in one market, let alone four, but that is what Apple has achieved through a mix of brilliance and ruthlessness.  

Make no mistake, Apple is not the tech world outsider; rather it’s an elitist of the highest order.  A major part of Apple’s climb has been its large profit margins.  While Microsoft makes a small profit on each copy of Windows sold, Apple often pockets from $50 to $500 (at least) per iDevice sold.  No tech company has been able to convince customers to swallow massive profit margins quite like Apple.

A major reason why Apple has been able to do so boils down to two factors.  The first is psychological — brand image.   Even as the elderly Apple was beginning to become one of the world’s most powerful companies, it portrayed itself as the cool young rebel firm in ads such as the “Get a Mac” series that ran from 2006 to 2009.  In doing so, it won over a lot of young customers who are less concerned with price than getting what is considered the “cool” product at any given time.

A second key factor is packaging.  While Apple products have held no key advantage over competitors, and often lack features their competitors had (for example, iPods long had no FM tuner — until very recently), they had unparalleled packaging.  The ability to pack hardware into a slick slender package has led to overheating issues at times, but it was undeniably one of the two factors that made Apple’s sales even hotter.

Apple will likely reign at the top for some time thank to its dominant position in several markets.  However, threats to its empire loom.  Android is beating up on the iPhone in U.S. market share and recently passed it in sales.  Apple’s decision to stick with just one U.S. carrier and one phone model threatens to cause it to fall quickly into Google’s rear view mirror, much as PC sales left Macs behind in the 90s.

And its growing size has prompted increased scrutiny from antitrust regulators in the EU and U.S.  While Apple has yet to be formerly investigated for any wrongdoing, there are at least four antitrust inquiries into Apple in the U.S. (inquiries are the precursor to a full-fledged investigation).

Also, there’s the problem of Apple’s thirst for control.  Apple has long insisted that it knows what its customers want better than they do.  Apple’s recent decisions with the iPhone and iPad — such as banning Flash — have upset both developers and consumers alike.

Finally, there’s the problem of Apple’s polarizing, yet brilliant CEO Steve Jobs.  Some analysts believe that Apple will survive and thrive after Jobs, but that’s much more questionable than say in the case of Microsoft and Bill Gates.  Perhaps no company in modern history has been more driven by one man than Apple.  Jobs’ focus and demand for absolute obedience borders on tyranny and has driven many engineers away; yet at the same time, it has allowed his company to launch products like the iPad that critics said would never happen.

Without Jobs, Apple seems unlikely to be able to grow its business the same way.  And without truly new products Apple will still remain powerful — but it won’t expand as fast. 

For now Apple can enjoy the news of its achievement, though.  Its future may be uncertain, but in the present it’s making a whole lot of money.

Updated: May 27, 2010 11:15 a.m.

Some commenters raised some excellent points about the nature of this victory for Apple, which were worth appending here.  First, as some point out, market cap is only one indication of size.  A better indicator perhaps is net operating income, which is a measure of a firm’s profitability that excludes interest and income tax expenses.  Microsoft currently has almost twice ($20.363B USD) the net operating income of Apple ($11.74B USD). 

IBM also has more operating income.  IBM ($17.012B USD) also has more operating income the Apple.  Google ($8.312B USD) and HP ($10.136B USD) both come close to Apple’s operating income as well.

However, the picture is slightly more complex than that.  As mentioned, Apple holds virtual monopolies in four key markets.  HP arguably does not hold enough marketshare to constitute a monopoly, despite making massive earnings in the PC sector.  Google (internet search, internet advertising) and IBM (servers, supercomputing) both do hold virtual monopolies in a couple of critical sectors.  And Microsoft obviously holds numerous effective monopolies (operating system, browser software, office software).

Ultimately, it’s highly subjective and open to debate to say any of these companies is “the biggest”.

Also, it should be noted that today Microsoft’s stock significantly rebounded and its market cap is now at $230.25B USD versus Apple’s $227.94B USD.  Thus Apple’s reign as the biggest market cap tech company in the world was as brief as we guessed.  However, it’s unlikely to be the last time we see Apple in this position.

Those comments aside, it is important to recognize Apple’s transformation from a failing firm into a superpower.  This event — if merely a market blip — provided the perfect opportunity to do so.

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