Apple Inc. is in very active discussions at the board level about what to do with its cash, Chief Executive Tim Cook said on Tuesday, responding to calls for the world’s most valuable electronics company to put its massive reserves to work.
Mr. Cook, in a rare appearance before investors, also talked about a “jaw-dropping” opportunity in smartphones. He said the iPad tablet trajectory was “off the charts,” adding that he foresaw tablets surpassing personal computers in unit sales eventually – eroding Microsoft Corp’s Windows dominance.
He acknowledged that online retailer Amazon.com Inc was an intense competitor with its Kindle Fire tablet.
Apple became the world’s largest smartphone vendor in the fourth quarter of 2011, in which sales of all smartphones hit 149 million units – 47.3 per cent higher than the same quarter a year ago, even though the rate of sales growth dropped to 39 per cent, down from 58 per cent in 2011.
According to research firm Gartner, Apple saw its iPhone sales more than double in the last quarter when it took a 24 per cent share of the smartphone market, helped by a 15-month period before the 4S model was launched, which created a lot of pent-up demand.
Gartner said Apple’s strong performance will continue into the first quarter of 2012 as availability of the iPhone 4S widens, but without the benefit from delayed purchases sales would decline from the previous quarter.
Apple’s shares rose to close at $509.46 on the Nasdaq, setting a record high on hopes of strong iPhone 4S demand and investor optimism over the potential launch of a new iPad in 2012.
Investors are increasingly calling on Apple to return some of its $98-billion war chest to shareholders through dividends or share buybacks – even if it is only a one-time deal.
On Tuesday, Mr. Cook, who took over from Silicon Valley icon Steve Jobs last August, urged investors at a Goldman Sachs technology conference to be patient about the cash reserves.
“I only ask for a little bit of patience, so we do this deliberately and in the best interest of shareholders,” Mr. Cook said.
He joked that Apple will not be holding any toga parties with the money.
“It is not new that we are discussing it. It is being discussed more and in more detail.”
Mr. Cook stoked speculation that Apple may be getting serious about television, but cautioned investors the market potential is small compared with tablets and smartphones.
The company currently sells an Apple TV set top box player, a device it calls a hobby.
“Apple doesn’t do hobbies as a general rule,” he said. “With Apple TV, despite the barriers in that market, for those of us who use it, we’ve always thought there was something there, and if we kept following our intuition and kept pulling that string, we might find something larger.”
He declined to say whether Apple is planning a major push into television.
Addressing persistent criticism that Apple’s partners may mistreat their workers, Mr. Cook stressed that the iPhone and iPad maker takes labour conditions in its globe-spanning supply chain seriously.
Apple said on Monday the U.S. non-profit labor group Fair Labor Association has begun an “unprecedented” inspection of working conditions at its main contract manufacturers, including Foxconn’s plants in southern China, as the maker of the iPhone continues to grapple with persistent image problems there.
Mr. Cook, who took over after Mr. Jobs became too sick to continue as CEO, said he has continued the co-founder’s policy of focussing on only a few products.
“I am not going to witness or permit the slow undoing of Apple because I believe in it deeply,” he said.
He added that seeing people use iPhones or iPads at coffee shops brings a smile to his face.