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Think different: Apple's $17B debt offers stark contrast to 1996's junk bonds

Gregg Keizer | May 3, 2013
Apple's record-setting $17 billion bond offer this week stood in stark contrast to the company's darkest days, when in 1996 its millions in notes were rated as junk because investors wondered if the company would survive a thrashing by Microsoft

But then, Apple was in a very tight corner in 1996, the year before the board of directors ousted CEO Gil Amelio and named co-founder Steve Jobs as interim chief executive.

"They were a mess," said Ezra Gottheil, analyst with Technology Business Research, citing declining sales, product chaos and a near-death experience for the company in the mid-1990s.

By all accounts, Apple was close to dissolution, with rumors flying of its breakup, to be parceled out to bidders, or its wholesale acquisition by any number of buyers, including Sun Microsystems, at the time a major player in workstations and servers that was poised to reap massive rewards from the emerging Internet. In a Jan. 31, 1996 story by the New York Times, for example, an Apple stock slide was attributed to news that acquisition talks between Sun and Apple had stalled.

Those talks, of course, never resulted in Sun -- which was itself acquired by Oracle in 2010 -- buying Apple.

Apple weathered 1996 on the back of a reorganization started by Amelio's predecessor, Michael Spindler, but intensified by Amelio, that ultimately eliminated a third of the company's workforce. In his year-and-a-half in Apple's top office, Amelio also began paring its inflated product line, killed the problem-plagued Copeland -- the internal effort to come up with the Mac's future OS -- and near the end of the year, offered $429 million for NeXT, Jobs' company.

By mid-year 1997, Jobs had talked the board into booting Amelio, and four years later, Apple shipped the first version of Mac OS X, which was based on the NeXTSTEP operating system acquired in the NeXT purchase.

The turnaround in Apple's fortunes was exemplified, if not caused, by the appearance of arch-rival Bill Gates, then the CEO of Microsoft, via satellite at the August 1997 Macworld Expo conference, less than two months after Jobs' coup.

That moment was the culmination of a deal Microsoft and Apple negotiated under which Microsoft purchased $150 million in Apple stock -- promising not to sell it for three years -- signed a five-year patent cross-licensing agreement, and settled lingering issues from 1988 litigation where Apple accused Microsoft of stealing its GUI to create Windows. Another part of the package committed Microsoft to ship a Mac version of its Office suite, which it continues to sell today, as well as a Mac edition of Internet Explorer, which no longer exists.

"We have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose," said Jobs, who minus his later turtleneck trademark, gave what he called a status update on the health of Apple, and as part of that Macworld presentation, introduced Gates to attendees, who both applauded and booed at the sight of the Microsoft co-founder.


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