Is Apple really the most valuable company ever?

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Go to any tech aggregator right now and you’ll see headlines loudly proclaiming Apple to be the most valuable publicly traded company ever.

The Cupertino-based giant’s stock today reached US$660.73, giving it a market capitalisation US$619.37-billion. That means it slunk past the US$618.89-billion capitalisation Microsoft hit in 1999, which many believe to be the previous record. That makes it the most valuable publicly listed company in history. Except it doesn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a compelling story. A once embattled personal computer maker turned global tech superpower, it sounds like something only Hollywood could dream up. The fact that it overtook arch-rival Microsoft to get there only makes the victory seem that much sweeter.

Here’s the thing though, Microsoft hit the milestone in 1999 when US$600 odd billion was worth a lot more than it is now.

As The Next Web, and others rightly point out no one’s taking inflation into account.

Update: Speaking of taking inflation into account, the Columbia Journalism Review took the numbers a further step back. It reckons that Apple’s original enemy number one IBM peaked at US$1.3-trillion in 1967, giving it the record by a long way.

In today’s money, Microsoft’s 1999 valuation is actually worth US$850-billion. Then again, the Redmond-based giant’s market cap today is only around US$257-billion. Yes we’re still dealing with massive numbers, but it effectively means that the company has lost three-quarters of it market cap over the last 13 years.

The contrast with Apple couldn’t be deeper. That said, Microsoft is doing exciting things again, not least of all in the tablet space.

Of course, stopping Apple seems like an impossible task right now, but Microsoft had a role in that much-vaunted resurgence. That means that it knows better than most just how far Apple’s come in the last decade and half.

While Microsoft is starting to get into the hardware business, it’ll be a long time before it can hope to compete with the 300-million people who’ve walked through Apple’s retail stores so far this year.

Apple’s stock price has been buoyed by rumours of an iPad Mini and new Apple TV being in the works. The biggest frenzy of all though is reserved for the upcoming iPhone 5.

If Apple wants to honestly beat Microsoft’s stock price then it best deliver on what is probably the holiest of devices to its devotees.

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