March 19, 2012 -- Apple's announcement today that it will begin paying shareholders billions of dollars in dividends represents the i-giant's first major break with the direction set by its visionary co-founder and chief executive, Steve Jobs.
It is inconceivable the company would have taken such an action if Jobs were still alive today, most Wall Street analysts and long-time Apple-watchers said.
"No, this would not have happened," said Bill Simon, co-author of a 2005 biography of Jobs, "iCon: Steve Jobs, The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business." "Obviously the company could have afforded to do this years ago, but it didn't."
In a report to investors last month, the firm Helix Investment Management noted how "Jobs essentially shut down any discussion of capital allocation before it began."
"His experiences in 1997, with Apple approaching bankruptcy, placed him into that mindset," the report added.
"Under his watch, Apple would keep every penny it earned, investing in the business and occasionally acquiring a company here and there. To him, Apple shareholders were, at best, a necessary evil he had to deal with as a CEO of a major public company."
One high-profile exception: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He said Apple has accumulated so much cash -- nearly $100 billion -- it's possible that even Jobs might have agreed to the dividend policy.
"It's kind of like maybe there is a level (of cash) you get beyond, where maybe this is the right approach, even for Steven (but) when it was $40 billion, maybe it was better to keep the money, as some sort of safety factor," he said.
Wozniak, who these days says he's only a shareholder with no inside information about the company's operations, said he personally had no objections to today's decision, but added that he would have supported Apple's board even if it had decided to keep on accumulating all its cash.
"It's like a savings account for all of the investors if it's not distributed," he told ABC News.
Apple had issued quarterly dividends for eight years -- but Jobs halted them when he returned as Apple's CEO in 1996 to engineer what would become a breathtaking turnaround.
As Apple's fortunes soared, pressure began building on the company to reward investors. Eighteen months ago, an influential Wall Street analyst, Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research, wrote an "open letter" to Jobs and Apple's board of directors, pleading for the company to share the wealth.
"In our conversations with shareholders, one common source of frustration -- which is now bordering on exasperation -- has been Apple's burgeoning cash balance and the company's unwillingness to return it to shareholders or discuss its vision for how the company plans to use it," he wrote.
At the time, Apple's stock had climbed 487 percent in five years. It continued to rise, more than doubling since then.
Still, Jobs would hear none of it.
But in the months after Jobs' death in October, the new CEO, Timothy Cook repeatedly signaled that a new direction not only was being considered, but was likely.
"More and more time on Apple's conference calls began to be devoted to Apple's cash, and Apple's plans for it," Helix Investment Management said in its report last month, adding that Cook "did say that Apple has more cash than it needs."
In a conference call today, Apple's chief financial officer, Peter Oppenheimer, went to great lengths to say Apple's finances were strong -- and getting stronger every day.
The company's cash position grew by a staggering $31 billion in fiscal 2011, and now stands at $98 billion. The company said it will pay a quarterly dividend of $2.65 per share, and repurchase $10 billion of its stock. That will cost about $45 billion over three years, Oppenheimer said.
The payouts notwithstanding, the company's massive cash reserves are likely to grow even larger because Apple continues to thrive, selling so many iPhones, iPads and other devices. Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, calculated that Apple's coffers could grow to $180 billion in two years.
"We don't see ceilings to our opportunities," Cook said.