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Apple's massive $3B bet on Beats a sure thing compared to all-in gamble on NeXT in 1996

Steve Jobs and Gil Amelio in 1996

Apple's recently-confirmed $3 billion purchase of headphone maker and streaming music provider Beats may be the largest cash outlay in its history, but it's far from the Cupertino company's biggest bet on an acquisition.

When then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio announced in December 1996 that his company would buy Steve Jobs's NeXT for more than $400 million, the world was a much different place. Toni Braxton's "Un-Break My Heart" topped the Hot 100, Hong Kong was still a British colony, and Apple was in dire straits thanks in no small part to Windows 95's blockbuster debut.

The $25 million profit that Apple posted in the quarter preceding the NeXT acquisition surprised many analysts, who widely expected yet another loss from a company that had shed nearly $2 billion in market cap that year. The cornerstone Mac was still reeling, and Amelio saw its salvation in NeXT and Jobs, the Mac's godfather.

So Amelio and Jobs agreed on a deal: Apple would pay NeXT $429 million ($648 million adjusted for inflation) in cash and grant Jobs 1.5 million shares of stock, worth about $9 million ($13.5 million) at the time. With a market cap of just $2.9 billion ($4.3 billion) when the acquisition was announced, Apple was betting more than 15 percent of the company on Jobs and his new object-oriented operating system.

A failure would likely have meant the death of Apple, and Jobs was no sure thing at the time. NeXT had burned through hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for it, and his other company — Pixar — had failed in its own bid to sell hardware before stumbling into the feature animation business.

Luckily, Jobs proved equal to the task and Apple is now one of the richest companies on earth. Underpinned by NeXT's technology, the iPhone and iPad are the standard-bearers of the post-PC movement while the Mac is more popular than ever.

Just as Amelio bet on NeXT to save the Mac, current Apple chief Tim Cook seems to be looking to Beats to rescue iTunes. Music sales are quickly being replaced by streaming subscriptions, and Apple's efforts — even with iTunes Radio's 40 million users — have been lackluster.

The Beats deal includes $2.6 billion in cash and $400 million in stock, a similar arrangement to the one Jobs and Amelio reached nearly 17 years ago. The $3 billion figure is comparatively staggering, but in reality it represents just 0.5 percent of Apple's now-massive $538.9 billion market cap.

If an Apple employee bringing home $75,000 per year made purchases of the same magnitude, the NeXT acquisition would be like buying a car while the Beats agreement would net a nice lunch.

For that relative pittance, Apple will gain a fast-growing streaming service — Beats Music is thought to have doubled in size over the last two months — and add music industry heavyweights Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre to its leadership ranks. It also comes with a profitable, $1 billion-per-year accessories business on the side.

Only time will tell whether Iovine and Dre will be good for Apple, but there's certainly no cause for hand-wringing over the price. Apple can afford to eat out.