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Apple Inc. (AAPL Free Apple Stock Report), which replaced telecom heavyweight AT&T (T) in the prestigious Dow Jones Industrial Average in mid-March, is the largest company in the world as measured by market value (now roughly $750 billion). The Cupertino, California-based tech outfit designs, manufactures, and markets personal computers, mobile communication and media devices, and portable digital music players, and sells related software, services, peripherals, networking solutions, and third-party digital content and applications. Top revenue-generating product lines include Macintosh notebook and desktop PCs, as well as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod franchises. These devices are sold predominantly through the company’s online and retail stores, and through third-party cellular network carriers around the globe. Applications and other digital content are also available via the iTunes Store and App Store. Two new products were recently unveiled, the Apple Watch timepiece and Apple Pay mobile payment and digital wallet service. While just getting going, these new franchises are revolutionary, and appear set to emerge as major growth drivers over time.

Humble Beginnings

The company was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, and incorporated a year later as Apple Computer. It went public in December of 1980 after some initial success with the Apple I and Apple II, early versions of what has become the personal computer. Still, it was not until the Macintosh debuted in 1984 with much fanfare (the product was advertised on TV during that year’s Super Bowl) that the company garnered the attention of mainstream America. The original Macintosh, the first PC to include a graphical user interface and a mouse, was an especially big hit in the desktop publishing market, where good graphics capabilities are a must. And bundled applications like MacWrite and MacPaint drove Macintosh sales to consumers, and enabled Apple to leapfrog rival International Business Machines (IBM Free IBM Stock Report) in the new home computer market.

In the midst of this winning streak, Steve Jobs became embroiled in a power struggle with then-CEO John Sculley and, in 1985, he resigned to start NeXT Inc., a maker of workstations for the higher education and business sectors. The Macintosh franchise remained a cash cow for the rest of the decade, but higher price points (margins, rather than innovation, appeared to become a priority for the management team) and an eventual loss of product focus took a toll on Apple as the 1990s got under way. Indeed, the company began to lose market share, most notably to Microsoft (MSFT Free Microsoft Stock Report) and its popular Windows software that was being used in inexpensive, commodity-oriented PCs. Apple was relegated to a niche market, it seemed, serving the luxury computer segment. The Macintosh line also became outdated, and successive platforms failed to gain much traction, leaving the company to turn instead to layoffs and other cost-cutting measures as a way to bolster its bottom line and sagging stock price.

The Comeback

In 1997, after a handful of chief executives were unable to right the ship, Apple purchased NeXT (for $429 million and 1.5 million Apple shares) and brought back Steve Jobs to help resurrect the company he had helped found. Jobs, who would serve as interim CEO until the title became permanent in 2000, began streamlining the unwieldy product portfolio, secured a $150 million investment from Bill Gates’ Microsoft (Microsoft released a version of its Office suite for Macintosh users), and teamed with design guru Jonathan Ive to launched a new iMac. These efforts, along with numerous acquisitions aimed at shoring up Apple’s digital software prowess, returned the company to profitability.

The rejuvenated Silicon Valley firm had a big 2001, opening its first retail stores and releasing its first iPod portable digital audio player. The sleek retail outlets allowed Apple to effectively market its products directly to its eager customers, something that longtime competitor Microsoft had been unable to do. Additionally, the music player went on to be a blockbuster, with 100 million-plus units sold over the ensuing six years. iPod mania was aided by the company’s digital music store, iTunes, which went live in 2003. iTunes made it easy for music lovers to download their favorite songs, often for as little as $0.99, to their iPods. And it played a key role in Apple’s expanding ecosystem, ensuring that loyal customers would remain in the fold. Wall Street took note of the company’s newfound fortunes, too, sending AAPL shares sharply higher in the mid-2000s.

The Mobile Internet Revolution

The next milestone was perhaps Jobs’ masterstroke: the introduction of the revolutionary iPhone, a combination mobile phone and handheld computer, in 2007. This launch coincided with a corporate name change from Apple Computer to Apple Inc., signifying that the company was shifting its focus from predominantly PCs to mobile devices. To add value to its growing mobile line, which also included an iPod Touch, Apple debuted an App Store in 2008, where it distributed third-party applications (aside from its own proprietary software) that made its new devices come to life. The open system paid off, and the company catapulted to the No. 3 spot in the mobile handset market later that same year.

Indeed, Apple was off to the races, its reinvention complete, riding high on the enormous popularity of its iPod and iPhone lines. It continued to leverage its mobile Internet success, too, rolling out a lightweight tablet-like PC in early 2010, dubbed the iPad. The new tablet used the same touch-based operating system as the iPhone and, importantly, was compatible with most of the third-party apps that consumers enjoyed on their smartphones. This made the iPad another megahit right out of the gate, with 500,000 units sold within a week of the product’s domestic launch. And the company’s market capitalization soon surpassed Microsoft’s for the first time since the late 1980s.

Apple has cemented its rock-star status as this decade has unfolded, despite heightened competition from South Korea’s Samsung in the mobile space and concerns that the company would soon lose its “cool” factor with influential young consumers. Profits and free cash flow have continued to soar, as well. Between the iPhone’s debut in 2007 and 2012, share earnings jumped at an average annual rate of over 60%. This blistering growth enabled the company to amass quite a cash hoard on its books and prompted, in March of 2012, the board of directors to initiate a quarterly dividend and a massive stock-buyback program.

Some things have changed at Apple, however, mostly notably a leadership transition at the top. Steve Jobs died in late 2011 from complications related to his decade-long battle with pancreatic cancer. (Jobs had taken several leaves of absence due to his health, and had earlier received a liver transplant.) He was 56 years old and was replaced by Tim Cook, his long-time deputy and Apple’s chief operating officer since 2007.

Cook has proven to be a steady and effective CEO thus far, notwithstanding fears that the company would lose its key visionary edge with Jobs’ passing. In fact, Apple appears stronger than ever today, fast gaining ground in China and other emerging markets and still benefiting from the momentum of its iPhone franchise. (The latest models, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, feature larger displays than their predecessors.) New products and services hold great promise, too, including an Apple Watch that could serve to broaden the customer base and further strengthen the company’s ecosystem. And the balance sheet is in excellent shape, with cash and marketable securities approaching $200 billion. This suggests that this new Dow component will be a formidable player in the tech world for many years to come.

At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.