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But its biggest bets in recent years have been solid hits.
The iMac, released shortly after Jobs' return, helped restore the company's reputation and renew excitement in Apple's products.
The candy-colored machine was followed by what arguably could be called Apple's biggest bet--its move to OS X, an entirely new Unix-based operating system. It was a long time in the making and was not an instant success.
The change helped restore Apple's reputation as a design leader and a company whose products often dictate trends, even if the computer maker has never seen its market share approach the dominant level Apple enjoyed during the Apple II era.
Moving from OS 9 to OS X was a painful transition, but in the end it has allowed Apple to update its operating system no less than four times while Microsoft has struggled to develop a successor to Windows XP. This point was brought home last week when Microsoft was forced to again delay the debut of Windows Vista, an operating system some have said borrows heavily from ideas already present in Mac OS X.
The tough transition also laid the groundwork for Apple's largest commercial success: the iPod.
The biggest driver of Apple's recent fortunes--music--was not an area in which the company was initially a leader. The early high-end iMacs had DVD playing drives, rather than CD burners.
But when Apple made its move into music, it did so wholeheartedly. First came iTunes, offering a dramatically simpler way to play and listen to music on a computer. Then, in October of 2001, and just as Microsoft was introducing Windows XP, Apple unveiled the iPod. It wasn't the first digital music player, or even the first with a hard drive. But the combination of a smaller size and an easy-to-use scroll-wheel interface allowed it to succeed where others had stumbled.
Though it quickly garnered critical acclaim, however, the iPod didn't become a smash business success until Apple added a Windows version, and shortly thereafter a Windows version of iTunes. The latter was greeted with huge posters reading "Hell Froze Over."
Expanding the 'Cult of Mac'
Another of Apple's bold moves was its 2001 entry into retail. As Gateway was pulling out of suburban shopping centers, Apple was scooping up prime retail space in high-end malls.
Though costly, the Apple stores exposed new customers to the company's wares and also served as a gathering point for the Mac faithful. Kahney said the outlets helped extend the Cult of Mac's physical presence from the formerly twice-a-year Macworld Expo to a constant and local happening.
"Now everyone is within spitting distance of an Apple retail store," Kahney said, pointing out that the sleekly designed stores are a mix of actual buyers, users seeking face-to-face help at the Genius Bars and a crowd of hard-core Apple fans that just "hangs out to observe the Mac-iness."
The stores have also served as a great showcase for the iTunes Music Store and iPod as those products have continued to evolve. During last year's holiday season, Apple had special personnel ready with handheld computers to deal with the crowds of people looking to walk out with the iPod Nano and the video iPod.
In a sign of just how dramatically Apple's fortunes have improved, the company's music business has become the subject of antitrust concerns because of its overwhelmingly dominant position.
There have been grumblings about Apple's dealing in the music arena, its refusal to license its copy protection technology to let other companies offer protected music on the iPod or let songs purchased via iTunes play on other devices. France is considering legislation to open up the market, while several smaller legal challenges are also pending.
Hertzfeld said he thinks Apple is making a mistake on that front. "The digital music industry demands a ubiquitous standard for copy-protected media, and FairPlay is the obvious choice, if only Apple would license it," he said. "It is disrespectful to your users to lock them in and artificially restrict their choices, and I don't think it (will) fly long-term," he said. He predicts Apple will eventually change course, but added, "I only hope it won't be too late."
The iPod, meanwhile, has inspired legions of companies to produce add-ons, creating a market that some say could top $1 billion. However, Apple has also moved into the space with its own accessories, and looked to grab royalties from other companies that build iPod gear. Many of the accessory makers have begun to diversify and make products for other players and cell phones, with some saying privately that their good fortune with the iPod may not last.
And while the iPod continues to dominate, rivals hope to head off Apple at the next technology pass. The company's hold on the music player market appears to be strong, though others see a potential opening as music gets more closely wedded to the cell phone or perhaps to some other kind of handheld computing or entertainment device.
Though much of the outside attention has been on the iPod and iTunes, Apple has once again been tweaking the Mac to make it ready for the next generation of products. When Jobs announced the Mac's big shift to Intel chips last year, he noted that the transition was less about the problems the company was experiencing with the current generation of chips and more about needing certain features in order to build the next generation of Macs. Not surprisingly, Jobs offered few hints as to what those features might be.
Apple and Jobs are inseparable in the public eye, and it's hard to imagine the company without him (though when he had a cancer scare in 2004, some were forced to). As crazy as it sounds, some even wonder if the charismatic executive could end up running Disney, since the entertainment giant is taking over Jobs' other cultural powerhouse, Pixar Animation Studios.
Apple without Jobs? Well, it happened before. But there's little doubt that Mac addicts hope it's a long time before it happens again.
CNET News.com editor Jim Kerstetter contributed to this report.
Time line: Three decades of Apple innovation The products, people and events that shaped the Mac maker.
Gallery 1: Early fonts, graphics Historic Polaroids chart evolution of the user interface.
Gallery 2: Radical shift Soft-key based UI becomes mouse/windows-based.
Gallery 3: Lisa desktop Creating double-click, menu bars and more.
Gallery 4: Sketching out the Mac Before MacPaint there was LisaGraf.
Postcards from the faithful What Apple products mean to CNET News.com readers.
Cult of Mac Apple devotees have a style all their own.
Do you use a Mac? How about an iPod?
Wozniak on early Apples Company co-founder talks about building computers with cheap parts.
'It was like working at Disneyland' Former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki on the company's early days.
Sizzle may be subjective, but Apple's definitely got it, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.
Editors: Leslie Katz, Scott Ard
Copy editors: Edward Moyer, Jennifer Guevin
Production: Bernie McGinn, Andrew Lottmann
Design: Michelle White, Ellen Ng