On Wednesday, May 26, 2010, just after 2:30 p.m., the unthinkable happened: Apple became the largest company in the tech universe, and, after ExxonMobil, the second largest in the nation. For months, its market capitalization had hovered just under that of Microsoft -- the giant that buried Apple and then saved it from almost certain demise with a $150 million investment in 1997. Now Microsoft gets in line with Google, Amazon, HTC, Nokia, and HP as companies that Apple seems bent on sidelining. The one-time underdog from Cupertino is the biggest music company in the world and soon may rule the market for e-books as well. What's next? Farming? Toothbrushes? Fixing the airline industry?
Right now, it seems as if Apple could do all that and more. The company's surge over the past few years has resembled a space-shuttle launch -- a series of rapid, tightly choreographed explosions that leave everyone dumbfounded and smiling. The whole thing has happened so quickly, and seemed so natural, that there has been little opportunity to understand what we have been witnessing.
The company, its leader, and its products have become cultural lingua franca. Dell wants to be the Apple for business; Zipcar the Apple for car sharing. Industries such as health care and clean energy search for their own Steve Jobs, while comedian Bill Maher says the government would be better run if the Apple CEO were head of state. (The Justice Department and FTC, which are both investigating Apple's tactics, might disagree.) A Minnesota Vikings fan dubs his team the "iTunes of quarterbacks," serially sampling one track from a player's career, as with Brett Favre, rather than buying the whole album as the Colts have done with Peyton Manning.
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