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The past year will always go down in the books as one of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) most historic and pivotal periods. Enough has happened to fill a small tome, but since I have word limits I'll have to keep it relatively short.
Back to the Mac
The year started with Apple opening the digital doors to its Mac App Store, which was announced at its "Back to the Mac" event the previous October. It piggybacked on the astounding success of the iOS App Store and brought the model to Macs. It provided a centralized medium for developers to distribute their wares -- minus Apple's 30% cut. In its first day, downloads quickly topped 1 million.
iPhones for (almost) everyone!
Within a week and after years of speculation, Apple unveiled the iPhone 4 for Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , ending a nearly four-year exclusivity period for AT&T (NYSE: T ) . By year's end, it would also invite Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) to the party, offering the device on three of the four major wireless domestic carriers (sorry, T-Mobile).
A day before announcing the fiscal 2011 first quarter, Steve Jobs took his third and final medical leave, leaving then-COO Tim Cook at the helm for daily operations while remaining active in major strategic decisions.
A Light Peak ahead
Apple then released an updated version of its MacBook Pro lineup, which was the first computer on the market to incorporate the new Thunderbolt I/O technology, which was developed by Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) with collaboration from Apple under the codename "Light Peak." Thunderbolt can transfer data up to 20 times faster than USB 2.0, and other laptop makers such as Sony would soon begin rolling out computers with proprietary versions of the technology.
The iPad 2 was announced with almost immediate availability and an entirely redesigned body, among other features, that further propelled it ahead of tablet rivals such as Motorola Mobility and Samsung.
In April, Cupertino launched an all-out patent offensive that would soon spread throughout the world against Samsung, which happens to be one of Apple's biggest component suppliers. There were reports of $7.8 billion worth of contracts throughout the year, for components such as displays, NAND flash memory, and Apple's custom-designed A4 and A5 processors, which are fabricated at Samsung foundries.
Software only; no hardware allowed
At Apple's World Wide Developers Conference in June, Apple broke its tradition of unveiling the year's latest and greatest iPhone model at the event, and opted to focus on software. It unveiled a revamped offering of its widely criticized MobileMe service, redubbed iCloud. Among other new features, iCloud was also Cupertino's answer to cloud music-streaming services such as Google Music and Amazon.com's Cloud Player.
The company also detailed the next major version of its most important operating system, iOS 5. The update would at long last address one of the operating system's longest-standing and most valid gripes (in an Android-esque implementation): its obnoxiously obtrusive notification system. Apple would also soon release the next major version of Mac OS X, Lion 10.7, for the moat-building price of $29.
The end of an era
Steve Jobs formally resigned at the end of August as Apple CEO, shortly after the company's market exceeded that of ExxonMobil to officially become the largest company in the world. When Apple bought NeXT Computer in December 1996 for $404 million, bringing back its iconic co-founder initially in an advisory role, the company's market cap was roughly $2.9 billion. Nearly 15 years later upon his resignation, its market cap stood at $348.8 billion, a 120-bagger.
Just over a month later, new CEO Tim Cook and other execs would jointly unveil the iPhone 4S, which went on to sell 4 million units over its launch weekend, more than double the previous year's 1.7 million unit record launch.
One day after the iPhone 4S unveiling, Jobs passed away, his death reverberating throughout the world. His achievements will always outlive him, and his official biography's release date was accelerated and quickly became the No. 1 best-selling book for 2011 (in less than two months) on Amazon.com.
Apple would then do something rather uncharacteristic: post a surprise quarterly earnings miss compared with Wall Street's estimates. The miss was mostly attributed to consumer delays of iPhone purchases as the media had sensationalized the impending "iPhone 5." It also closed out Apple's fiscal 2011, which was the company's first full fiscal year to break the $100 billion revenue mark (Apple had already topped $100 billion on a trailing-12-month basis), finishing out the year with $108.2 billion in sales, for an astonishing 66% year-over-year increase over fiscal 2010's $65.2 billion.
For the year, unit sales for the iPhone and iPad soared 81% and 334%, respectively, while Mac unit sales jumped 22%, outpacing the broader PC market, whose growth is estimated around 2.8% for 2011.
Winds of change
As the year winds down, looking back on Apple's 2011 has marked a momentous shift in the company's history. After Jobs, the company he built will continue to be the trend-setter under new leadership, although it will need to do so without his prescient visions of technology.
The good news for investors is that even at today's prices, there are plenty of reasons Apple is still a buy.
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