​Apple hits middle age: Jobs' and Wozniak's creation turns 40

It may be hard to believe for consumers who view Apple's products as the epitome of cool and youthful design, but the company is hitting middle age.

Apple (AAPL) turns 40 years old on April 1, celebrating a milestone that's an achievement in a technology market littered with the carcasses of one-time hotshots. Back on April 1, 1976, co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computers and released the hand-built Apple I, which went on the market for $666.66. (Wozniak explained later that they didn't realize the number had religious implications.)

While it's unlikely that consumers back in 1976 would have predicted that Apple would become one of the world's most valuable companies just four decades later, the keys to its success were built into the business from the start. Early on, Jobs emphasized strategies that helped the company stand out in a crowded field, such as simplifying computers to make them more user-friendly and maintaining an obsessive focus on clean, easy-to-use design.

"Apple made design front-and-center in the whole product development process," said Daniel Martinage, executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America. "It's a simple, human-centered design concept: Keep it sleek, keep it light, keep it visually pleasing, and don't complicate the product by having too many of the same things."

Before Apple, Martinage noted, "everything was beige."

Apple's focus on creating sleek, consumer-friendly designs has helped it maintain its edge in the marketplace, with fans around the world who eagerly anticipate new offerings. Earlier this month, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled a host of new products, including the new 4-inch iPhone SE and a new 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Apple has hit bumps along the way, of course. Jobs left it in 1985, and the years until he returned are viewed as a dim period for the company, including some failures on the tech side.

Remember the Newton? This early "personal digital assistant," or PDA, was described by Wired magazine as a "remarkable device" that was "kicked to death in its youth" by Jobs. Newton, which was one of the first tablet computers, was in production for 11 years but never caught on, perhaps partly due to its high cost. Its mockery in the comic strip Doonesbury probably didn't help either.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he killed the product. Even though it was considered a failure, the Newton influenced later products such as the Palm Pilot and even today's tablets, such as the iPad.

Apple's successes, though, have been giant hits, generating not only massive sales but changing the way consumers view technology, such as the iPod and the iPhone. Along the way, Apple also revolutionized marketing, notably with its iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad to mark the introduction of the Macintosh computer and the 1990s' "Think Different" campaign, which revitalized the company's image.

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Investors who put their money in Apple when Jobs returned in 1997 would have received a 22,000 percent return on their investment.

So what's next for Apple? The stock, which is up about 3.5 percent this year, briefly dipped below $100 per share in January on concerns about valuation and whether Apple can continue to sell iPhones at the same pace as in recent years. In China, Apple is facing increased competition from home-grown smartphone maker Xiaomi, while a maturing market means not as many consumers are still eager to get their hands on their first iPhone.

As long as Apple keeps its focus, it will likely keep winning over consumers, noted Martinage.

"They stayed true to their brand," he said. "Do you know of any other product that carries that cool factor? For years it's been cool to have an Apple phone or computer. They have stayed true to that."