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Apple turns 30…in court

It’s been a long time since a couple of college drop-outs by the names of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first assembled 500 wood-encased motherboards in 1976, for sale to a growing home computer hobby market.

It’s been a long time since a couple of college drop-outs by the names of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak first assembled 500 wood-encased motherboards in 1976, for sale to a growing home computer hobby market.

The Apple I, built by Wozniak, was encased in wood and wasn’t really intended for sale until Jobs decided that the setup was ready to market.

Apple Computer Inc. celebrated its 30 th anniversary last week, and by any measure it’s been a long, strange road. There have been a few bumps, flats and unexpected curves along the way, but for the most part Apple’s story is about cruising ahead at high speed, finding unexpected shortcuts, and staying one traffic light ahead of the rest of the computing world.

Apple was the first company to mass-market home computers with graphic interfaces, allowing people to navigate their systems with pop-up windows and mouse clicks instead of by a system of directories.

They also came up with the whole idea of the PDA with the much-ridiculed Newton series, sparking billions in portable sales – for other companies.

Apple pioneered the self-contained computer, with screen and hardware components integrated into a single compact unit. PC has yet to copy this successful strategy, probably because manufacturers don’t want to look like copy cats.

More recently Apple invented the iPod, which changed the way people listen to music. Apple also found a way to get people to pay for digital music through the iTunes Music Store.

It’s hard to really sum up all Apple has accomplished in 30 years, but as an exclusive Apple user for the last seven I can say they’ve done a great job. Once upon a time I swore by PCs because they were cheaper, faster, offered far more in the way of software, and you could walk into any electronics store on the planet to find the accessories you needed.

Now I don’t think I would ever switch back to PC. Somewhere along the line Apple took a huge leap over the competition, probably with the introduction of the G3 chip and first version of the OSX operating system, and now it feels like PCs are playing catch up. After all, many of the features that will be available on Windows Vista (Microsoft’s long-awaited follow-up to their shaky XP) are really just PC versions of features already available in OSX Tiger.

And now that Apple is on the Intel dual core processor program, it’s hard to picture PCs ever gaining the lead again in any category, except for price.

But while Apple should be celebrating its 30 years as an industry maverick, the anniversary was overshadowed by a few annoying and well publicized lawsuits – including a third lawsuit from Apple Corps, the record label founded by the Beatles.

In the first Apple vs. Apple lawsuit, which was over name and logos, Apple Computer settled by paying Apple Corp $80,000 and promising that Apple Computer would stay out of the music business.

In 1989 Apple Corp sued again when Apple Computer released a music-authoring program. In 1991 Apple Computer settled for $26 million.

Now Apple Corp is suing again over the iTunes music store. Although the original agreement couldn’t have anticipated digital music, and applied only to physical music mediums – tapes, records, CDs – Apple Corp believes Apple Computer has violated their agreement.

For its part, Apple Computer is rightly insisting that the original agreement does not explicitly cover data transmissions.

Ultimately this whole fracas will be up to lawyers to decide, but if I were a surviving Beatle I’d probably try to bow out of this suit with a little dignity – it’s been a long time since Abby Road, and iTunes is clearly the future.

Next thing Ringo Star and Paul McCartney will be trying to claim Gwyneth Paltrow’s first born child because she’s also named Apple, and might decide to sing in public someday.

The other two legal issues facing Apple are a lawsuit over hearing loss – which the company is addressing by releasing volume control software for iPod owners – and an anti-trust suit in France that would require Apple to open iPods and iTunes to other media types.

I believe Apple will pull out of France entirely before they’ll agree to open their number one product up to their competitors. Using the same argument as French prosecutors I should be able to play Xbox games on my PS2 and DVDs on my VHS player.

I guess Apple should take these lawsuits as proof they’ve done something right in the last 30 years. Everyone wants a piece of success.