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Apple still strong at 40, but are best years behind it?

Apple turned 40 this spring, and it’s a very different company from the audacious startup that Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launched in a Silicon Valley garage in 1976.

Today, the maker of iPhones and Mac computers is the world’s most valuable public corporation, with 100,000 employees and a new, multi-billion dollar headquarters in Cupertino, California, set to open next year. But despite its astounding financials — Apple reported $53 billion in profit on $233 billion in sales last year — some critics have suggested Apple’s best years are behind it, as it has struggled to come up with new products and match the phenomenal success it has had in recent years.

Not surprisingly, longtime employees like software vice president Guy “Bud” Tribble disagree.

“We still think we’re going to change the world,” said Tribble, one of a half-dozen Apple staffers selected by the company to briefly reminisce with reporters this week. Tribble started with Apple in 1980 and worked on the original Macintosh team. He added: “We had no idea back then that Apple would grow to the size that it is.”

The company now boasts that more than 1 billion Apple devices — iPods, iPhones, iPads, Macs and Apple Watches — are in regular use around the world. Those products are widely admired and imitated. But Apple depends on the iPhone for two-thirds of its revenue. And after selling a record number of iPhones last year, analysts say sales are leveling off and may even decline this year.

As it enters middle age, Apple may find it difficult to maintain its leadership in the industry. Some experts say it’s getting harder to come up with new advances to distinguish Apple’s products from those of its competitors.

“Apple is still as good as it used to be, but everyone else has gotten better than they used to be,” said James McQuivey, a tech analyst with Forrester Research.

He cited longtime rival Microsoft, once viewed as an industry laggard, but now credited with pioneering tablet computers with detachable keyboards _ a category even Apple is embracing with the business-oriented iPad Pro. By contrast, he noted, Apple’s latest iPhone is a downsized version of earlier models.

Longtime staffers said Apple still has the zeal to create revolutionary products.

“We’ve done this more times than anybody else,” said Greg Joswiak, a 30-year employee and vice president for product marketing. He listed the iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes and the company’s online App Store, the new Apple Watch and recent initiatives to create new health-tracking and medical-research apps for the iPhone and Watch.

Apple is widely believed to be exploring new businesses, from electric cars to virtual reality, but analysts say developing products in those categories could take years.

“We want to go into new industries … and really challenge the status quo,” said Divya Nag, a former medical researcher and entrepreneur hired in 2014 to work on Apple’s health projects. Always secretive about specific plans, Apple declined to provide Nag’s job title. Her resume shows a track record of helping win FDA approval for new medical inventions.

Apple’s growth hasn’t been smooth. Jobs was forced out in 1985, leading to a revolving door for chief executives until he returned in 1997, as the company he co-founded was on the brink of collapse. “There was a time when you were worried about keeping engineers here,” said Cheryl Thomas, a vice president for software engineering who joined Apple in 1989.

And in 2000, when the dot-com bubble burst, Joswiak said Jobs refused to cut spending when competitors were tightening their belts. Joswiak said Jobs pledged to “invest in ourselves more than ever before. We then suffered through 11 straight quarters” of dismal financial returns.

Jobs’ death from cancer in 2011 led to the elevation of current CEO Tim Cook, who’s intense but softer spoken. Tribble credits Cook with maintaining Apple’s focus on quality products, even as Cook has taken his own path in running the company.

Far more than Jobs, Cook uses his prominence to speak out on social issues, from global warming to civil rights and individual privacy. He recently challenged the U.S. government in a high-stakes legal dispute over an encrypted iPhone used by an extremist killer. While that drew criticism from top Justice Department officials and GOP presidential contender Donald Trump, Joswiak said he was proud of Apple for taking what he considers a principled stand.

Apple remains one of the most sought-after brands. BAV Consulting, a firm that tracks brand reputation, said that after reaching a low in 2001, just before the iPod came out, Apple is now in the top 1 percent of American brands. And it’s in the top 2 percent of brands “being worth paying more for” — which means it can get away with charging more for its products, according to BAV.

Even at 40, the company hasn’t lost its passion, Thomas said. She said she wanted to work there since seeing the famous 1984 Macintosh commercial, in which a young woman hurls a hammer at the giant image of a Big Brother figure.

The idea of joining what was then a tech upstart didn’t sit well with her father, a career IBM scientist, who advised Thomas: “You need to think with your head and not your heart.”

But Thomas said: “I thought with my heart.”

A golden macbook, HBO on the iPhone, and, yes, the Apple Watch

All eyes were focused on the watch, but Apple CEO Tim Cook also unveiled a new MacBook and announced other deals at a company event Monday in San Francisco.

Here are five things you need to know.

THE WATCH

– Apple calls it “the most personal Apple device ever.” And potentially the most expensive.

– Starts at $349 with Apple Watch Sport, aimed at fitness enthusiasts, in anodized aluminum in silver or space gray, with colorful band choices. Apple Watch stainless steel starts at $549, in traditional and space black. And for those who eat cake: Apple Watch Edition, an 18-karat yellow or rose gold version with a starting price of $10,000.

– Includes: swipe-able “glances” that show you the information you use most; customizable faces for the dial of your choice, and lots of features for both fitness buffs and others who need a reminder to get out of their chairs.

– “Taptic feedback” (a subtle tap) notifies wearers of new emails and other messages. By tapping a finger on the watchface, wearers can control music, send Instagram photos, sketch and send a dynamic drawing to a friend, and see who’s calling. Return calls with voice or a voice-to-text messaging functionality.

– Substitutes for: A hotel room key, boarding pass, even your wallet – Apple Pay promises to enable grocery-store checkouts with a single tap of your wrist.

– “All-day” battery promises about 18 hours of life. Charge it by snapping a magnetic charger to the back of the watch.

– Advance orders begin April 10. In-store sales start April 24 in the U.S., Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and Britain.

SHINY HAPPY MACBOOK

– Weighing in at just 2 pounds and with no fan or other moving parts, it’s the lightest, thinnest and quietest Apple laptop yet, with “all-day” battery life, which Apple defines as 9 hours of web browsing and 10 hours of iTunes movie playback.

– Comes in three colors: silver, “space gray” and – wait for it – gold.

– Control it with a new pressure-sensitive track pad. Screen has the 12-inch higher-resolution Retina display now available only in higher-end, heavier MacBook Pros.

– Charge it with a new kind of connector cable and port, “USB-C,” that combines power with functions now requiring HDMI, VGA or USB connections. Adapters will be available until more accessories have USB-C built-in.

– Feel good about it: Apple touts its environmental friendliness (no PVCs, mercury, or beryllium) and says it will be the most energy-efficient laptop on the market.

– Shipping April 10, it starts at $1,299 with 256 gigabytes of storage. A faster processor and double the storage can be had for $1,599.

– Apple will still make its MacBook Air and Pro models. Upgrades were released Monday.

AN APPLE A DAY

– To help sell a computer designed to be pressed to the flesh all day long Apple hinted that the Apple Watch and iPhone could become vital research tools that help turn users into volunteers for medical studies.

– ResearchKit, available next month, is Apple’s open source set of tools that researchers can use to build apps aimed at diseases. Users can sign up for studies, take tests, describe symptoms – and begin sending their data to researchers.

– The first five apps – for Parkinson’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, and breast cancer – are available Monday in the App Store for iPhones. Apple says it won’t see any personal health information.

– For now, participants must have an Apple device, but outside developers will be able to adapt ResearchKit to work with Android and Windows.

HBO ON THE GO

– Apple will be the exclusive partner of HBO’s upcoming stand-alone subscription service, HBO Now. There will be a new HBO Now channel on Apple TV. It will be possible to get it on iPhones and iPads, too. No cable or satellite subscription necessary.

– Cost: $14.99 a month. Available in early April – just in time for the season premiere of “Game of Thrones.” No minimum period required.

– Apple’s exclusivity period will be three months, after which HBO Now will start appearing on other devices. Even during that time, you can watch on non-Apple devices over a Web browser – but you need an Apple TV, iPhone or iPad to sign up.

– And speaking of Apple TV, the price dropped by $30 to $69.

APPLE PAY

– Since its October launch, participating banks have grown from six to 2,500. You can now pay with your iPhone at nearly 700,000 locations nationwide, including more than 40,000 Coca-Cola vending machines.

– You’ll be able to make payments from the Apple Watch – even if you leave your phone home.

Coming from Apple in the fall …

Apple’s Mac operating system will have easier ways to share and search, while the iOS software for iPhones and iPads is getting new features for keeping tabs on your health and controlling home devices.

Apple executive Craig Federighi said data from various fitness-related devices now live in silos, so you can’t get a comprehensive picture of your health. He said that will change with HealthKit in iOS 8. Apple is also working with the Mayo Clinic to make sure your weight, calorie intake and other health metrics are within healthy ranges.

Apple is also making it easier for various devices to work together, even though the Mac and mobile systems are separate. You can share songs, movies and books you purchase with your entire family, and you can sync photos more easily across several devices. Macs and mobile gadgets will share more features, and you can exchange files between the two more easily and even make phone calls from your Mac.

The free updates will come this fall, though app developers get a test version Monday as the company opened its 25th annual developers conference in San Francisco.

Here are the highlights:

CHANGES TO MAC COMPUTERS:

– The next Mac system will be called Yosemite, after the national park, now that Apple is naming it after California locales rather than cats.

– You’ll be able to search for content on the computer and on the Internet at once, similar to a feature available with Microsoft’s Windows 8.

– Apple is expanding its iCloud storage service so that you can store and sync files of any type, not just the ones designed specifically for iCloud. It’s similar to how other services such as Dropbox let you work with the same files on multiple devices more easily.

– A Mail Drop feature will make it easier to send large files. Instead of pushing the entire file by email and overloading mail servers, the Mac will create a link that the recipient can click for the full file.

– The Mac’s Safari Web browser will have more privacy controls and ways to share links more easily.

CHANGES TO IPHONES AND IPADS:

– Like the new Mac OS, the iOS 8 system will have a universal search tool to cover both your device and the Internet. It will also get the iCloud Drive service.

– The new software will sport interactive notifications, so you can respond to a message without having to leave another app. It will have new gestures, such as double tapping to see a list of frequent contacts.

– A QuickType keyboard promises predictive typing suggestions. For example, if you start typing, “Do you want to go to,” the phone will suggest “dinner” or “movie” as the next word. Currently, the suggestions are limited to spelling corrections.

– IOS 8 will have a built-in health-management tool to help people track their vital signs, diet and sleeping habits. Apple’s chief rival, Samsung Electronics Co., incorporated fitness-related features in its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, and announced plans last week for similar management tools.

– Apple announced new technology for controlling garage doors, thermostats and other home systems, although the company didn’t say how all the pieces will be linked together through what it calls HomeKit.

– For developers, Apple announced the ability to sell app bundles at discounted prices. The fingerprint security system on the iPhone 5s also will be accessible to apps written by outside parties, not just Apple functions such as unlocking the phone and verifying iTunes purchases.

WORKING TOGETHER:

– Apple’s AirDrop feature, which has let you share files with other devices of the same type, will now let iPhones and Macs share directly with each other.

– A new Handoff feature will let you switch devices more easily, so you can start writing an email on a phone and finish on a Mac. And when your iPhone gets a call, you can answer it using the Mac as a speakerphone.

– The iMessage chat service will be broadened to work better with Android and other competing phones.

ANNOUNCED EARLIER:

– Last week, Apple announced a deal to pay $3 billion for Beats Electronics, a headphone and music streaming specialist. The deal brings rapper Dr. Dre and recording impresario Jimmy Iovine to undetermined roles at Apple. During a demo Monday, Federighi placed a call to Dr. Dre to welcome him to Apple.

COMING SOON:

– Apple typically announces new iPhones in September and new iPads soon after that. Many analysts also believe the company will release an Internet-connected watch as part of Apple’s expansion into wearable technology.

SILENT:

– Despite speculation, Apple didn’t say anything about a long-awaited digital wallet that enables Apple to process payments on iPhones and iPads.

– Apple didn’t provide an update on CarPlay, its project for embedding automobiles with some of the iPhone’s main applications. But Apple did say it’ll be possible to tap the Siri virtual assistant without pressing a button. Cars with built-in CarPlay services and radios that are compatible with CarPlay are both expected this year.