Apple Could Suffer PC's Revenge

Apple's success has hinged as much on the downfall of the PC as it has on heralded CEO Steve Jobs. What if PCs catch their stride?
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Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

had a great decade, but its success has hinged as much on the downfall of the PC as it has on heralded CEO Steve Jobs.

A look at the stock performance of Apple and its PC rivals

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

and

Hewlett-Packard

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underscores the revived Mac maker's dramatic success story and the triumphant return of its co-founder. It also raises unavoidable concerns about how Apple will perform when Jobs inevitably leaves.

But perhaps a bigger concern is how will Apple fare if the PC industry ever catches its stride. Lost in the debate about Jobs' health is how Apple will perform during the inevitable recovery of PC makers and the invasion of netbook upstarts like Asus and Acer.

Persistent rumors that Jobs' cancer has returned, compounded by Apple's unwillingness to address the issue or offer a possible succession plan, have dogged the stock since June.

Rarely has a CEO been so intertwined with the fortunes of a company, and it is nearly impossible to determine where Jobs' influence stops and other factors take hold. To be sure, Jobs has shown a deft hand at timing key product introductions and has engendered a loyal following among gadget fans. But Apple shined at a time when the PC industry was losing its luster.

In other words, Jobs' Midas touch got a big assist from the unraveling of Apple's competitors.

It hasn't been a banner decade for PCs. Mysteriously, the average PC's performance didn't necessarily improve as processing power increased every year. Among the reasons for sluggish startups and responses was that PC makers, capitalizing on an internal real estate boom, took payments to preload so-called bloatware like trial software and an assortment of system management programs that bogged down the machines. An added treat was the ever-present malware -- invasive programs like viruses, adware and spyware that PCs, by virtue of their numbers, are more exposed to than Apple.

Others contributed to the PC slide.

Microsoft

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unwittingly threw PC upgrade sales into slow gear with the introduction of Windows Vista. The new operating system was not the success it was hoped to be. Potential customers balked at the system resources required to run the massive operating system. PC users grew leery that the investment would pay off.

Amid the software troubles came the collapse of Dell's once-invincible direct sales and nimble build-to-order business model. Even with the return of its iconic founder Michael Dell in early 2007, the company's strategy to focus more on retail and outsource manufacturing hasn't pulled Dell out of its

tailspin

. The strategy took a new turn Wednesday when Dell shuffled top management and made plans to

reorganize

around four separate consumer groups.

Meanwhile, Apple introduced sleek machines that started fast and ran what fans called easy-to-use programs. Apple also beefed up its laptop offerings at a time when consumers where steering away from desktops.

Apple's success to some degree threatens to rouse the slouching PC giants.

Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner recently

downgraded Apple

on concerns that the company has not provided a succession plan in the event that Steve Jobs leaves. To Reiner, the industry fueled by Windows and Intel machines is a looming threat.

"Apple's existence (not just success) depends on staying several steps ahead of a massive Wintel," Reiner wrote in his research note. "If Wintel catches up, Apple could be trampled."