Its lineup of sleek phones, computers and iPods, irresistible to customers even in tough economic times, propelled it to the No. 1 position by market value Wednesday, surpassing Exxon Mobil. Apple's stock on the open market is now worth more than any other company's.
Apple's stock fell for the day, but Exxon's fell more. Apple finished with a market value of $337 billion, beating Exxon's $331 billion. A single share of Apple stock now costs $363.
Apple occupies a rarefied spot once held by General Electric and Apple's own rival Microsoft. Exxon had held the top spot since 2005.
The power shift is a substantial milestone for Apple, which has enjoyed a triumphant comeback since the 1990s, when it struggled to stay afloat before its co-founder Steve Jobs returned to take the helm.
But it's not just the comeback. Gleacher & Co. analyst Brian Marshall says Apple is giving investors something that has never been seen before. Apple's numbers are huge, with $30 billion in revenue in the latest quarter, for example. Yet Marshall said the 35-year-old company is "growing like a startup."
"Even in 2008 and 2009 Apple grew like a weed and the world was coming to an end," Marshall said.
Apple grew its net income 70 percent to $14 billion and its revenue 52 percent to $65 billion in the fiscal year that ended last September. A year earlier, even as other companies -- though not Exxon -- were reeling from the economic meltdown, Apple's earnings grew 35 percent and its revenue 14 percent.
Apple wasn't always a tech darling. The company, known as Apple Computer Inc. when it was founded in 1976, was on a steep decline before Jobs returned in 1997.
With Jobs as CEO, Apple is known for dreaming up gadgets that people don't think they need until they get their hands on them -- or see friends and relatives with them. There were music players, smartphones and tablet computers before Apple introduced the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. But the Apple gadgets' sleek, minimalist design and intuitive software have garnered them a loyal following among tech geeks and everyday consumers alike.
"Never underestimate the power of Joe Sixpack relative to expenditures on consumer electronics," Marshall said.
People want their gadgets, especially those made by Apple, even in a recession and even as they watch their stock portfolios and retirement funds shrink.
Still, Apple commands just a sliver of the overall smartphone and computer market. For that reason, Apple can grow at such a fast pace. "They have just a tremendous runway in front of them," Marshall said.
Exxon, which set a record in 2008 for the highest quarterly earnings by any company, will find it hard to compete with Apple's growth because its prospects are tethered to oil prices and new oil discovery.
Apple's growth is limited only by innovation. Investors expect it to grow as long as it keeps making products that people want. So investors are betting on Apple's stock even though it currently makes less money than Exxon.
In its latest quarterly report, Apple said stronger iPhone and iPad sales helped more than double its net income to $7.3 billion and grow revenue by 82 percent to $29 billion.
Exxon Mobil, meanwhile, posted a 41 percent increase in its second-quarter earnings to nearly $11 billion, the largest since it set a record of nearly $15 billion in the third quarter of 2008. Its revenue grew 36 percent to $125 billion.
International companies that vie for the most valuable spot include PetroChina Co., the publicly traded unit of China's biggest oil and gas company, and Petrobras, Brazil's state-controlled energy company.
In the U.S., Exxon and General Electric had been trading off the No. 1 and No. 2 spots until Microsoft surpassed them both in early 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom. By 2000, though, GE was No. 1 once again. According to data from FactSet, the three were close over the next five years, though Apple was ascending quickly. Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil took the top spot in 2005 and remained there until Wednesday.
Apple's ascendance to the top spot is a sign of the times. Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at Standard & Poor's, says the most valued company in the U.S. often reflects the demands of consumers. They also tend to have products that are unmatched by their rivals.
In 1986, for example, IBM Corp. was the most valuable company in the Standard & Poor's 500 index. At the time, the company was considered a pioneer in the technology world, having developed the floppy disk drive in 1971 and the personal computer ten years later.
AT&T Inc. was the most valuable company in the early 1980s when it was the dominant player in the telecommunications industry.
The top companies "tell us something about society, not just the market," Silverblatt said.
But, as history has shown, those companies can easily lose out to rivals if they don't keep coming out with products that appeal to consumers.
"If in 1999, you told anybody that one day Apple would be bigger than Microsoft, I think they would have laughed at you as if you were nuts," said Jonathan Berk, a professor of finance at Stanford University.
Apple generally introduces a new product every three years, which means something new in 2013. Marshall does not expect the company to slow down any time soon.
In fact, he expects Apple to pass yet another milestone next year, when it's likely to surpass Hewlett-Packard Co. as the world's largest technology company by revenue. In the most recent quarter, HP reported $31.6 billion in revenue, compared with Apple's $28.6 billion in its latest quarter.