Or, take the new operating system for Apple's Macs, Mountain Lion, due this summer. It won't try to make the Mac experience just like that on the iPhone or iPad -- that would actually be disruptive to loyal Mac users. But it will move the computer and mobile operating systems into closer alignment so that users of any device will feel that flash of recognition as they move from environment to environment.

Oh, and industry rumor has it, Mountain Lion will have improved hooks to Apple TV. Anybody really think that Apple TV, in some form, isn't Apple's next big product direction?

Second, Apple is one of the technology industry's great manufacturers -- although it makes almost nothing in factories it owns.

Apple's integration of hardware and software doesn't just happen, especially for a company that manufactures so little of what it sells. One of Apple's biggest areas of investment each year is its supplier network. The company spends billions to make sure that the companies that make Apple products make them to Apple standards and get them to where they need to go on Apple schedules. In fiscal 2011, Apple's capital budget came to $4.4 billion. Of that, about $612 million went into the continued build-out of Apple's stores. The rest went into a category called manufacturing and engineering -- and of that, $3.8 billion went into international investment, most of that in the company's suppliers.

I think there are two great manufacturing stories in the technology industry today. The first is Intel (INTC, news), which builds its own factories and relentlessly uses manufacturing technology to drive its competitors into irrelevance. The other is Apple. The two models are entirely different, and both work.

Apple's is so good that last year's delay in introducing the new iPhone from the summer to the fall stood out as a major Apple lapse. In a technology industry that is filled with product delays, that's an impressive performance from a globally distributed manufacturing operation. If you think this is easy, go ask Boeing (BA, news).

A peek into the future

The big question for investors is how long Apple can keep this up. I think that's a legitimate worry. Where will Apple's next 80% in earnings growth come from?

We can see partway down the road. It looks like March will bring the iPad 3, with a higher-resolution display. And in September or October, Apple will introduce the iPhone 5 with a bigger 4-inch screen (likely) and with Qualcomm's quad mode chip to enable the phone on 3G and LTE networks.

The iPad 3 will enable Apple to drive the still-immature tablet market. Before iPad, sales of tablet devices ran at about 200,000 units a year. In fiscal 2010, the first year of availability, Apple sold 7 million iPads. In fiscal 2011, sales came to 32 million iPads. And this is essentially without a significant penetration of any developing economy.

Over time, I'd expect that Apple will lose market share in tablets. But over time, Apple is picking up share in the smartphone market. Credit Suisse estimates that Apple will grow its share of the smartphone market to 24% in 2012-13. That would be a huge increase, since Apple had just 12.4% of global smartphone subscribers at the end of 2011, according to comScore. Still it's not totally outlandish; Apple picked up 2 percentage points of share from the end of September to the end of December. And the LTE-enabled iPhone 5 would (again, industry rumor has it), be compatible with the network operated by China Mobile (CHL, news), the world's largest wireless carrier. That should be good for a few points of global market share.

Credit Suisse estimates that there will be 244 million potential customers in developing economies by 2015, with income profiles that would make them potential buyers of iPhones and iPads. These customers represent potential incremental sales of $84 billion for Apple by 2015.

A last worry dispelled

And finally, for worried investors, I'd list one final way that Apple is different from those dot-com companies that crashed in 2000. Apple finished 2011 with $100 billion in cash, and the company is clearly pondering some way to pay some of it to shareholders.

The most likely method, the market consensus now holds, would be through a dividend. If you subtract Apple's trapped offshore cash and a reasonable reserve for capital investments, Apple still has enough to pay out a dividend yield equal to the 2.1% yield on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index ($INX).

A payout like that would certainly provide major support for the stock, and not only because a 2.1% yield is itself attractive these days. Paying a dividend would also add potential new buyers for Apple's stock as institutional investors who are prohibited from buying stocks without dividends would suddenly find themselves able to add Apple to their portfolios.

None of this makes Apple a buy-and-forget stock. If Apple TV is Apple's next big product, will it be any good? Can the iPhone keep picking up share once Nokia (NOK, news) stops bleeding smartphone sales?

And there's an important barrier at $650 or so. Credit Suisse calculates that at that price Apple would make up 5% of the S&P 500 index. Very few companies have ever become 5% of the index. Exxon Mobil (XOM, news) and Microsoft (MSFT, news), yes, but not General Electric (GE, news) or Wal-Mart Stores (WMT, news) or Cisco Systems (CSCO, news). (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Money.) IBM (IBM, news) managed to reach 6% of the index in the 1980s.

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At $650 a share, investors would have to be convinced again that this time it's different. And maybe at $650 it won't be. But $650 is almost 27% from there. Let's talk again then.

At the time of publication, Jim Jubak did not own or control shares of any company mentioned in this column in his personal portfolio. The mutual fund he manages,Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did own shares of Apple, Boeing and Nokia as of the end of December. See a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of December here.

Jim Jubak's column has run on MSN Money since 1997. He is the author of the book "The Jubak Picks," based on his market-beating Jubak's Picks portfolio; the writer of the Jubak's Picks blog; and the senior markets editor at MoneyShow.com. Get a free 60-day trial subscription to JAM, his premium investment letter, by using this code: MSN60 when you register at the Jubak Asset Management website.

Click here to find Jubak's most recent articles, blog posts and stock picks.

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