Apple looks likely to become most valuable company ever

Apple shares touched $600 (£380) apiece yesterday, a mere five weeks after they first topped $500, and analysts predicted the iPhone maker would soon become the most valuable company of all time.

The stock passed its new milestone in early morning trading in New York, amid gathering excitement over the launch of a new version of the iPad today and the potential return of cash to shareholders.

At $600 per share, Apple is the world's biggest company, worth $539bn, and one of only eight ever to have been valued at more than $500bn. It is only a little way behind the all-time record set by Microsoft, which peaked at $6bn in 2000.

The frenzied demand for the company's main products, the iPhone and the iPad tablet, plus the long-term revival of its historic Macintosh computers business, have not been interrupted by the death of founder Steve Jobs last October. In fact, the shares have risen about 50 per cent since then.

Apple's most recent quarterly results revealed it is selling two iPads and four iPhones every second, and that it made record profits of $13.06bn in the final three months of 2011. Analysts believe a move into televisions could open up another multibillion-dollar opportunity for the company, after Mr Jobs told his biographer that Apple engineers had created a new interface for TV viewers.

Tim Cook, Mr Jobs's successor, says the Apple board is considering returning some of the company's $100bn cash pile to investors in the form of dividends or share buy-backs.