Apple on courseto become most valuable firm ever

Apple shares touched $600 (£380) apiece yesterday, a mere five weeks after they first topped $500, and analysts predicted the iPhone maker will 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 companies ever to have been valued at more than $500bn. It is now only a little way behind the all-time record set by Microsoft, which peaked at $6bn at the height of the dot.com mania 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 around 50 per cent since then.

Shebly Seyrafi, a technology analyst at FBN Securities, believes that Apple shares will not stop rising until they hit $730. After raising his forecasts for iPad shipments following the company's announcement of a third generation of the tablet computer last week, Mr Seyrafi told clients: "Apple remains our No 1-rated stock, and we expect the company to have several other strong new product cycles over the next one to two years, including the iPhone 5 and the iTV."

Apple's most recent quarterly results revealed that 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 that a move into televisions could open up another multibillion-dollar opportunity for the company, after Mr Jobs told his biographer last year that Apple engineers had created a new and simple 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.

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