San Francisco - The death of Steve Jobs in October at the age of 56 was the seminal event of the year in the technology world, depriving it of one of the most innovative and influential figures of the computer age.
Jobs died at the height of his success, when Apple was vying with oil giant Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in the world and when his achievements led to plausible comparisons to other giants of American innovation, such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.
Repeated countless times in the days and weeks after his death was his transformative effect on personal computers, music, digital movie-making, smartphones and tablet computing. But what's to happen to Apple and the tech world without the insight and intuition of Jobs?
Apple's stock did dive on news of Jobs' death, but it quickly recovered as investors realised that the guru had spent years grooming his successors and positioning the company to keep growing long after he had gone.
Jobs had even founded a secret Apple University to teach his precepts to top executives. And, while he installed logistics guru Tim Cook as his successor, as chief executive Jobs also made sure that Jonny Ive, the Apple design chief who was his closest spirit at the company, was secured in an unassailable position.
The strength of Jobs' legacy was neatly illustrated days after his death when the new iPhone 4S hit stores and quickly became a record breaker, despite featuring only minor technical upgrades to its predecessor.
The phone's secret weapon was another revolutionary Jobs-inspired technology: Siri, a voice-activated artificial assistant that responded intelligently to natural, spoken word questions and instructions.
While sceptics viewed the innovation as little more than a flashy gimmick, Jobs hinted to his autobiographer that it had the potential to be as transformative as his popularisation of the mouse 25 years earlier, or the touchscreen control model he introduced with the iPhone.
Experts now expect Siri and other voice systems to become popular ways for controlling PCs and laptops. Perhaps, more crucially, it could open the way to interactive TV, the long-pursued holy grail of entertainment technology:
“It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine,” Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. “I finally cracked it.”
Even better news for tech fans was the fact that Jobs was not the only one, or even the first one, to have this brainwave. Microsoft introduced an update in early December that effectively turns the 57 million Xbox 360's in people's living rooms into voice-controlled interactive TV modules.
That might mean a valuable victory for Jobs' old nemesis Bill Gates, but there are plenty of other entreprenuers who are also bidding to take over Jobs' mantle.
Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page have already had a transformative effect on the lives of web users, while Facebook's Marc Zuckerberg is another would-be Steve whose innovations have already revolutionised the way people interact.
Tellingly, all three of them share one common mantra: that the computer revolution, and their place in it, is just getting started.
Google for instance keeps innovating on the web, but is also a leader in alternative energy and transportation system. Its self-driving cars could have as big an impact on the way people move around as their web-search algorithm had on the way computer users find information.
They already pose a stiff challenge to Apple's product line.
Google's Android software now runs most of the new smartphones sold around the world. It's also fast catching up to the iPhone in terms of panache and usability, according to many reviewers.
The iPad also has a bevy of strong new competitors, including Amazon's Kindle Fire, which has sold more than 2 million units since its November debut.
Analysts are split over how this competition will play out.
Apple's stock has already fallen from its all-time high in April of 426 dollars. Leonid Kanopka from Seeking Alpha expects a “bursting of the Apple bubble “which would send the stock under the 100-dollar mark,” while Andy Zaky of Bullish Cross ranks Apple as the “most under-valued share” of all the blue chip companies.
Ultimately, Apple's success will depend as much on its branding as its products. For now, it seems, that future is taken care of. In a Christmas survey of US teenagers by Nielsen, the top three electronic devices on the wish lists of kids age 6-12 were all made by Apple. The findings showed 44 percent of kids wanted an iPad, 30 percent wanted an iPod Touch and 27 percent wanted an iPhone. - Sapa-dpa