Five years ago, Apple Computer was barely an afterthought in the halls of electronics companies. Not anymore. With its best-selling iPods...

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Five years ago, Apple Computer was barely an afterthought in the halls of electronics companies.

Not anymore. With its best-selling iPods and landmark licensing deals with music and television moguls propelling new ways of consuming digital media, Apple now is the pacesetter.

“In the consumer electronics world, there’s always talk now about Apple, the way people used to talk about Sony,” said analyst Richard Doherty of The Envisioneering Group. “At the water cooler or in boardrooms, they’re asking, ‘What is Apple doing next?’ or ‘How do we stay out of their way?’ “

If anything, the company’s momentum accelerated in 2005. It gave us the iPod shuffle, the Mac mini, the nano, the video-playing iPod, a new iMac with a remote control and TV shows for sale on its iTunes online store.

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Steve Jobs, Apple’s rainmaker, was even parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, evidence of how the Cupertino, Calif.-based outfit is ingrained in pop culture like no other tech company.

Apple is characteristically mum on the products it has in store for 2006.

Different varieties of the iPod are reported in the works by sites run by Apple aficionados. Perhaps an iPhone, or an iPod-cellphone hybrid.

There is considerable speculation that iPods will get wireless Internet connectivity. Analysts also expect a bigger display at some point for better video viewing.

Mini features

As Apple works to make its computers digital-multimedia hubs, the book-sized Mac mini introduced in early 2005 is predicted to get features that will make it fit more comfortably in a living room.

Add an iPod dock or a TV tuner, for instance, and it could serve as a home’s music hub and a TiVo-like digital video recorder.

The slimmer iMac that Apple introduced in the fall suggests Apple is readying to step deeper into the media-center arena.

Home-media servers, computers designed to control digital music, video and TV consumption, are starting to pick up in sales, with about 5 million shipped worldwide in 2005, according to IDC analyst David Daoud.

Web site revealing

The Web site, which has correctly revealed some of Apple’s previous products before launch — to the ire of Apple and its lawyers — reports from unnamed sources that Apple will unveil in January an upgrade of “Front Row,” allowing users to stream content purchased from the Internet without storing it on a computer hard disk. If true, it could mark yet another Apple coup in digital content delivery mode.

Apple’s recent breakthrough offer of selling television shows on iTunes for viewing on computers or its newest iPods is already expected to spur online distribution of video.

The streak of innovative products in 2005 sent Apple soaring to an all-time high of nearly $14 billion in revenue, more than double what it had two fiscal years ago. Its stock was also on a tear in 2005, and now trades at more than double the 52-week low of $30.80 on Dec. 21, 2004.

Apple’s planned move to use microprocessors from Intel — the world’s largest chipmaker and Microsoft’s entrenched partner — is also adding fuel to upside reports on Wall Street.

As many as 1 million of the 4.5 million computers Apple shipped in fiscal 2005 were from Windows users switching platforms — a sign of a “halo effect” from iPod sales and Apple’s growing retail presence, said Needham & Co. analyst Charlie Wolf.

The iPod’s success notwithstanding, Wolf thinks the strength of Apple’s performance in 2006 “will depend on how well they convert Windows users to the Mac.”

Indeed, all eyes are on Apple.

“Apple is moving faster than ever and we expect them to move at an even faster pace next year,” Doherty said.