They should have written a better ending. The saga of Steve Jobs and the Apple computer, which started in a Silicon Valley garage a decade ago, became one of the great success stories of American business.

Now that compelling chapter of invention and entrepreneurship is headed for the courtroom.

The bare facts are that by last Memorial Day, Apple Computer Inc.'s directors and top executives had concluded that the 30-year-old Jobs -- the company's co-founder and chairman -- had become an obstacle to continued growth in an fiercely competitive computer market. Jobs remained chairman but was put out to pasture.

Two weeks ago, he told Apple's directors he wanted to quit and start over again, building a new computer that would not compete with Apple's products. At that point, Apple's directors said they might want to invest in the project.

But early the next morning, Friday the 13th, Jobs gave Apple President John Sculley a list of five Apple managers who would be joining him in the venture. Sculley and other top Apple executives and directors were staggered by the names on the list -- including Daniel Lewin, in charge of Apple's marketing to schools and colleges; Bud Tribble, manager of software development, and Richard A. Page, an Apple engineer who had been working on upgrading Apple's Lisa computer system.

As Sculley and other Apple executives see it, the list revealed that Jobs' plans had gone much farther than he had led the board to believe. At issue was whether Jobs had violated his responsibilities as Apple's chairman, and had failed to level with his peers on Apple's board.

Apple accepted his resignation last week, but at first, tried to get Jobs to put off his venture for awhile, offered to welcome back the employes he had recruited, and asked Jobs to pin down his promise not to compete. When the two sides couldn't agree on terms, however, Apple took Jobs and Page to court. A lawsuit filed this week by Apple seeks $5 million or more in damages and would forbid Jobs from recruiting other Apple employes and competing with his former firm.

Unless there is an unexpected reconciliation, the suit will cost Jobs time and money. Money he has -- he remains Apple's largest shareholder with $90 million in stock, even after raising $20 million this summer by selling part of his Apple holdings.

But the suit threatens to delay Jobs' hopes of a fast start on his new venture.

In response, Jobs this week began a media counterattack, phoning reporters and inviting them to his Woodside, Calif., ranch to give his side of the story. "We have spent an entire week talking to Apple's lawyers, showing them that we have no intention of taking or using any Apple confidential information or proprietary technology in our new company," he said. "We don't want to get involved in an unjustified lawsuit. We just want to build our company and invent something new."

But Apple, he says, has publicly called him a thief. The company "wanted us paraded through the square without our clothes on.

"I've just gotten to the point where I can't listen to this stuff anymore."

It still isn't clear to outsiders how close Jobs' plans had tracked Apple's long-range product goals.

As he told reporters this week, the target of his new company -- to be called Next Inc. -- is a powerful new computer for university use.

The idea was crystalized in a brainstorming session Jobs had early this month with Paul Berg, a Stanford University Nobel laureate in biochemistry. At the time, Jobs was still adrift following his banishment by Apple. But Berg entranced Jobs with his discussions of the intricacies and time-consuming difficulties of gene splicing experiments. In a flash of inspiration, Jobs saw the opportunity to create a new computer and new software that would capture the expertise of professors like Berg and make it available to students as computerized "courseware."

The machine would be patterned after the computer model that the nation's leading universities have been pining for, with two to four times more memory and processing than current personal computers, and a comparable advantage in the resolution of its monitor, for only $3,000 per machine.

"And that was sort of a landmark lunch," Jobs told Newsweek in a lengthy interview published this week. "Because that's when I started to really think about this stuff, and get my wheels turning again. I was really excited. It's not to get rich. . . . What I'm best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them. I respect the direction that Apple is going in. But for me personally, you know, I want to make things. And if there's no place for me to make things there, then I'll do what I did twice before. I'll make my own place. . . . "

Of his clash with Apple, Jobs said: "I wasn't aware that Apple owned me, you know. I don't think they do. I think I own me. . . . There is nothing, by the way, that says Apple can't compete with us if they think what we're doing is such a great idea. It is hard to think that a $2 billion company with 4,300-plus people couldn't compete with six people in blue jeans."

And that is Jobs' salvo -- the image he now is working to implant in the public of an underdog entrepreneur, being handcuffed by an overstuffed corporation that is throwing its weight around. In the arena of ideas and image, an arena that is very important to Apple, Jobs knows what he's doing, and he isn't firing blanks.

If what lies ahead is months of legal wrangling, depositions and public relations sniping, then both Jobs and Apple are the losers.

The other losers may be in the university market that Jobs and Apple have in their sights. As a former associate of Jobs said last week, this was a project that Jobs and Apple should have done together.